Drawn from five story collections across her career, Tove Jansson’s The Woman Who Borrowed Memories shows the remarkable consistency of her writing, in theme and quality. A simple sign of her consistency (and of the quality of the translations) is that the two separate translators, Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella, are hardly distinguishable. Also on show is Jansson’s ability to stretch her concerns onto distinctly different characters, finding new shades of her familiar ground. Jansson’s writing, across nearly all of her prose, is attentively turned towards isolated work and companionship — the emotional intricacies of people who battle over and for these things, whether by themselves or with another. These struggles are quiet ones, with tempers turned inward and rarely lost, but in her keen perceptions of the characters she creates, all the tensions of relationships — of the pulls towards and away, of the need to be alone and the need to have someone, of mutual desires and desires that conflict — are put before the reader. Jansson is a sensitive writer; there is obvious compassion for the people of these stories. But in this sensitivity, there is fierceness. No one will be spared the harshness of the world or the cruelty others, or nature, though her prose quietly sides with those most wounded. The Woman Who Borrowed Memories reminds me how invaluable the short story is. It is practically unimaginable for a novel to be flawless or for total comprehension, and that is part of their beauty. The short story is different, there flawlessness is a possibility, and more than one of the stories here live that out.
Control over every word, the movement of each sentence, the details that push a story in one direction rather than another, these allow a story to reach that pure state, and even in the more ragged stories, are the focus of Jansson’s energy. Reading one story in a collection immediately after another can feel wrong, like cheating on a lover by moving on too quickly after an affair has come to the end. “White Lady” is one of these flawless stories that demand you be still, put the book down, take a walk, quietly make a sandwich before moving on to the next. These heights are scaled by handholds like perfectly named characters, “May, Ellinor, and Regina” for three lively ladies in their sixties, out for a celebratory evening together. Whole scenes unfold underneath a single sentence like rapid climbs towards the peak, “The waiter came, and while they were ordering they found their way back to their initial exhilaration.” This one sentence captures a familiar experience, almost essential to a certain type of evening, giving us the ladies’ mood immediately before the arrival of the waiter, his interruption, the conversations a group has with a waiter, the way those conversations become playful, and the arrival at exhilaration.
Jansson’s great talent was a reticence unlike any other. Given time and attention, it exposes everything. A windy night, viewed safely indoors, “was like walking through woods in a moonlit storm”; in such a finely conjured image, we imagine Jansson herself on such a walk. She’s not inserting it because it’s a beautiful image she remembers, but so that we see the protagonist imagine this scene, admire it, but keep himself safely inside. An aesthetic is created, a third-person narrator is given subtle personality, and a character begins to garner depth.
That the omniscient narrator seems to be the source of this reticence suggests that there is someone there, some living being putting these stories together, whether one Jansson or not. In “White Lady,” Ellinor and her friends consider her an endearing master of similes. When the narrator offers up others, in a similar, quip-like tone, a connection is established. These narrators side with vulnerable characters, while keeping that opinion silent, with no affect on the developments of the story. It becomes a careful, protective and protected show of compassion for the men and women of these stories.
Protection is necessary: from the first story, “The Listener,” Jansson’s nuanced way of exposing the reader to the risks and pains of compassion is present. Aunt Gerda is the center, a woman descending into senility. In this loss, these changes in a person’s self, Jansson blends light and dark. She writes of Gerda’s gifts that they were “No long the lovingly calculated gifts that she had made herself. No longer the pretty, touching Christmas cards put together from pressed flowers, angels, and occasional glitter.” The light that these little efforts brought to the lives around her is turned to sad darkness simply by becoming absent just as we encounter it. The laying out of what Jansson calls Gerda’s “essence — the expression of her most beautiful quality” prepares the reader, helps us understand the darker thoughts and actions that Gerda turns to. Sensitiviy to the world demands that painful loss exists before we can go any further.
This is part that tension of relationships that Jansson comprehends so intimately and intricately. In “The Doll’s House,” a partnership strains under one half’s passion for his work, the creation of a dollhouse. The two men don’t have children; instead the building of the house is about craftsmanship, the pleasure of dedication. It turns into conflict, love for work interfering with love for another. Erik supports Alexander’s project, as a loving partner does, but as he finds himself unable to contribute, his frustration and disappointment burden him. Those little aspects of life around the dollhouse become joy for one, aggravation for the other:
He never swept his workshop. Wood curls and sawdust and stone dust lay like a thick fur rug on the floor, and he liked standing in this soft soil his work had created and letting it grow thicker and deeper around him. He trailed it over the rest of the apartment and Erik had to vacuum several times a day.
The uncomfortable tension of one person’s obliviousness to the effect of their pleasure on another just sits there broiling under every action and word. When another man starts to help Alexander on the house, the additional threat of jealousy enters their life. Erik and Alexander close their developing separation, and the sweetness is soured by the inevitable hurt of the other man.
The distress that comes simply by existing alongside others finds ways to rise to the surface again and again. Jansson’s characters can be incredibly, passively stubborn, and anyone with different attitudes or behavior leads them to clash; or, people do change, do bend themselves to meet another but when that effort isn’t matched, or isn’t recognized, it’s the source of conflict. Relationships with others, the beg for involvement, is inescapable. In “Traveling Light” all the narrator wants is to be left alone, but time and again, another person wants to talk to him, to offer him kindness, or a chance for him to be kind, and these opportunities, so usually taken as a wonderful part of life, become closer to terror for the narrator.
Jansson’s more discomforting stories up this near-terror to something akin to horror, absent any violence or element of the supernatural. The eponymous story is one of these. There, a friend visits another after a long absence, and as friends do, they settle into reminisces of the past. A sense of sadness sloughing onto a person through the passage of time bogs down many of Jansson’s characters, and the visiting friend, Stella, is one of these. In the midst of this, the other, Wanda, turns to a selfish cruelty to preserve her past, to hold time still. She claims other’s memories as her own, or her own version of a shared memory. It gives her power, but leaves Stella wounded, uncertain, losing what were the memories that made up her life.
Even when there is only one human in a story, personality is a struggle. Obsessiveness, control over each moment of life, threaten happiness. Too unfocused or too focused, whether a cartoonist, an actor, an artist, or a craftsman, and that passion for work becomes a sinking hole instead of a rising above. In “Letters to Konikova,” letters signed by Tove, the writer at one point asks “which is more important when you get older and are trying to live a decent, honorable life, is it work or love?” In the letter, and in the rest of her writing, Jansson doesn’t provide an answer.
Fiction is more compelling without answers, non-fiction often too. Jansson’s characters are often discomforted, yes. Sometimes they come through, other times they remain lost in that discomfort. In the light she brings to every corner of the stresses of relationships, of the things that people do to find a way to act, to be, Jansson leaves us an opportunity. For those of us who become lose their grip on their ability to be, to be in a world with others or to be with themselves, who find themselves so disconnected that the way back seems lost, Jansson’s stories and her characters, themselves trembling in uncertainty or brashly protecting the closed self they know how to maintain, give a chance for silence and stillness. There, they better prepare me for a return to acting and being.