THE WOMAN WHO BORROWED MEMORIES
by Tove Jansson
translated by Tomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella
NYRB Classics, 283 pages
reviewed by Jamie Fisher
Early on in a story in the new collection of Tove Jansson’s work, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, a man named Stein takes over a celebrated newspaper strip. “Tell me something,” an older cartoonist asks him. “Are you one of those people who are prevented from doing Great Art because they draw comic strips?”
“Not at all,” Stein assures him.
“Good for you,” the man replies. “They’re insufferable. They’re neither fish nor fowl and they can’t stop talking about it.”
Pity the poor comic-book artist. Particularly before the rise of the graphic novel, too many people—cartoonists themselves included—regarded comics as the territory of the dilettantish failure, a pen-and-paper update on those who can’t, teach. Even Peanuts mastermind Charles M. Schulz reportedly said, “If I were a better artist, I’d be a painter, and if I were a better writer, I’d write books — but I’m not, so I draw cartoons.”
Certainly the uproarious success of Jansson’s Moomin comics, buttressed by tidal waves of promotional tie-ins, could not have eased their creator’s reception as a polymath painter and writer in the more refined air of the art world. Her top-hatted hippoish cartoons seemed to indicate that her artistic sensibilities were insufficiently mature.
But like all the best authors who wrote for children, Jansson drew from an inkwell of very adult themes: loneliness, obsession, the difficulty and the necessity of living with others. The twenty-six stories gathered here, spanning five collections and twenty-six years in Jansson’s creative life, demonstrate that Jansson was preoccupied with the same set of concerns since her debut as an “adult” fiction writer—not too surprising, since Jansson was already middle-aged by the time her first collection The Listener was published.
An old blurb in the back of several Moomin collections told you that Jansson’s family “kept a pet monkey named Poppolino, whom they dressed in argyle sweaters.” Reading these stories, I often thought of that childhood pet: adult concerns are just children’s concerns, dolled up in tweed.
Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County; Jansson had islands. These were physical islands, with a real vitality—the wind-tousled, goose-trampled outposts of Jansson’s late adulthood and early youth. Islands form a physical presence, but also supply an appealing metaphorical lexicon for Jansson’s recurring themes: the artist as a solitary individual, shaped by the elemental forces of nature and creativity and brought into uneasy concatenation with her fellow islands. Critics can frame this preoccupation, in a condescending minor key, as how to get along with others; regarded with fuller dignity, these are parables of socialization whose concerns date back at least to Rousseau, if not the Tower of Babel.
If Jansson’s progression from The Listener (1971) to her final stories in Messages (1997) is any indication, the author’s perspective has undergone some alteration over the decades (stories from both of those books and two others are collected here, in The Woman Who Borrowed Memories). The artist-protagonists of The Listener are solitary people, unsure of their relationship to others, who retreat from the world in order to perfect their art. To them, the choice seems to be entirely stark; solitude is a necessary precondition for creating “pure” art, and human warmth threatens as much as it comforts —cf. “Black-White,” a disappointingly predictable tribute to Edward Gorey, where an illustrator abandons his beloved wife to toil in darkness.
Jansson’s world is full of people ready to impose their suffering on you; her characters tend to be happiest on islands, and happiest as islands. “Traveling Light” proceeds from the extreme conceit of a man who leaves for a cruise, deciding that “from now on I was going to be a person who never took any interest in anyone.” He is in fact intensely interested in people, if afraid of crowds; he rattles with their sympathies like a tuning fork. When the narrator’s roommate begins spilling out his soul, “holding forth about his misunderstood childhood” :
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I effectively managed to shut off that dreadful compassion that has given both myself and those around me such fearful trouble. I use that word deliberately, fearful. Now perhaps you can understand why I started on my journey? Perhaps you have some idea of the depth of my fatigue, of my exhaustion and nausea in the face of this constant need to feel sorry for people?
By the time we reach the final pages of this book, Jansson has arrived at a position that feels more nuanced and generous. As she writes in Messages, “I think that solitude could be a wonderful thing if we’re sufficiently careful with it.”
Particularly in her early stories, Jansson can be a poet of procedure and obsession, chronicling the rituals of daily life as an artist and obsession as skillfully as Lydia Davis. When Jansson shows us the working rhythms of an artist, she describes “sunshine, which hour by hour moves through the room like a challenge, certifying afternoon on the rocking chair, then disappearing on the stove hood in red, like an accusation.” The mood and sentiment are handled masterfully here by the translator Tomas Teal. Although many stories in the collection are translated by Silvester Mazzarella, I favored Teal, who has, at times, a gift for the absolutely perfect single-word translation. (Both translators are uneasy with slang. This is especially problematic in the epistolary stories that dominate the last third of the collection, pointing out how difficult it can be to persuasively render a colloquial, complaining voice in translation.)
