Travelling Light by Tove Jansson (1987)

Solitary people interest me. There are so many ways of being solitary. (The Garden of Eden)

This is a selection of 12 short stories by Tove Jansson. She was 73 when the book was published. It was only when starting the fifth story that I realised they all had the theme of a journey in common.

In An Eightieth Birthday the daughter of a redoubtable 80-year-old bohemian artist takes along her new man, Johnny, to the birthday party. In part one they mingle, embarassedly among the guests, getting stuck with a bunch of critics discussing ‘perception’.

In part two they leave the party with a group of three older men, obviously once known artists themselves, now alcoholics and a bit hard-up, on nodding terms with the derelicts in a big church square in Helsinki. They wander across the city towards May and Jonny’s flat, where the three old artists carry on discussing how important it is to have a ‘passion’, how older artists had to try and copy the new fashionable styles of the 1960s, how her grandmother kept her integrity and carried on painting Finnish trees, about lots of things. They admire the scale model Jonny has built of a boat. They discuss the way sometimes just admiring beautiful things like a tree in blossom is every bit as important as trying to paint or recreate it. And then they leave.

There’s a plot of sorts, a narrative: bohemian party, wander across Helsinki, drinks at Jonny’s flat – but the poetry  is in the calm acceptance – of her grandmother, of her husband, of Helsinki, of tiresome critics and drunken artists – of life and art and words.

A Summer Child is quite a brutal story about a middle-class couple (Hannah and Axel) with three kids (Tom, Oswald and Mia) who decide to take in an inner-city child for the summer which they always spend among the islands in the Gulf of Finland. Now, if they took an inner-city boy from round where I live in South London they would be in for quite a culture shock, but this inner-city boy – Elis – to their slight dismay, turns out to come from quite a well-off family and drives the others nuts because of his unrelenting social conscience.

He nags the family about throwing food away, reminding them that people round the world are starving; for throwing away landfill, reminding them that the seas are filling up with plastic (this was forty years ago; none of this is new); using an outboard motor when the air is full of pollution – and so endlessly on. The father decides to take the kids on a boat trip to drop supplies to a number of lighthouses, drops the city boy and his oldest son on an uninhabited island planning to be back in an hour, but his fuel line ruptures and he ends up being away for a day and a night, with the result that the story turns into a Finish version of Lord of the Flies.

In A Foreign City the elderly male narrator is invited to go and stay with his godson and wife, but is in a fluster from the word go, forgetting his hat on the flight, getting into a muddle at Customs, then at the Lost Property office where, after much confusion, he ends up accepting a hat belonging to someone completely different. By the time he emerges to the airport taxi rank all the other passengers have gone. Then he realises he has completely forgotten the address of the hotel the relatives had booked for him. But he has an inspiration – to ask the taxi driver to take him to the address on the owner’s label inside the wrong hat he was given at the airport. With odd results…

In The Woman who Borrowed Memories, after fifteen years Stella goes back to the old apartment she lived in with her lover, where they had wild bohemian parties and a passionate love affair. But now she discovers it is lived in by a woman, Wanda, who she and her lover thought of as a waif and stray tagging on to their wild artistic circle. They let her stay with them for a while, before Wanda went off to London to study art, sending letters asking her lover to follow.

Now, to her dismay, Wanda treats Stella as the interloper. She claims it was always her flat, that it was she who hosted the famous parties and had all the bohemian friends, who made the bookshelf by hand, who took all the photos on the walls. Stella thinks it must be some kind of joke then realises – with some horror – that Wanda genuinely believes all this. She has effectively taken over Stella’s life and memories.

Stella becomes disorientated and tired, asking to rest on the sofa. Wanda makes her comfortable, tucks her up in a blanket and then, rather as if in a horror story, moves from words of comfort to repeating the words which she obviously used to Stella’s boyfriend when she (Wanda) seduced him: softly saying that Stella is no good for him, Stella is holding her back… and she says all this she slowly moves the blanket up over Stella’s ace as if… she is going to asphyxiate her!

Terrified, Stella leaps to her feet, makes Wanda open the door and stumbles down the stairs. This is tantamount to a horror story.

The title story – Travelling Light – is also very odd. The plot itself is a first-person narrative about a middle-aged man who ups and leaves his apartment and old life with no real explanation and sets off on a luxury cruise. He is hoping to get away from them, from humans, from all the beastly people who keep pestering him with their endless tedious problems. Except that, rather inevitably, on the cruise he meets nothing but the same: first of all the apparently rambunctious man who is sharing his cabin, who soon drinks too much and gets maudlin about his wife and children; then, when the narrator runs away and tries to wrap himself in a blanket on a deckchair on the passenger deck, he finds himself getting involved with an irritable middle-aged woman whose deckchair he’s dossing down in (the deckchairs are numbered and allocated by ticket). After some bad-tempered exchanges, she buys them both drinks, they settle into an uneasy truce and — this wretched woman starts telling the narrator about her family, ‘here would you like to see some photos?’ Precisely everything he spends his life trying to avoid – other people, entanglements.

