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“… we make mistakes. What of it?” #tovejansson @SortofBooks

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It’s been a little while since the wonderful writer and artist Tove Jansson made an appearance on the Ramblings, although a quick search will definitely find you a good number of posts about her! During the lifetime of this blog, I think I’ve read all of the Moomin novels and most of her adult novels; and I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition of her work with my BFF J. back in 2017. There are still a few volumes in English which I haven’t read, and I’ve been intending to pick up one in recent months but other lovely books got in the way. However, like all Tove fans I was very excited to hear about the 2021 release of “Notes from an Island” by Tove and her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietila (translated by the redoubtable Thomas Teal and published by Sort of Books – both are responsible for the wonderful array of translated adult writings of Tove!) The book went straight on my Christmas wishlist, then came straight off again when a Very Kind Friend passed along a duplicate copy they had – thank you so much! And the book turned out to be perfect December escapist reading!

Tove and Tooti (as her partner was known) spent twenty-six of their summers on a remote, almost barren island called Klovharun, located in the Gulf of Finland. Rather radically, Jansson was in her late forties when the cabin on the island was first built, and the women had help from a maverick seaman called Brunstrom. Each summer, the two women would eacape to their island to paint and write, living their life in solitude, surrounded by the sea. “Notes…” is a book that tells the story of their lives on the island, and it’s a wonderful, evocative read.

The written narrative is drawn from two sources: notes and diary entries by Tove, and extracts from a logbook kept by Brunstrom. These elements are enhanced by twenty four beautiful illustrations by Tooti, in the form of copperplate etchings and wash drawings; and the writing and images together make up a wonderful portrait of life lived in extreme conditions. Because make no mistake about it, living on a tiny rock in the middle of the sea was not easy…

So the book follows the initial explorations of the island, the building of the structures, the constant fight against violent weather conditions, the strength of the sea, plus Tove and Tooti’s deep love for the island. These are practical women, used to living independently, and it’s inspiring to watch them construct and build and provide for themselves. It’s worth remembering, also, that Jansson had previously spent time with her family on the nearby island of Bredskar (which features in her wonderful work, “The Summer Book”) so she was no stranger to island living. However, compared with the latter island, on which vegetation grew and which was easily accessible by boat, Klovarhun was an austere setting. Nevertheless, the women lived there until they were in their seventies and felt it was no longer safe to do so. The closing pages, where they leave their island, are quite heartbreaking.

So, I would never again fish. Never again throw dishwater in the sea and be sparing with the rainwater. Never again suffer agonies for “Victoria”, and no one, no one, would ever again worry about me!

“Notes from an Island” is quite a quick read, but it’s an absolutely beautiful one. The prose and the illustrations evoke the solitude, the extremity of the conditions and above all the power and majesty of the sea. I’ve always been drawn to the ocean, perhaps because my maternal grandfather was a merchant sailor, and I can understand its deep appeal. I’ve also shared that longing for solitude and quiet, away from the constant buzz of humanity, and so I empathised deeply with the book; in fact, I ended it feeling as if I needed to rush to the nearest piece of coastline!

So a wonderful, wonderful book. If you’re a fan of Jansson’s writing you will, of course, need to read this (if you haven’t already!) If you’re new to her, I do urge you to read her work – maybe starting with “The Summer Book” (which is where I began). After that, you could certainly do no worse than to move onto “Notes from an Island”, which gives a marvellous insight into her life and work, as well as allowing a look at Tooti’s lovely artwork. Highly recommended!

*****

I’m counting this as my first read for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS challenge!

 

Exploring the Depths of Human Nature

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Travelling Light by Tove Jansson

Short story writing is an art, there’s no mistaking that; and having read quite a lot of the genre in recent years, I do feel that stumbling upon the work of Tove Jansson has brought me to a master of the craft. It was repeated recommendations of other bloggers that pointed me in her direction, and as well as dipping into the Moomin stories, I’ve also been exploring her adult fiction. Last year I delighted in Fair Play and The Summer Book, and recently picked up Travelling Light as the ideal book to dip into while, you’ve guessed it, travelling!

travelling

The book contains twelve pieces, varying in length, and each is a little gem. For me, the test of the strength of a collection of short works is how well they take on an individual identity and how strongly they remain in the memory. With some authors I’ve read recently, there’s been a tendency for the works to blend together a little, but not here; each story is a beautifully carved piece of fiction, strong enough to stand on its own.

tove

There’s “The Summer Child”, a strange and moving tale of a little boy sent to spend the summer by sea with another family, and the differences between them, their misunderstandings and the reaching of a kind of crisis; the title story, which proves just how impossible it is to detach oneself from the rest of humanity; “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories”, a powerful and chilling tale of greed and manipulation; and “The PE Teacher’s Death”, which highlights the superficiality and hypocrisy in everyday life.

The stories vary in length and some of the shortest pieces are the most effective. In particular, “A Foreign City” is a powerful tale of an older gentleman lost in a strange city, unable to speak the language and ending up staying the night with a mysterious stranger. The almost Kafkaesque narrative captures the haunting quality of an alien place and is also a potent analogy of the problems of ageing, with the lapses of memory and confusion that can go with it.

young tove

The stories succeed so well because they aren’t surface level; each digs deep below the surface, revealing the motivations, the complexities of human beings and their relationships; and each throws a different light on human behaviour. And Jansson’s prose is marvellous; there really isn’t a dud in this collection, and I finished it exhilarated, desperate to read another volume of her work but wanting to save them and savour them. And the joy is I still have several more of her books ready to read!

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I feel I need to add huge kudos and admiration to Sort Of books for bringing us so much of Jansson’s work in English; the books as objects are beautiful too, so well done folks! 🙂

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