The Listener by Tove Jansson

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The Listener by Tove Jansson

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Tove Jansson's first short story collection published some 43 years ago in Swedish has lost none of its sparkle. Thomas Teal's first ever English translation for Sort Of Books, is a sheer delight. The cold and isolation inherent in the stories doesn't detract from the overall uplifting character of the telling.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 157 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Sort Of Books
ISBN: 9781908745361

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Until very recently Jansson was probably only known in the English-speaking world for her Moomin stories. Then along came Sort of books and their wonderful translators, foremost among them: Thomas Teal. And we started to understand what it was about the woman…

The Listener was her first collection of short stories for adults. First published in Swedish in 1971, it is only now available in English.

For those now familiar with the later works which (for whatever reason) Sort Of got to sooner, The Listener has all the hallmarks of an early work. Jansson's voice is as distinctive as ever, but by its very nature as a collection rather than a novel – though her novels often have the feel of short story collections – it lacks a certain coherence.

Don't let that put you off. It's not a fatal flaw. It's just something that I feel the more experienced in writing for adults Jansson, would have done differently. The other side of that is: it's good that the estate doesn't feel the need to meddle and the collections stands as offered.

The Listener is the eponymous first story. Aunt Gerda is every one's favourite aunt. She listened to all tales, and repeated none. She loved personally, conscientiously, and without favour. She took pleasure in all of her friends and family and so they did likewise in her. Until, as we're told, she was 55 when it began… Gerda starts to become more distant, less personal, the vagaries of aging memory are setting in. For Gerda, more so than for most of us, this is terrifying. Her whole being is centred around who she is for all of these people and what she means to them is bound up in what she knows, and has not told, about them.

Fearing loss not just of memory, but through it of self, she cuts herself off and tries to capture her memory and those of which it is born, in a work of art – part family tree, part mind map, it seeks to capture everything she is afraid of losing. But in doing so, of course, it threatens become a monumental betrayal of everything she holds dear.

We see Gerda primarily through this phase of her artistic endeavour, but what we see in her is an increasing isolation.

If there is a theme to the collection that is it. Isolation.

Although a native Swedish-speaker, Jansson was Finnish by birth: her homeland is a country of wide uninhabited expanses, of woods and water, and of harsh winter weather. All of these things embed themselves in the psyche of the people. And they echo through Jansson's characters. Even when she has them inhabit unnamed towns and cities. There will be water, or harbours, or islands.

And if there is a people even more reticent to connect with their neighbours than the English, it must the Finns, as represented in her tales.

The children are more free: the un-named youngster in Unloading Sand talks her way into the hold of a boat to help shovel out the ballast, before skipping away from the labour into the woods simply because she is still young enough to be able to make choices in her life; two friends in The Sleeping Man sneak into a flat to look after someone who they think may have been attacked, but who with an adult's eye we might place a different interpretation upon… they do so, for no particular reason it would seem other than that they can, and because having chosen to do so, they impute the activity with all the seriousness of the young.

Most of the adults, though, are intrinsically lost. Alongside Gerda losing her mind, we find others equally bereft. There is Vera Häger trying to throw The Birthday Party – a children's birthday party at that – and failing and not knowing why she fails or how to interact. The lady of indeterminate age writing her Letters to an Idol idolising the purity of his writing, condemning the critics who don't understand him as well as she (and only she?) can. They are separate. Living lives that others don't, and maybe can't understand.

For all their loneliness, however, Jansson doesn't allow us to pity them. She gives them a solitary strength. A woman home alone in The Storm and another, a patient, in The Rain connect with the weather and let it be. And then they continue.

In my favourite piece of the collection an island-living hermit woman allows a squirrel to enter her life, but the squirrel has its own issues and in what is perhaps a metaphor for more human-to-human relationships this lovely story has our protagonist feigning disinterest, before seeking to care-give, and working through the usual pangs of hope and resentment and anger, before ultimately allowing the squirrel just to be a squirrel. Of course, this being Jansson, it isn't quite so simple as that, and the ending hangs with a subtle threat of things yet to come.

Placing this story at the end works brilliantly. It has a circularity all of its own, but it also echoes The Listener in having the female narrator, isolated by choice, beginning to wonder about what might be to come.

There are eighteen tales in all, only a few of which I've mentioned here. To tell of them all would be to spoil the treasure chest. Most of them are short vignette descriptions – mere moments in time rather than stories in the true sense of the word. They are a pleasure to read all the same, for the lyrical quality of the writing and for the evocation of those northern lands where Winters are hard and white and Springs are sometimes fickle and unforgiving.

She talks a lot about light. She was a sculptor and artist as well as a writer. She knows about light.

She talks about temperature and weather a lot. Rooms are always too hot. Outside it is always cold. She seems to prefer the cold. The clean, clear, sharp cold. She sets one story in Venice, and in others she references Africa and India, but always she comes back to her native north.

And her writing, even in these early pages, chronologically speaking, as I may have said before, sparkles like snow in winter sunlight.

The philosophical touch, the artistry that Philip Pullman ascribes to her is there in deep measure, but it settles lightly. What you will enjoy first and most is the lightness of touch, the ease of reading, the snuggling into another world. You'll feel for the characters and wonder about what came before and what will come next, long before you start to feel the seeds of what she's really saying starting to grow, and sending you back to read it again.

If this is your first foray into Jansson's work I can only say: go read everything else you can get your hands on. See here for The True Deceiver and Travelling Light.

For more tales from the north, I've recently enjoyed The Last Boat Home by Dea Brovig.

Buy The Listener by Tove Jansson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Listener by Tove Jansson at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Listener by Tove Jansson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Listener by Tove Jansson at Amazon.com.

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