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from the December 2014 issue

Tove Jansson’s “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories”

Reviewed by Kate Prengel

A collection of very short stories which bubble up from the subconscious only to vanish as soon as they get to the surface.

The Finnish writer Tove Jansson is best-known for her dreamy children’s books about a family of trolls. The Moomintrolls (sensible Moomin mama, stargazing Moomin papa, and gentle Moomin boy) have endless adventures and reversals of fortune. Their lives are not always easy—the plots can involve death, bankruptcy, and social alienation. But Jansson’s trolls are so cheery and loving that they make light out of the dark events. The Moomins first appeared in 1945 and are still beloved all around the world.

What fewer people know is that Jansson also wrote for adults. Recently New York Review Books reissued a book of Jansson’s short stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, cleanly and beautifully translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella. The book makes for strange reading. It’s a collection of very short pieces, each of which feels like it’s bubbled up from the subconscious only to vanish as soon as it gets to the surface. Jansson’s characters are all submerged types—artists and eccentrics hiding away in the back corners of middle-class Finnish society. The stories revisit the same problem again and again: what happens to these hermits when they try to change their already difficult relationship with the world?

Generally it doesn’t go well. Some of Jansson’s characters actively try to emerge from their isolated lives, and when they do, they are met with cruelty and betrayal. In “The Locomotive,” a lonely man obsessed with trains meets a woman at the railway station. He’s been on his own for years but suddenly finds that he’s longing for companionship, and he convinces himself that the strange, dour woman is his soul mate. But this is no love story. He compulsively tells her all his secrets and dreams. In return, she becomes his housekeeper and mocks him for the secrets only she knows. The story ends with his fantasies about throwing her under a train. In “A Memory from the New World,” three young Finnish sisters move to America to escape their hermetic existence. The oldest sister, terrified of the strange new world, forces her sisters into a claustrophobic, narrow life consisting of little more than work and knitting. The youngest sister defies her and tries to leave her circumscribed life to embrace America; finally, she elopes with an Italian immigrant. But, like the locomotive enthusiast, she is horribly disappointed. Instead of finding love, she discovers that her husband is a gangster only interested in her money.

In other stories, the characters are actively on the run from the world, seeking an even more isolated lifestyle. But this results in a Lear-like madness which leaves the characters alone and enraged at their surroundings. This being a Finnish book, people flee to the sea. The woman in “The Squirrel” has moved to an uninhabited island, for unknown reasons. At first, she lives a carefully ordered life. But as time goes by, she unravels until she becomes obsessively enraged at the only other living creature on the island: a squirrel. In “The Gull,” a man moves to another desert island after suffering a nervous breakdown from the pressures of teaching. His wife accompanies him; the island is her childhood vacation home. The story ends with the man at war with the island’s seagulls.

Jansson tends not to give her characters names, or physical traits. Once in a while one of them boils coffee on the stove or sweeps the floor. Most of the time, though, the action is inner and symbolic. This gives the book a claustrophobic, druggy feeling. Reading, you climb into a murky world with no beginning and no end. Obviously this can be a deliciously dark experience. These are stories that will leave you with a brackish taste in your mouth. The stories are short but they’re packed with condensed pain that tends to linger with you. I’d recommend reading them slowly, over a long period of time. Don’t try to gobble the book down in one sitting, because it’ll leave you the worse for wear and you’ll wind up squinting in the sunlight, looking for symbols in every bird or squirrel you see.

But do read the book. And especially dwell on the more optimistic stories, because they’ll give you the strength to read the rest. The kindest story in this collection is “A Leading Role.” An actress, herself a very domineering person, is assigned the role of a very meek woman in an upcoming play. The actress invites her mousy cousin to visit so that she can study and copy her mannerisms to use in the play. Over the course of the visit, the actress learns to appreciate her cousin’s innate selflessness, and discovers that there is goodness and generosity hidden behind those who are shy and withdrawn. Finally, one of Jansson’s hermits is allowed to be, not a recluse, but an inspiration to others.

I find myself wishing that Jansson had been as kind to all of her characters as she is to those in “A Leading Role.” In most of Jansson’s stories, the extroverts victimize the introverts, or else the introverts, driven mad by a lifetime of social anxiety, begin to victimize themselves. “A Leading Role” offers a glimpse of the socially successful and the socially marginal getting along. It’s an interaction that allows both people to be seen, not just in a moment of anguish, but in all their complexity. This, I suppose, is what Jansson achieved in the Moomin troll stories. But even Jansson’s loneliest, craggiest stories have a kind of fierce beauty to them. Jansson’s beauty comes from simple contrasts and contradictions: the introvert who also wants a connection with his fellows; the storm gathering outside even as coffee simmers on the stovetop. This is the beauty of the ordinary, and it can be very beautiful indeed. 

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