It doesn’t diminish Jansson’s work to compare, formally, her fiction and her comics. Both are animated by the same visual genius for physical comedy. When the protagonist of “Traveling Light” claims seasickness to escape a too-talkative roommate, his interlocutor opens the window: “a violent and extremely wet rush of ice-cold air took my breath away and blew the curtains horizontal while my glass fell to the floor. ‘Not bad,’ he said, much revived himself.” He tries again: “but the boat rolled, making me lose my balance so that I was flung violently against Mr. Connaugh. He grabbed me like a drowning man and leaned his great head on my shoulder. It was terrible. From many points of view.”
Like a comic strip, the book begins to feel like serial adventures of what amounts to the same character. Her protagonists are all artists: illustrators, photographers, sculptors, writers, dollhouse-whittlers. Their personalities, too, feel consistent. The Moomins were anxious and sweetly histrionic, in a way that will remind many American readers of Peanuts. Jansson’s characters are often Moomins without the fur. (Although the Moomins may have been Jansson with fur: as she writes elsewhere in the collection, “I think every canvas—nature morte, landscape, whatever—is, at its core, a self-portrait.”)
While the fantastical elements in these stories are sure to win Jansson comparisons with Gorey and Shirley Jackson, she doesn’t deal much in damnation or suspense; she believes too fully in her characters’ resilience to let them fall so definitively into doom. While her characters are often anxious, they are seldom despairing; as a woman writes of a difficult period in her youth, “I started brooding about silly things and getting all sad for no reason.” And as the titular character writes in “Letters from Klara,” “I don’t see any point in listing one’s obvious misfortunes.”
This resilience can make Jansson’s plots twist a little tamely; everyone will probably be fine. Look, even, at Jansson’s choice of words in the title story, “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories.” That’s borrowed, not stole. (She’s gonna give ‘em back real soon, honest!) The real dramatic tension here is a product of the collection as a whole: a narrative of Jansson’s sensibilities as they develop. Her language becomes more daring, even as her approach to solitude becomes more moderate. One character, measuring herself against the “deep bowl of the valley,” considers
A dramatic landscape, enormous and enclosed. What effect did it have on human beings? It was so utterly solitary. She stood still and listened, gradually becoming aware of how the silent was accentuated by never being absolute. Now and then a dog barked, a car passed on the road below the village, church bells rang a long way off. Points of comparison, she thought, like the way the ocean grows larger if there are islands breaking the horizon. We need contrast, she told herself.
She could just have easily said “contact.”
The description comes from “The Garden of Eden,” easily one of the richest stories here. The story, set among a self-described “colony” of foreigners in Spanish village, tucked away in the mountains, develops naturally from her concerns with travel and paradise, exceptionalism and membership in a wider community. While nearly all of Jansson’s stories involve two-character relationships or single-purpose plots, “Eden” is woven from many threads: the protagonist Viktoria’s relationship with her (absent and dying) friend Hilda, the increasingly violent feud between the ostracized Miss Smith and the rest of the colony, and Viktoria’s efforts to negotiate a healthy peace, informed by her background as a well-meaning professor mediating among her students. “You could accept the fact that you’re ordinary,” Viktoria suggests to the defiantly individual Miss Smith. “I always find that quite exciting enough.”
The story, while exceptional, isn’t flawless. Miss Smith’s confrontations, involving knife attacks, feel forced. And the detente Viktoria arranges between Miss Smith and her opera-mad neighbor Josephine can come across as childishly simple, the no-nonsense intervention of a Finnish Mary Poppins. “In all honesty,” Viktoria asks Miss Smith, “do you think it’s proper to go around threatening to kill people and making faces at their cleaning lady?… And as for you, Josephine O’Sullivan… Is opera really the one music you’ve got?” (“‘No,’ said Josephine angrily.”)
Of course, maybe it really is that simple; this is, after all, a writer who titled one of her adult novels Fair Play. Viktoria’s inspiration for the reconciliation comes after death of “the lost friend of her youth—Hilda, who never understood how easily she could have stopped being difficult.” The sensibility is very Jansson: profoundly optimistic and pessimistic in the same stroke. It’s all as easy as child’s play, and as difficult.
Monkeys in argyle. It never gets any better.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer, Chinese-English translator, and budding manuscript conservationist working out of Philadelphia. She graduated recently from the University of Pennsylvania, where her majors were Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.