Beauty, Love, and Risk: The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson

Matthew Jakubowski

Translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella. New York, NY: NYRB Classics, 2014. 304 pages. $16.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In Tove Jansson’s fiction, people just won’t leave each other alone. Good intentions or bad, they can’t seem to help themselves. Even when they act like they know what they’re doing, and why, the results are unpredictable. It’s as if, try as we might, in cruel or kind moments, an unknown element will intervene.

In her novels and stories Jansson focuses on interpersonal psychology to capture the depth of everyday thought and emotion between people, most often couples or friends. She has a supreme talent for placing people in situations where they realize that their strengths and weaknesses reside in how much they crave togetherness. She shows how their desire for closeness is as intense as their fear of it. Their reactions to this fear are often shown in quiet, private instants that seem crucial to what their lives might mean on a grand scale.

Born in Finland, though she spoke and wrote in Swedish, Jansson lived from 1914 to 2001. Raised in Helsinki, she spent the early part of her life abroad studying painting. She later wrote eleven books of adult fiction, but was handed strange luck and, though her writing received numerous state prizes, she is most famous as the creator of the Moomins cartoon characters, a global franchise.

This new collection presents twenty-six stories gathered from five books published between 1971 and 1998. The range on display is remarkable. Jansson inhabits male and female characters at various stages in life, gay couples and straight, rich loners and poor artists at peace or in turmoil. The book feels like a palette of narrative approaches and cherished motifs, selected with care to create her novels, of which only a handful have been translated into English, including Fair Play, The Summer Book, Sun City, A Winter Book, and The True Deceiver.

Jansson’s sentences are imbued with clarity and mystery in equal measure. She avoids wordplay and postmodern flourishes. There are many hints of self-reference, though, and the collection ends with some directly autobiographical stories, such as the darkly hilarious final story, “Messages,” a small collage made from fan letters. In a story called “The Other,” the protagonist is a letterer pursued by his doppelganger. Jansson writes that sometimes to calm himself “he let his troubled mind rest in a large, quiet surface of letters, a text arrangement of perfect beauty to which the key was distance and balance.” These are key pleasures of Jansson’s work as well.

Translators Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella deliver this sense of distance and balance into English with a precision and grace to match Jansson’s immense dexterity. Her novels’ and stories’ careful structures depict just enough so that her characters’ hopes and expectations always yield surprise. Much is left unsaid in the novels, like the absence of the little girl’s mother in The Summer Book that affects each experience she has with her grandmother on a remote island, or the mysterious harshness of Katri Kling’s past in The True Deceiver (for which Jansson and Teal won the 2011 Best Translated Book Award).

Jansson didn’t go in for sci-fi, so it’s a surprise to find the post-apocalyptic story “Shopping.” Set in an unnamed city, a married man is bedridden with a leg injury so his wife must scavenge for their survival, giving them very different views of their destroyed world. One day he says, “How do you think it feels lying here like a corpse unable to help you or look after you! It feels like shit.” She replies:

“You’re proud, aren’t you? Has it never occurred to you that I’ve never in all my life had a chance to protect anyone else and make decisions and take responsibility for important things? Let me keep that. Don’t take it away from me! All you have to do to help is keep me from being afraid.”

She runs in fear from anyone she sees in the city; he’s eager to learn what happened. Eventually he bursts out, saying:

“Why haven’t they gone away like all the others? And do they think they’re entirely alone, that there isn’t anyone else left, not a single…”

“I try not to think about them.”

“But we have to think about them! Perhaps that’s all there is, us and them. We could meet them.”

“You can’t mean that.”

It’s one thing to take risks yourself in order to have a chance at friendship or love. It’s another thing entirely to convince someone to take that risk with you.

Jansson spent many years with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä on a remote island near Finland. In her fiction, complete solitude is often a dull freedom. In “The Squirrel,” a woman alone on a small island, who probably drinks too much, is at first happy when a squirrel appears, then annoyed and somehow, in remarkable fashion, robbed and abandoned, as if the natural world has judged her to be a bad roommate. In “The Storm,” a woman’s house is destroyed by snow. Close to her protagonist’s thoughts, Jansson writes, “What is night? Sleeping till the next day; trying to sleep away your tiredness so you can face what you don’t want to face; hiding yourself in a cautious little death for which you’re not to blame—for hours that seem like seconds when you wake up.” The lines sing out, but from “trying,” “hiding,” to “blame,” it sounds as if even sleeping alone can become a false refuge.

In the title story, “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories,” a dilettante has taken over the apartment of an old friend who’s since become a famous artist. The artist stops by to visit, though we’re not told why. The title raises a question about personal ethics. Borrow memories? Why negate the self, indulge in parasitic behavior like that? The artist is assailed by her friend’s lies about their past, doubts her memories of their youth together, then escapes, right into a fog that’s covered the city. Jansson doesn’t say which of the two people really remembers their shared time correctly. Knowing that nostalgia is dangerous might be important, but this awareness doesn’t change the truth of memory’s grip on us.

Men in Jansson’s work tend to be foolish, silent, or violent. A solitary man obsessed with trains appears to admit he’s murdered a woman in “The Locomotive.” In a fit of rage during a depression, the husband in “The Gulls” threatens to kill his wife. In “An Eightieth Birthday,” an older man is patronizing even when a girl tries to be patient with him. While discussing the painting style of the girl’s grandmother, they have this exchange:

“But your grandmother stuck to her own style and it was still there when all the other stuff had its day. She was brave, or maybe stubborn.”

I said very carefully, “Or maybe she could only paint her own way?”

“Marvelous. She simply had no choice. You comfort me.”

As if this is what women’s opinions are for. Besides putting sexism on display, of equal importance is Jansson’s phrase “she could only paint her own way.” The girl is not trying to say that her grandmother was limited. What the man ignores is the possibility that the artist had many choices of style to choose from and perfect. Over a lifetime she studied and honed her skills to create exactly what she wanted.

Epiphanies aren’t central to Jansson’s stories. There are turns, but not plot twists. Beauty contains a hidden warning, a touch of mortality and risk. For instance, the story “Correspondence” is told as a series of letters addressed to “Jansson san.” At its turn, five simple lines tell one side of a woman’s life story.

“Now I’m sending you a new haiku.

It’s about a very old woman who sees blue mountains far away.

When she was young she didn’t see them.

Now she can’t reach them.

That’s a beautiful haiku.”

Time can make us more aware as we age, but not always more capable. It’s a sad story-within-a-story in some ways. But Jansson presents it as a story between friends. It’s not a soul having a gloomy realization in solitude. By doing this Jansson gives the moment weight in reality. Is the friend challenging Jansson san? Is it an innocent anecdote? Jansson raises these small questions and lets them grow larger, broaching issues of love and trust, our dependence on others. In her work, human interactions are often painful pleasure; surviving on them requires more than a little courage.

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