Discovering Tove Jansson

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Simon has been telling me for years how wonderful Tove Jansson’s writing is, but having only heard of her through the Moomin cartoons, I couldn’t really imagine her in the context of being a writer for adults, and so didn’t bother finding out more. However, a few weeks ago, I was tasked with starting to put together a curriculum for the International Baccaleureate English Literature course at school next year, and with a huge part of the course being a requirement to study literature in translation, I was stumped. Beyond the major Russian novelists, I’ve never really been into reading much fiction in translation, largely because I never feel like I’m actually reading the real thing. Having to find four books in translation to teach therefore presented quite the challenge. That’s when I remembered Simon’s love of Jansson’s The Summer Book, and as luck would have it, found it in a charity shop the very day I decided to go and buy some books in translation to inspire me. Moomins firmly in mind, I had no idea what to expect from Jansson’s writing, and was surprised to find myself instantly enchanted.

The Summer Book is a series of vignettes of life on a tiny Finnish island (so tiny it only takes 4 minutes to walk around the whole thing!), where a girl, Sophia, goes every summer with her grandmother and father. The narrative isn’t linear, and the vignettes exist out of any real sense of time; the reader is invited into glimpses of various summers over a number of years, and time ceases to matter, much like it does during the long, light Finnish summers where each day slips softly into the next, with little to differentiate one from the other. This slightly dream-like structure allows the anchor of the novel to be the characters, who remain consistent; the relationship between the curious, demanding and endearing Sophia and her creative, playful and yet increasingly vulnerable grandmother, is beautifully and often hilariously drawn. Sophia’s brutal honesty and frustrated questioning are brilliant depictions of the unselfconscious selfishness of childhood, and the gradual narrowing of the grandmother’s focus to the island and the minutiae of its natural world as she feels herself starting to slip away from life is movingly and powerfully drawn. Sophia and Grandmother, at opposite ends of the poles of life, are brought together every summer by the island, and their lives intertwine as they explore its ever changing environment together. There is always something to be discovered, a new custom to understand, a a new friend to be made, a solution to be found to a problem. From these moments, Jansson creates pockets of pure delight, transporting the reader to this tiny world where life both stands still and yet is charged with incident. I was utterly charmed by its magic.

So charmed was I, that I immediately set off to Foyles to buy this biography, that has also been translated into English, and is absolutely fascinating. I had no idea Jansson was such an accomplished artist, and had started her career as a decorative painter before the Moomins took over her life unexpectedly. She had a fascinating life, filled with adventure and intrigue, and she challenged conventions and forged her own path at a time when to do so was truly revolutionary, and took true courage. Born in Finland to a Swedish speaking family (hence why Jansson wrote in Swedish, and not Finnish), Jansson’s parents were both prominent artists and so she was drawing from a very young age. Encouraged in her artistic endeavours, she studied at the major Scandinavian art schools and worked as a painter, particularly on large decorative murals, many of which can still be seen in Helsinki, as well as portraits and landscapes, many of which are reproduced in the book and are a delight to behold. The war years were incredibly difficult for her, as were her twenties in general, with several doomed love affairs causing her a great deal of emotional anguish. The discovery of her love for women in her thirties freed her emotionally and creatively, and from this point onwards came the work that would make her name, though she would grow to hate the way the Moomin books and comics took over everything else, leading to her retreat to the island home she writes about so beautifully in The Summer Book. This novel was, according to her biographer, a response to the grief she felt in the aftermath of her beloved mother’s death, the grandmother in the book being her mother, and the little girl her niece. Understanding more about Jansson’s life and influences was absolutely fascinating, and unlocked so much more meaning for me in The Summer Book. She was such a talented, interesting, vibrant woman, and I already can’t wait to read more of her adult work. If you’ve never tried Jansson’s adult writing, I can’t recommend The Summer Book highly enough, and it’s perfect for a lazy summer afternoon’s reading!

