Trolls and Tribulations

A newly translated collection of short stories from the late Tove Jansson explores the themes of solitude and aging.

What is Finland’s most distinctive export? Nokia, Sibelius—or the Moomins? There is a strong case for the last. The late Tove Jansson is certainly best known as the inventor of these gentle, hospitable, thoughtful creatures with large snouts and inquisitive natures. The adventures of the Finn Family Moomintroll and their friends, living deep in a hidden valley in the dark wilds of Scandinavia, are widely translated and much loved all across the world by children and parents alike. They are especially popular in Japan, where you can order an omelette with Moomintroll drawn on in ketchup from a Moomin cafe. Despite this commercialization, the world Jansson created remains at once strange and wild, with magic hats, comets and electric ghosts, and yet familiar, with trips to the seaside, quarrelling friends, tiresome guests and, crucially, the absolute security and comfort of home and family.

Tove Jansson’s fiction speaks to both children and adults.

Jansson also illustrated the books with clear, simple, elegant line drawings of the Moomins and their environs. The Moomins themselves are charming to look at, and their friends are quirky and amusing; their surroundings, however, are often less so—deserted beaches, hidden caves, a single jetty pointing to a vast, empty sea. Life in Moominvalley is full of fun and adventure, but it can also be confusing, lonely and downright frightening. Jansson’s creatures face real dilemmas: wanting to leave but risking hurt to other people; the paralysing effects of nostalgia and wanderlust; the difficulty and necessity of being kind to a needy but unpleasant guest; jealousy, alienation, covetousness, unrequited love and more. The stories do not shy away from big issues just because they are aimed at children; they are also completely devoid of sentimentality. No surprise, then, that Jansson’s later work for adults, written in the last 30 years of her life, does not pull any punches.

“Travelling Light,” the most recently translated work is a collection of short stories. The title story is told by someone in desperate search of “a certain detachment” from his life; he leaves his flat, packs as little as he can, and has “no intention of ever coming back.” He boards a ship and is dismayed to find that he must share a cabin, despite his desire to be alone and never to take “any interest in anyone.” Gradually, he is drawn into conversation and unwanted intimacy with his cabin mate; he flees and tries to find a chair to sleep in, only to be accosted by someone else demanding his time, his attention, his energy. It clearly does not matter where or how he travels, he will never be free of other people and human contact. And, the story seems to imply, why should he be?

“The Hothouse” is also about a desire to be alone; an elderly gentleman seeks peace and quiet in botanical hothouses and is disturbed by another elderly gentleman doing the same thing. The narrative moves with swift precision through their initial antagonism and gradual friendship and then on to the difficulties—and possibilities—of communication, of really trying to tell a story and explain its importance and feel that it has been understood.

Old age figures largely in this collection; in “A Foreign City,” which is akin to distilled essence of Kafka with a happy ending, the narrator is aware of and embarrassed by his forgetfulness, but in the end he understands and remembers what really matters. In “The Garden of Eden,” a retired professor goes on holiday and ends up trying to resolve local difficulties, while remembering a few of her own.

Jansson’s stories often confound expectations upset certainties; in “The Summer Child,” a well-off family offers to take a city child to the country with them for the summer in a magnanimous gesture. The child who turns up is neither deserving of their charity nor fun to have around; the adults’ motives are revealed as questionable, and it is left up to the children to sort themselves out, which they do, rather savagely. Equally, in “The Gulls,” a beautiful remote island provides no peace and redemption for the couple who have brought their own considerable problems away with them. Again, the wish to retire from the world seems suspect and unachievable. All this is done with the lightest of touches, in a direct, plain style and with a minimum of fuss; “The Forest” is only three pages long, but its emotional impact is huge.

Jansson can speak to both children and adults and her voice is always her own, even when she borrows the words of others, as in the final, beautiful story, “Correspondence,” based on a real exchange of letters she had with a Japanese fan. Her work asks big, complicated questions—about art, nature, belief, prejudice, how to live well—so simply and clearly that it looks easy. But as her stories constantly remind us, nothing is that easy. She is in a class of her own.

Ms. Dallas edits the website and the In Brief pages of the Times Literary Supplement.


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