Travelling Light by Tove Jansson

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Travelling Light by Tove Jansson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Jansson’s take on a theme of the outsider is deceptively light, surprisingly thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting. As ever a pure joy to read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Sort of Books
ISBN: 978-0954899585

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Tove Jansson was a genius.

That's not my opinion.

Or rather, I should say: that's not just my opinion. It's also the opinion of one of my other favourite authors, Philip Pullman – as quoted on the cover of the latest English translation from the Jansson oeuvre.

In her home country of Finland – and no doubt throughout much of the rest of Europe which is not quite so sniffy about foreign literature as Britain tends to be – Jansson is generally recognised as an author of talent, skill, verve and wit that extended far beyond the Moomin Troll stories for which she is best known in this country. Those children's books were first published in England sixty years ago and have remained in print ever since (as well as being adapted for just about every other medium going), and a joy they are too, but it is only recently that we have been granted the pleasures of reading her fiction for adults.

This is the fourth 'adult' book in the "Sort Of Books" series of translations, and is beautifully rendered into English by Silvester Mazarella, who had a hand in the previous collection "A Winter Book", and along with the other translators is doing a superb job of capturing what I hope is the essence of the original.

Travelling Light is a collection of short stories which can be loosely gathered under the theme of ISOLATION. All of the stories have characters who are, or who are trying to be, outsiders.

Whether they are running away from everything like the gentleman in the title story (Travelling Light) who finds himself almost immediately re-enmeshed in the concerns of others, or sent away for edification and enlightenment like the child in The Summer Child who is despatched to the country for the summer but finds nothing but heart-ache and fear in country ways, or simply emotionally lost like Flo in the P.E. Teacher's Death the protagonists are all detached from their fellow-men. Some deliberately so; others painfully unintentionally cast adrift.

In all of the stories, however, there is the redeeming thread, that no-one is, nor ever can be, truly isolated. Flo's husband makes allowances (and apologies) for her. The summer child eventually understands the reality of life outside of the town as being more complicated as well as more simple than he ever imagined, whether his country hosts learn the reciprocal lesson is left open to interpretation. In the Garden of Eden it takes a genuine outsider to bring two villagers together, but not before blows are struck and hair is involuntarily restyled.

A sub-theme that underlies many of the stories, and is perhaps at the heart of all of our personal feelings of being 'outsiders' is that nagging doubt, the low-level fear or disquiet most often voiced as what will they think of me. It is the wanting to be part of the scene. Or specifically NOT wanting to be part of it, but to understand it none-the-less.

This is most clearly expressed in The Eightieth Birthday Party where an aging artist's grand-daughter brings her partner to the feast. The party is full of the slightly disapproving family and the over-fawning art-world savants. Irritated by the swarms of children, or simply perplexed and bored by discourses on the theories of perception both narrator grand-daughter and Jonny (the beau) are at a loss until the real artists arrive.

Thus are they rescued from a world that should be familiar to them, into one which is alien, but where in the absence of preconceptions and judgement they find themselves comfortable and invigorated. Survivors like her grandmother from an earlier, more bohemian age, the artists sit in the corner and drink whiskey and talk about life (which is the foundation of art) rather than pontificating about that reflection of life called art. After the party, the artists, narrator and boyfriend wander the city, sit on the quayside before eventually making their way back to her place for the last of the red wine and whatever is in the fridge… all the while talking and talking. Echoes of Vladimir and Estragon in their assertions that you can't have everything in life countered by you have to set your sights high because it always turns out a little lower

Isolation as engagement perhaps?

Or isolation as a natural part of development maybe… three of the stories focus on creeping old age. A Foreign City sees an elderly traveller lost and confused on a one-night stopover in a strange land, having missed his connection due to a lost hat, and his bearings due to a lost hotel address, he finds himself at the mercy of strangers. Less threatening is the invaded isolation of The Hot House where a genteel contest for control of the favoured bench by the lily pond leads to an unexpected friendship, whilst The Woman Who Borrowed Memories fights her own isolation by re-inventing herself as her more interesting friend from long ago, who may even be the artist of the 80th Birthday party but who is genuinely frightened at having her past life stolen from her so blatantly.

If all of this seems a little lofty, it is nothing of the sort. Jansson's stories are a joy to read. In her introduction Ali Smith talks about these being among the funniest of her works, but don't expect laugh out loud humour. A wry smile is more the level. But they are amusing. The focus on the absurdity of our thought processes cannot fail to produce at least a glimmer of recognition and therefore a suppressed glee.

Jansson's ultimate skills are in rendition of people and of place. In this volume it is the people rather than the place that take centre stage. In a few pages for each tale, she captures the essence and the surface of her characters, both the idiosyncrasies and the deeper causes of them. While the latter are often only hinted at, the hints are strong enough to carry the story onto a different plain that the surface frivolity would allow.

Even when place takes the backstage, though, Jansson's artist's eye and deft ability sketch in a few lines convincing backdrops of the Finnish islands or Spanish hills – both landscapes of one kind of emptiness or another, suitable to her overall concept.


I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If you haven’t come across Jansson before check out The True Deceiver her full-length novel set in the northern wastes of her native Finland.

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Simon Thomas said:

Lovely review of the lates Tove Jansson (bought my copy today, can't wait to get started) - I just thought I'd email and check you hadn't missed one of her books! You say it's the fourth book Sort Of Books have published. By my reckoning it's the fifth - The Summer Book; A Winter Book; Fair Play; The True Deceiver; Travelling Light. It was probably just a typo or something, but I couldn't cope with the idea that you were missing out on one of the books by this genius!

All the best - Simon


Lesley said:

Simon is right – and it wasn’t a typo. I had somehow missed Fair Play – which a dear friend has just bought me as a Welcome Home present, so it’s high on my list of catch-up reads.