The real message of this story, though, isn’t in the plot, it’s in the extraordinarily uptight tone of the narrator. He could almost be a Beckett character, describing the endless anxiety and unease other people cause him, and the lengths he will go to to find a place of isolation, aloneness, peace and bloody quiet.

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? (p.91)

In The Garden of Eden Professor Viktoria Johansson arrives at a little hilltop village west of Alicante to visit her god-daughter only to discover the latter has had to rush off to see her ill mother. She’s left the keys, basic instructions etc. So Viktoria makes herself at home, tests her Spanish on the local shop-keepers, but then is visited/welcomed to the ex-pat community, by a brusque hysterical woman with four neurotic little dogs who is convinced her next door neighbour is trying to kill her.

Now Viktoria likes a good murder mystery and, being a professor, is systematic, so she opens a notebook and decides to ‘investigate’ the case, starting by paying a visit to the woman she labels X. X turns out to have lived in the village longer than all the other ex-pats and she despises them – their wealth, their lazing around sunbathing, their insistence on gutting the traditional houses and filling them with all the latest mods cons. Yuk!

Around this rather slow, ironic ‘investigation’ Jansson depicts the moods and thoughts of an ageing spinster, Viktoria, as she reminisces about other foreign trips, about old friends who she should get in touch with. There’s a ‘plot’ in the present, but it’s also a pretext for the portrait of a woman’s mind.

She attends the local town’s colourful fiesta where everyone dresses up in ornate and convincing costumes, and there sees the two women dancing with knives in their hands in a way which looks genuinely threatening until Miss X darts forward and in two swift movements, chops off Josephine’s red plaits.

Viktoria organises an unconventional grand meal (choosing the successive dishes solely on the basis of their sound, with no knowledge what they actually are, from the local restaurateur) and invites Josephine and Miss X. She tries to get them to make up, fails, goes and hides in the ladies loo (several times she reminisces about girl arguments at school, and the whole story is intertwined with memories of falling out with a friend when they went travelling when they were 19; it all has a slightly Fifth Formers of St Clare’s kind of feel – ‘Viktoria had a sudden impulse to scold them. Girls, girls! she wanted to say, but she held her tongue.’ p.131).

But when she returns to the dining room at the village cafe the girls have, in fact, sort of made up and they all go out onto the terrace to admire the spectacular view over the hills at sunset.

Shopping is an astonishingly bleak little vignette about two people who have survived a surprise nuclear war and are living in the ruins of a city. Kristian went outside just as the bombs exploded (‘typical male pride’) and half the building fell on him, so he’s laid up on a mattress in the kitchen, the only room which survived. Emily goes scavenging for tinned food in the ruined city. Occasionally she spots ‘others’ but hides or runs away. Finally, Kristian cracks up after spending so long in a darkened room and smashes open the barricade Emily had built over the one window. Daylight reveals their squalid useless shelter. They go out into the light. And the ‘others’ are there, and they start walking towards each other.

In four pages the shortest story – The Jungle – describes how two small boys, in a holiday home looked after by a maid, paid for by their mother in the city, spend the summer pretending to be Tarzan (and his son), until they become genuinely afraid of the jungle creatures roaming outside their (quiet peaceful Finnish holiday) cottage.

The death of the PE Teacher He hangs himself, much to the school’s shock. But the story is about a bourgeois couple (Henri and Flo) who go to dinner at the very swanky house of his business associate who is, in fact, working late at some kind of conference. Flo makes an ass of herself, causing several scenes as she gets drunker. She is obsessed by the suicide and the way the teacher talked, just before his death, the petition he was trying to get signed to prevent the demolition of some woods to make way for modern dwellings (of the kind her husband and business associate build).

The Gulls A schoolteacher, Arne, has had a sort of nervous breakdown. The children have driven him mad and he’s resigned. But the school appreciate his condition and promise to keep the post open while his wife, Else, takes him out to the remote island in the Gulf of Finland where she used to holiday with her parents. Predictably, he gets on the wrong side of the gulls which are nesting and hatching their chicks. Going out one sunny day he blunders into an intensive nestery and is dive-bombed by screaming gulls, runs back to the house face streaming with blood, shaking, and won’t go out of the cottage for three days. This story of high anxiety on a remote island builds up to a typically hard, unsentimental climax.

The Hothouse is the most loveable, charming story in the set. Old Uncle goes to the Botanical Gardens, specifically the hothouse, to sit on a bench in silent contemplation of the lily pond. One day there is an interloper, another man sitting in his spot. A battle of nerves commences. But eventually they break their silence, speak to each other and discover they share a mutual wish to get away from people and sit in silence. So they meet every day, on the same bench, nod, don’t speak and open their books, reading in companionable silence.

