A blog for everything bookish

Sunday 24 November 2013

The great but under-rated writers: Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson
 Tove Jansson is, perhaps, best known for her series of children’s books The Moomintrolls, a wonderful, quirky and eclectic set of stories about a mythical group of creatures who live in a strange kind of bohemian harmony. As a child I missed out on the Moomins, I didn’t encounter them somehow. I remember there was a TV series which I found strange and unsettling so didn’t watch, something about the fuzzy-feltish animation which was lost on me (though how is a mystery – this is awesome: )

Looking back, I wish I’d made more of an effort because the Moomins are brilliant, quirky and kind-spirited which pretty much sums up my experience of Tove Jansson.
Jansson strikes me as one of the great undiscovered treasures of Western European literary history. She is too often associated purely with her Moomins series yet even this should have a higher profile than it does. In my view it stands shoulder to shoulder with the ‘greats’ of children’s literature: Lewis Carroll (actually she’s better than Carroll), C S Lewis, E B White, and in fact a head above in many cases. More people should read her. So I’m telling you now: do it, read Jansson.

Despite her fame with the Moomins, Jansson also wrote a number of books for adults. A few of collections of short stories: The Summer Book and The Winter Book, alongside short but effective novels including The True Deceiver and Fair Play. There is not a bad word amongst them. Her work reminds me, in some respects, of the work of Italo Calvino, who also used short vignettes to express a fascinating depth and philosophy (I’m thinking here of Cosmicomics and the wonderful Mr Palomar). One of the things that particularly appeals to me about Jansson’s work is how it tends to focus on interplay between women, quite effortlessly as though, imagine, women had lives and ideas and an independent existence which didn’t rely upon men to make it real and important. That is not
Tove Jansson & Tuulikki Pietilä
to say that Jansson is a rampant bra-burning feminist, but rather that her work has an independent, self-reliant existences which is something which shouldn’t seem so shocking just because it also involves a woman. I also enjoy how closely her work mirrors her life in a kind of way which could, almost, be perceived as arrogant except that arrogant is absolutely the last word you would ever use to describe her work and rather I think it is more appropriate to say it has authority. The parallels to her own life are unmistakable: Jansson herself spent much of her life living on an island with her female partner Tuulikki Pietilä, similarly in the book Fair Play the story centres around two female artists living together on an island and includes known biographical details like Pietilä’s passion for making Kodak movies. The Summer Book centres around the relationship between the child Sophia and her Grandmother and again taking place on an island, this time it is Jansson’s real-life niece Sophie who serves as inspiration for the stories. My favourite of her novels is The True Deceiver, which is in itself a deceptive book simultaneously wintery and dark, sharp as icicles and blindingly perceptive. Focusing again on a key relationship between two women, both of whom are clever, talented and deceptively brilliant.

There is wisdom in Jansson’s writing, her pervasive philosophy runs like a vein of gold through everything she writes. It takes time to absorb, often hidden deceptively amongst the otherwise sweetly amusing lightly whimsical anecdotes she seems to be almost personally sharing with you. Like this, from the Summer Book:

‘“He is no longer among us,” Verner explained angrily.

“Oh, you mean he is dead,” said Grandmother. She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too old or too young, or else they didn’t have time.

or this:

If only she were a little bigger, Grandmother thought. Preferably a good deal bigger, so I could tell her that I understand how awful it is. Here you come, head-long into a tight little group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them even more compact and self-assured. An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.

It is hard for me to articulate exactly what is so wonderful about Jansson. You simply have to read her. She is a philosopher. She is deep. She is brief and exact. She is deceptive and effortless. She is amusing and wise. She deserves to be read widely and often, her ideas taken into the core and believed. She would make us all better, more wonderful people. In my drive to limit, to restrict, my endlessly questing reading I have often held the excuse that there are newer, more wonderful ideas which simply have to be sought out, and yet I believe that if I only ever read Tove Jansson for the rest of my days my reading life would remain very rich indeed.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Ragnarök The End of the Gods – A S Byatt

In Ragnarök, another of the Canongate myths series, Byatt explores the world of the Norse Gods juxtaposed against the story of a young girl evacuee growing up during World War II. I should say, at this point, that I absolutely love the Norse myths and I have recently finished reading the quite wonderful Penguin Book of Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland which is amazing and which I’ll blog about a little bit later, probably. So I was expecting a lot from this book.

The Norse elements of Ragnarök are wonderfully written. Byatt weaves the myths out of nothingness into being with prose that is both light and deep, and which draws heavily on the Nordic tradition using kennings and poetical language that is so well done that it is barely noticeable. One of the great strengths of this short novel is the way in which Byatt brings the world of the Nordic Gods to life, as in this passage about the sea tree Rándrassil:

In the kelp forests grew a monstrous bull-kelp, Rándrassil, the Sea-Tree. It gripped the underwater rock with a tough holdfast, from which rose the step like a whiplash taller than the masts or rooftrees, the stipe. The stipe went up and up from the depths to the surface, glassy still, whipped by the winds, swaying lazy. Where the water met the air the stipe spread into thickets of fronds and streamers, each buoyed up by a pocket of gas, a bladder at its base. The branching fronds, like those of the Tree on land, were threaded with green cells that ate light. Seawater takes in red light; floating dust and debris take in blue, weeds deep down in the dim light are mostly red in colour, whereas those tossing on the surface, or clinging to tide-washed ledges, can be brilliant green or glistening yellow.

The weaving of the Norse myths into the story of a little girl trying to make sense of a world in which bombs are raining down on the earth, which seems to be the end of the world like Ragnarök, makes for a brave and interesting comparison and Byatt also uses the girl as a vehicle to explore the differences and similarities of the Norse myths and the Christian myth. Jesus is likened to Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg who is beautiful and good and true and doomed to die, and in his death the end of the world of the Norse Gods begins. Norse and Christian heaven the girl finds boring. Telling the myths through the eyes of the girl allows for a light and interesting introduction, but for me there was something that didn’t quite work in this weaving. Perhaps it was that the girl herself seemed to have no identity. Throughout the story she is only ever referred to as ‘the thin child’ and we learn little about her other than how she perceives the world through the myths and how it mirrored the world in which she was living. In a way this lack of an identity made the child seem unreal, less real certainly than the Gods about which she was reading.

Overall I found Ragnarök an enjoyable story and where it succeeds is how it introduces the reader to the world of the Norse Gods without being overly academic or heavy. Instead it gives a gentle introduction which left me wanting to know more and in fact I have gone on to read the Crossley-Holland book, as I mentioned, and also have explored some of the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda which are the more primary texts laying out the world of the Norse mythologies. I did find the use of the girl as a vehicle a little disappointing; though I could see how making the link between Ragnarök and World War II, how to a child (or an adult for that matter) it may well have seemed that in battle the world was coming to an end, there was something lacking in the way this was explored and I was left wondering if the thin child of the story represented Byatt herself or was simply a prop around which the story had been built.

If you’re interested in learning a little about the Norse myths I would say this is a good place to start, and it is true that A S Byatt writes beautifully and introduces the world of the Norse Gods with a delicate and poetic touch. But if you are interested in knowing more about the stories, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s book of Norse Myths gives a more detailed overview and tells the stories more directly and, perhaps, more beautifully than Byatt herself.

Ragnarök The End of the Gods receives a world-ending 8 out of 10 Biis.