Letters From Klara by Tove Jansson

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Letters From Klara by Tove Jansson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Always a delight to read more from this Swedish-speaking Finn, in Thomas Teal's lovely translation. The short story collection once again shows Jansson's ability to write simply and powerfully. Possibly breaking every rule in the short-story-writing-injunctions book, she gives us snippets of lives and makes us care about the people living them. She trusts the reader to fill in the gaps, and as always manages to convey the landscapes of her tales with barely a word. Delicious.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: June 2017
Publisher: Sort of Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1908745613

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Famed in the UK for her creation of the Moomin family, Jansson is rather belatedly beginning to gather the richly deserved esteem for her adult writings. For that I offer my heart-felt thanks to publishers Sort of books and Thomas Teal, who has been responsible for most of the translations. Receiving this one, two things strike: firstly I somehow seem to have missed one of the series, and secondly there'll come a time sooner rather than later when there'll be no more to be had. The former will be rectified, the latter is a sad thought.

Except…of the short story form, the author said I love the short story concentrated and united around a single idea. There must be nothing unnecessary in it. One must be able to hold the tale enclosed in one's hand. Perhaps being able to hold the whole of an author's work enclosed is also a joy, especially if it can be said of the whole that there is nothing unnecessary in it.

It would be a stretch to say that Jansson's work is united around a single idea, unless you choose to cast that idea broadly: humanity, for example. Her short story collections are held together by a thread, but the thread can be tenuous on occasions. Look beyond artificial constructs for publishing purposes though, and all of her stories, short and novel-length alike, are bound by a very central, very personal idea of what it is to be human. Jansson had a very gentle way of grasping the human the condition in all its pain and joy and banality.

She could tell a story which if you analyse it closely, is not actually a story. It does not have a beginning, a middle and an end, as we were taught at school is necessary to meet that description. Many of her tales do not meet the modern injunction of having a single central character, with a challenge, which is overcome. Or even one which is not overcome, should we wish to be lax on the rules.

Jansson disregarded all rules. Many of her stories are not really stories…they are vignettes that hint at stories…but the hints are so strong, that we can construct back-stories for ourselves and the back-stories she almost obliges us to create are so powerful as to lend their strength back to her words. For all her conception of what a short story should be, it's open to question whether she delivers on that score. They are focussed, yes, and spare – there is never an unnecessary word in her prose – it is elegantly minimalist. My question is whether she gives you the whole tale to hold, and often I find she does not. She makes you work for it, fill in the gaps for yourself.

In other words, she trusts her reader to be intelligent enough to do so.

This latest collection comprises thirteen shorts of varying length. The shortest are a mere four pages; the longest stretch to between 15 and 20. Most fall in the 6 to 10 range. If I had to come up with a theme for the collection, I'd probably say it's about our inability as human beings to understand each other: an examination of the things that unite us, which are often also the things that divide us, since we fail to look at them the same way.

The title piece Letters from Klara is a pen portrait of an elderly lady seen through the various styles she adopts and advice she offers depending upon the recipient of her correspondence. As an English reader too lazy to look up the relative time-lines, for me it held echoes (or precursors?) of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads piece A Lady of Letters – but unlike the Bennet piece it restricts itself to a mere eight letters, all of them short, so that you could almost imagine her sitting down at her desk scrolling them off one after another – a mere afternoon's correspondence capturing an entire personality.

In considering the other stories and wanting to give a flavour of them, without giving away that which must be discovered in context, I started to wonder if they could be paired up thematically and whilst some fit into more than one grouping, this is the best I could do.

Robert' and The Pictures focus on painters (the author's own main occupation) and in particular explore the need for distance to be able to understand the close at hand.

Party Games, The Train Trip and My Friend Karin take us into the world of childhood friends and acquaintances coming back together years later, exploring what transcends time and what does not. In a few short pages, we're asked to ponder through our own past (mis)conceptions about who we were and how we were treated, and in particular to reconsider what we really think of the perhaps now slightly tarnished idols of our youth.

Premonitions and Emmelina take us into a more esoteric backwater. These tales hint at a darker side to Jansson than we're normally allowed to see. Full of hints of supernatural beings, or maybe just allegorical explanations for sensitive souls with heightened perception, both stories are left open to interpretation. As always, however, it is the humanity rather than its obverse that takes centre stage.

In August, The Lily Pond, About Summer and Pirate Rum all have echoes of The Summer Book for Jansson fans who've got there before. All light and air and water. The voice slips between the child writing her naïve diary in About Summer through older episodes and on to the aged wisdom of the old dears supporting a despondent but maybe not quiet suicidal young man in Pirate Rum. That's probably my favourite of the collection – it's the most rounded, but also has the Jansson trademarks of the island, the water, the weather being at once dangerous and also comforting, the bleakness wrapped in kindness. The stoic 'always another day' approach of the old women is a lesson in how to show character with barely a sentence or two of description.

Trip to the Riviera stands on its own in many ways. There are links to others in the collection in its theme of ageing, and retaining not just independence but a sense of rebellion (which comes up in quite a few of the stories), but beyond that, I'm not sure. I found this one a rambling rose of a story – pretty in its own way – but somehow unconstrained, and ultimately simply cut-off rather than trained.

As always the power of the work is in its simplicity. Part of you might finish a story wondering so what…but you'll still be wondering that days later, the characters still alive in your head; Jansson wrote with an artist's eye for place and a poet's ability to render it into words. Even in a four page story with tiny descriptors hidden in the action, you can't escape the vivid landscape she's set you down into.

Short story collections are designed to be ready one story at a time, to be dipped in and out of. No chance. The only reason I didn't devour this in one sitting was because I had someone else's dinner to cook. Loved it. And will definitely come back time and again.

Definitely recommended.

For those who've not yet come across Jansson we can heartily recommend anything with her name on the cover, but you could do worse than to start here Travelling Light by Tove Jansson or for a very different take on the short story format we also think you'll like The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis

Buy Letters From Klara by Tove Jansson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Letters From Klara by Tove Jansson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Letters From Klara by Tove Jansson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Letters From Klara by Tove Jansson at Amazon.com.

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