As with her previously translated adult books,The Summer Book and The Winter Book, Jansson manages to capture a world of emotion and understanding with the most minimal use of language. Indeed the book is very short,a collection of connected vignettes about two aging women living and growing old together. As usual the themes of age, rebellion and communication are clearly defined, but what makes Jansson a master of storytelling is her ability to say the obvious when least expected and avoid it when it feels inevitable. Thus allowing the reader to follow the subtext and relate to those situations in life where we already know what the conversation will be about, what will be said, what avoided. Not only does this feel like slices of real life it also manages to be a warm heartfelt and honest piece of work. Who needs pages of description when Jannson's characters can create an entire world in the most succinct of ways.
At first glance Tove Jannson's Fair Play is simply a collection of stories about two female artists living together in their old age. It is semi-autobiographical, with Tove being the fictional Marie, and her lifelong partner, graphic designer Tuulikka Pietelä, being Johanna. Tove is of course the author and creator of the Moomin series of childrens' books, which spawned a large number of television programmes popular in the 1970s and 80s, and to this day.
Marie and Johanna divide their time between a large apartment in Helsinki and a tiny island of the coast of southern Finland, across the channel from Estonia. Both women have a strong commitment to their work, and while living as partners, they also create plenty of personal space for their artistic preparation and reflection.
As in Tove's books, The Summer Book and A Winter Book, on the face of it, nothing much happens. However it is in the minutiae of their daily life together that forms the real core of the book and if there is a message at all, it is about making the most of each moment of the day, and appreciating everything that is around you - this almost Buddhist message comes across strongly in these simple stories.
The two women generally get along and share much of their lives together, but they also argue, they get jealous, and they often irritate each other. On the other hand, they both understand the rhythms of each other's lives, and they both understand the creative process and its tensions.
The forward by Ali Smith offers useful scene-setting, and I think I agree with her that this is "a novel with a profound sense of discretion at its core" - a lot isn't said, and a lot of conversation between these women doesn't need to be said out loud. They understand each other and realise that sometimes when up against a brick wall, you don't have to keep battering your head against it, but can simply walk around the side of it.
I can't say this is a great work of literature, but I do know that sometimes it is good to read the words of people like Tove Jannson who lived the life they were meant to live with uncompromising artistic integrity.
Another simple but profound piece of writing from Tove. This was the perfect holiday read for me over a week. Gentle tales about gentle people living their lives. Uncompromising in many ways. So much is left unsaid and for your imagination. Like with a best friend you don't have to say everything as they already know what your thinking. If you are looking for a book which is action packed then this isn't for you but if you want something about art, life and friendship with humour then.....
This semi-autobiographical, semi-novel is a coming together and a parting, the constant interplay of closeness and separateness of a long standing couple. Jonna and Mari are creative introverts, turning away the world for their island retreat, their routines of closeness, their two separate apartments joined by an attic corridor. The two women would rather watch a video together than go out to their friends for dinner.
Only casually, once, is their sharing a bed mentioned. They are deeply familiar with each other, with each other's lives, with each other's dead parents, with their mothers' ageing and their own ageing. This after all was written in 1989 when Jansson was seventy-five.
Their accusations of each other are familiar and ritual. When they are stranded in a small boat in the suddenly descending fog, in the middle of the sea lane, and are almost run down by a larger vessel, it is simply accepted that they are unprepared. It is accepted that Jonna is the one who will recall she did not bring a watch, or compass, or look at the weather report. And Mari will ask her whether there is any crisp bread in the stern box - because her mother kept some there. And of course they will talk about their mothers - "Your mother used to cheat at poker!" - "That's possible but she was 85 years old!"
Repetition is accepted - as is the repetition of the cowboy movies, the Westerns that Jonna is addicted to: "Friendship between men who are unswervingly honourable towards one other. That is the concept of the Western." Mari says: "It's the same thing over and over. They ride past precisely the same mountain and the same waterfall and that Mexican church. And the saloon. And the oxcarts. Don't they ever get tired of it?"
"No," Jonna answers. "They never do. It's about recognition, about recognising what you've imagined. People make dreams don't they?.. it makes them proud and maybe gives them a little comfort. I think"
"Anyway, your short stories are the same way, the same theme over and over again." They gently support each others' creativity - the snatches of film, the short stories that take so long to wring out, the prints - and sometimes they support each other by listening, sometimes by stepping away quietly down the corridor and not asking about what happens in between; in one case by accepting that the other will go for months to stay on her own in the Paris apartment she has been offered by an arts charity. As much as anything, these are shared stories from the relationship, the parts simply evoking a wider whole.
"A book about love - tender, eccentric and fiercely independent. It feels a privilege to read it." Esther Freud Very much agree with this, Tove Jansson's books are cosy read filled with wisdom and the pictures on the inner-sleeve are like a collection of driftwood on an endless summer evening.
I found this book as a new arrival in Swindon library, and grabbed it only because I knew of her work as a children's writer. Once I'd read it I bought a copy for friend. There's no doubt that the beautiful translation here raises the reader's experience, but at the core of this is the most touching and elegant writing and style. This is a book that you will go back to over and over; I know I will.
Tove Jansson never wasted words in her stories. Whether this is a typical Scandinavian trait or just the mark of an excellent writer I am unsure, but once again, this typical (sic) TJ short novel is a gem. Is this brevity both of words and length deliberate, I wonder? After all, everything the reader needs to know about her two ladies has been told in well under 150 pages and anything more would be repetitive. Please, new readers to this author, do not be put off by such brevity. This is no blockbuster. What it is is gentle, humorous, insightful and a testament to love set in a bleak but beautiful island landscape. Lovely!
Life, for TJ's lady artist protagonists, against this austere backcloth has few peaks and troughs and is navigated as diligently (and appreciatively) as when they cross the sea in their little craft or go to the store for groceries or take on a new pupil. Reading, fishing, the occasional meeting with a neighbour, listening to music, taking photographs, such everyday activities are given the patina of quiet, caring diligence. Yet the occasional unthinking spiky remark or thoughtless act from one can stir a bitter response from the other, but it is a response usually left unspoken and eventually swept away by the island wind.
In other words, this is the usual game of give and take and some small rebellion and in the end, of unsuspected (by this reader anyway), sentimentality in one and of understanding and acceptance in the other. And of love on both sides.
The amazing Tove does it again. She writes as if they are short stories. She writes with superb authority, and yet somehow gives space for the reader's thinking as well. She has a vast degree of sublety which is diificult to get your head around on occasion. Interesting and challenging. This book gives a glance, in story form, into the lives of 2 women who live with each other properly and truly- with no room for maudlin sentimentality. and yet with great humour!