But this preamble is just the frame, so to speak, for the telling of two other events. One day the other man (Vesterberg) doesn’t show up. Uncle and the sympathetic caretaker of the hothouse look up the address of the old people’s home where Vesterberg has mentioned he lives, and Uncle goes to visit him. That’s a chastening experience, described rather harrowingly.

But the core of the story is the second event: Uncle’s memory of being taken by his family to a remote island where the family stayed one summer in a cabin. There was a rough bridge over a ravine which led out to a flower meadow. Uncle fell in love with the meadow. The family decide to build a ‘tent sauna’ on the island and want to erect it on the meadow but Uncle insists otherwise. So, reluctantly, they build the sauna in the ravine, beneath the supports of the bridge. To his surprise, when Uncle goes to check it out, he discovers the tent door opens onto a splendid view of the meadow – and decides he wants to sleep there from now on.

One night a big storm blows up and floods the ravine, flooding his tent and mattress, floating belongings away, but also floating his beloved flower meadow. Uncle wades out across the storm-tossed, seawater-flooded flowers and feels their… their essence, their experience. the storm wrecks the bridge and carries its fragments off as driftwood. Later Uncle finds some of it and sets about making a perfect model of the bridge.

This memory burns in Uncle’s mind and he wants to share it with Vesterberg but, of course, both men have sworn to silence. After months, they are sitting in the hothouse when there is a sudden storm. The sky goes black, rain lashes on the glass, the doors blow open in a gust and Uncle, elated, breaks all the rules and steps into the big lily-pond walking through the warm water feeling the big strong plants and their roots brushing against his trousered legs.

Vesterberg eggs him on, two old men behaving badly. And when he finally calms down, Uncle climbs out and at last shows Vesterberg his model of the bridge. This leads to a little argument about whether the model has any purpose or ‘meaning’ or just ‘is’ a thing in itself. They agree to differ, bow to each other as they walk through the shattered greenhouse doors and happily make their ways to their separate homes.

Tiredness and rest

As pointed out in all my previous reviews of Jansson, her fiction oscillates – operates – along a spectrum between tiredness/anxiety and safety/sleep.

  • I tried to shake off my fatigue. When I get tired, everything slips away from me… I was dreadfully tired (A Foreign City)
  • ‘Are you maybe a little tired?’ said Wanda… ‘I’m tired. You talk too much.’… Stella felt a great urge to sleep; the room disappeared… (The Woman who Borrowed Memories)
  • The caretaker’s wife will look after my houseplants; those tired living things – which never look well no matter how much trouble one takes over them – have made me feel very uneasy… Sleeping on my own has become very important to me… One’s opportunities for feeling ill at ease in life are countless… When eventually I stopped, utterly exhausted, I was almost alone… Wonderful! To be able to sleep and sink into silence, oblivious of everything… (Travelling Light)
  • It had been a long tiring journey… That night Viktoria lulled herself to sleep by imagining she was an independent Spanish cat… (The Garden of Eden)
  • Big beautiful Nicole wished passionately that the world of calm and charm she’d created might be left in peace, that her life might as far as possible be left undisturbed by all the ugliness and chaos that crowded the world outside… The phone rang. Henri waited: he was very tired… ‘Let her sleep’… In the car Flo fell asleep…  (The PE Teacher’s Death)
  • She took his hand in hers and fell asleep again at once. The birds went on screeching. He tried to ignore it, but he could feel his old fear creeping closer, his horror of noise, of anything out of control… ‘You’re sitting in the bow and you’ve never been in the islands before. With every new skerry you think we’re there, but no, we’re going all the way out, right out to an island that’s hardly a shadow on the horizon. And when we land, it won’t be Papa’s island any more, it’ll be ours, for weeks and weeks, and the city and everyone in it will fade away, till in the end they won’t even exist or have any hold on us at all. Just pure peace and quiet. And now in the spring the days and nights can be windless, soundless, somehow transparent… (The Gulls)
  • Uncle liked to rest his legs and lose himself in a kind of contemplation and reflection that gradually freed him from all the concerns of the world outside. (The Hothouse)

Lyricism

Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Lyrical descriptions.

Up in the spring sky the dome of the cathedral rested like a white dream over the empty square. Helsinki was indescribably beautiful, I’d never realised before how beautiful it was. (p.29)

Out of doors all was completely at peace. It was a time of light breezes and soft summer rain; down in the meadow the apple trees were in bloom, and all of nature was at its loveliest. (p.43)

At that exact moment the setting sun broke through a gap in the mountain chain and the twilit landscape was instantly transformed and revealed; the trees and the grazing sheep enveloped in a crimson haze, a sudden, beautiful vision of biblical mystery and power. (p.117)


Credit

Resa med lätt bagage by Tove Jansson was published in 1987. It was translated as Travelling Light by Silvester Mazzarella and first published by Sort of Books in 2010.

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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