Art in Nature by Tove Jansson (1978)

Eleven short stories:

  1. Art in Nature
  2. The Monkey
  3. The Cartoonist
  4. White Lady
  5. The Doll’s House
  6. A Sense of Time
  7. A Leading Role
  8. The Locomotive
  9. Flower Child
  10. A Memory from the New World
  11. The Great Journey

After reading The Summer Book and The Winter Book, which are mostly stories about, or told from the point of view of, a small girl, stories set in the autobiographical settings of either the Jannson family’s house in Helsinki or on the island in the Gulf of Finland where the Jansson’s owned a cabin – it was a relief to turn to a set of stories about adults, where each of them is set in a different location with different characters. I.e. this is much more like a traditional short story collection, than her first two collections.

The characters argue, fight, swear, get drunk, make fools of themselves, cheer each other up, seethe with resentment. They are, in other words, people like us.

Except that they almost all possess the same central attribute of people in Jansson’s fiction – which is that they are disquieting. It’s not science fiction or violent, they’re tales of very ordinary people. But all the stories have a consistently disquieting and oblique, unexpected slant on human nature.

Part of the effect stems from the prose. It is very simple. Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Things are described, or reported. But that only makes the sometimes disquieting feelings all the more disturbing. The obsessive-compulsive thinking. The absolute necessity of routine and order. The constant nagging sense of failure or embarrassment, the continual sense that you are making a fool of yourself. These are all the more unnerving for being reported so matter-of-factly, as if everyone was this anxious, as if anxiety is the normal state.

And, on reflection, maybe they haven’t strayed that far away from Jansson’s personal experience.

In Art in Nature the old curator of an art exhibition at a gallery which has outdoor grounds and a jetty onto the sea, first of all chats to an old lady who comes and sits next to him then, on his late night walk round the ground comes across a middle-aged couple arguing about a work of art they’ve bought. The title couldn’t be plainer. It is about art in an outdoors space, art in nature.

The Monkey seems like a straight portrait of Jansson’s father, the frustrated sculptor, and his guanon monkey, which we had met in a story in her first collection, The Sculptor’s Daughter. So many of her stories rotate around characters going through very humdrum routines, permanently looking for mental peace and rest and never finding it. Her father tidies up the studio then takes the monkey bundled in  his coat to the nearby bar where his arty mates are rude and they get into a bitter argument. On the way home the monkey escapes and flees up a tree, even though it’s bitterly cold and the sculptor reflects, bitterly:

You poor little bastard. It’s freezing but you’ve got to climb. (p.27)

The Cartoonist is a long and mesmerising account of the way a seasoned old cartoonist, Allington, who has created the smash hit ‘Blubby’ cartoon, and written it day in day out for twenty years for a Finnish newspaper which syndicates it around the world, suddenly disappears, no one knows where. The story focuses on his replacement, Samuel Stein, who is buttered up by the paper’s management, eased into the new job, and finds himself effectively abandoned in the cartoonist’s old room, drawers full of his old bric-a-brac. At first he’s too busy in a panic sweat trying to replicate the great man’s style and mapping out storylines which will last for months into the future to care. But slowly he rummages through the drawers, gets poignant hints of the cartoonist’s life and… realises he has to set out to find him. — Well, this is Jansson’s own plight, spectacularly successful creator of the Moomin strip cartoon who found herself shackled to her creation.

White Lady is named after the revolting cocktail and describes an outing of three middle-aged ladies, one of whom is a successful artist, Ellinor, (the Jansson figure) who catch a ferry from the island to a bar on the mainland where they chat about the old times, seem to spend a lot of time in the ladies loo, order strong cocktails, reminisce about some Italian count and then get caught up with a group of young people who are polite enough but are, well, young, dance to their incredibly loud blaring music, until the three ladies stumble back into the night, towards the jetty and the ferry home.

In The Doll’s House two gay men retire, Erik an old-fashioned upholsterer and Alexander a banker, but discover they can’t really bear being stuck at home all day in each other’s company. Then the upholsterer has the bright idea to make a large doll’s house, an exact replica of a house and the project becomes an all-consuming passion, at first on the kitchen table, then taking over half the kitchen but emitting so much glue and paint fumes the banker asks him to build a partition across the kitchen, then spreading into the living room and so on. When the upholsterer stumbles across an electrician who can help with the tiny wiring needed to light the house, the two become close collaborators, excluding the gay banker more and more. Eventually the story explodes in an unusually violent climax but with a typically Janssonesque twist or quirk.

In A Leading Role Maria, a so-so actress, is offered her first leading role and worries about how to become the mousy put-upon character required. Until she remembers a cousin, the mousy little Frida. She invited Frida to come and stay in her big house by the sea and we, the readers, know she’s only done it so she can observe every aspect of Frida’s personality and facial expressions and movements in order to steal them for her performance. Except that even the mousy Frida realises something is up, and it dawns on her that she’s being exploited.

Themes

Allington quit drawing cartoons because he was ‘tired’, simple as that, a phrase which recurs throughout these stories like a bell. In the very last page of White lady Ellinor is ‘tired’. When the sculptor wakes up he feels ‘tired’. When the locomotive obsessive tries to explain his passion to a strange woman he is overcome by tiredness. Flora’s husband, in A Flower Child, looks tired at his own wedding! Johanna, who looks after her sisters after they’ve emigrated to America in A Memory from the New World, is tired by the responsibility.

Tiredness is a leitmotif. Jansson was 64 when these stories were published in 1978, though one can assume they were published over a scattered period before that. Tiredness and its opposite sleep. Sleep is escape from not only fatigue but anxiety and unease. Sleep and just a nip of madeira. Or champagne, as it is in The Flower Child. A nip of booze to help kick start the long day which is characterised by anxiety and tiredness until you can slip gratefully back into your bed.

This is the underlying feel of the stories, a longing for peace and quiet, the characters’ quest for a calm, ordered, safe place without any other people and where routine and regularity keep at bay all the bad thoughts, the incipient panic, which constantly threaten.

Identities

Once we’re well into the book there are two genuinely strange stories in which the narrator’s identity becomes radically unstable, in which the conventions of fiction are mixed up before our eyes.

In A sense of time Lennart is very concerned about his grandmother and her senile loss of time, waking him up at nighttime closing the curtains at dawn. But half way through the story the point of view switches to the grandmother and we realise that it may be Lennart who’s the odd one.

In the long text called The locomotive the possibly deranged narrator – a commercial draughtsman working for a train company who has secret fantasies about taking long train journeys all over the world – keeps changing points of view from narrating as ‘I’ to describing ‘him’. The text keeps breaking down as he describes and notates  his fleeting thoughts and uncertainties: Stop here. Start again. I need to revise. Delete this section. With the text sometimes breaking down in mid-sen

When the story reaches its rather gruesome climax that climax comes in three separate versions. In fact in a mini-welter of versions, and we realise we have no idea how much, if anything, of this fabrication is ‘real’.

These stories are in no way comforting or charming. Jansson practices tough love on herself and on her characters. Deceptively simple,fairy-tale prose conveys a gimlet-eyed perceptiveness, a constant anxiety, a completely dis-enchanted view of the world and people.

Disquieting.


Credit

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal, was published by Sort of Books in 2006.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

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