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Blitz Writing by Inez Holden

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There is something so incredibly powerful in reading accounts of WWII written by people who were experiencing it as they wrote. Elizabeth Bowen and Mollie Panter-Downes are two of my favourite female chroniclers of what it was like to live within a Blitz-ravaged London, their descriptions of the tense headiness of a life lived on a tightrope of ever possible destruction a sobering reminder that the war was not just fought on distant battlefields. Inez Holden is not a writer I’d heard of before, but the introduction to Handheld Press’ new edition of her novella, Night Shift, and her diaries, entitled It Was Different at the Time, explains that she was very much a figure on the literary scene at the time, living in H G Wells’ flat and mingling with many of London’s movers and shakers at parties. She wrote for the BBC and was recognised as a considerable talent, but she never reached the heights of fame she felt she deserved, and after the war, sunk into obscurity. Night Shift was her most critically successful work, and is a largely autobiographical account of the lives of those who worked the night shift in a factory during the war, and publishing it alongside her diaries was a marvellous idea, as it allows you to then appreciate the real-life experiences that informed the events and characters she depicts. I absolutely loved reading these, and am delighted to have discovered Inez Holden, whom I have every intention of researching further, and seeing if I can unearth more of her work.

Holden is particularly brilliant at capturing the idiosyncratic speech of the various workers in the factory, and the banality of much of their conversation. Amidst the constant bombing and the destruction of the surrounding streets, life goes on within the factory, and there is more bickering over who is getting paid what and whose turn it is to make the tea than there is talk of world affairs. The war, Hitler and the bombs are all treated with a flippant joviality that suggests a community that has found a new normal, and no longer truly sees the danger around them. Once accustomed to it, the workers get on with their lives much as they did before, albeit with the inconveniences of black outs, unreliable transportation and rubble blocked roads. The moments of horror – once familiar streets transformed into blackened shells, dismembered corpses lying in front gardens, colleagues killed in air raids – are experienced through a veil of numbness that demonstrates more powerfully than any description of physical destruction the true impact of the war on the psyche of everyday Londoners.

I found Holden’s writing beautiful, and her eye-witness accounts of the Blitz absolutely fascinating and really quite harrowing to read. These are insights that should not have remained hidden, and would be a valuable companion to anyone seeking to understand more of what it was like to experience the Blitz firsthand. I’m delighted that Handheld Press – a wonderful independent publishing house – has brought Holden’s work back into print, and I can’t recommend this more highly.

Italian Sojourn

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I’ve just got back from a week in Florence, which was wonderful, but not quite in the way I had expected. I’d booked a luxurious hotel in an old monastery (worth every penny) on the hills outside Florence, with a swimming pool and terraced gardens, all designed to soak up the glorious Tuscan sun. After weeks of endless grey misery in London, I was desperate to feel the warmth of proper sunshine on my face and to be able to unfurl beside a swimming pool shimmering in the haze of a sun-drenched afternoon. I’ve visited Florence before and done all of the tourist traps, so while I had a couple of places to see on my to-do list, my priority was relaxing, tanning, reading and luxuriating in the breathtaking views of the Tuscan hills and Florentine rooftops from the hotel gardens. Obviously Mother Nature had other plans, however; we simply brought the weather from England with us. Never have I seen such rain in Italy, such thunder and lightning and cold wind. My suitcase full of bikinis, sandals and summer dresses had nothing to cope with such conditions, and all of our plans for lazing around went out of the window. With the view of Florence and the hills obscured by mist and cloud and the swimming pool out of bounds, we had to go and sightsee. And actually, we found ourselves enjoying Florence in a whole new way as a result.

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The pink and green marble of the Duomo, peeking out from the corners of the maze of streets in which it nestles, was even more impressive against the backdrop of a stormy sky. The pavements glistened beautifully in the wet, and we found ourselves popping down unexpected lanes and into lovely little shops we would never have visited had we not been looking for shelter from the rain. We went to the San Marco monastery and saw the most amazing frescoes painted in each of the monks’ cells by Fra Angelico, the scale of which we hadn’t realised and were absolutely enchanted by. We walked around the Boboli gardens in the rain and enjoyed the sweeping views of the city against an ever changing, dramatic cloudy sky. We took the train to Siena and were delighted by the breathtaking interior of the Duomo, particularly the library, which is painted so beautifully in the most marvellous detail in such jewel-like tones, that it seems unbelievable they have been on the walls for several hundred years. We walked high up on the walls of the unfinished section of the Duomo and saw the angry clouds chasing across the enormous skies above the distant Tuscan hills, and then came down and wandered through the ochre streets to the piazza, just as the sun finally came out. Rejoicing in the cessation of the torrential rain at long last, we got ice cream and ate it as we wended our way back through the streets to the station, marvelling in the joy of the sun on our skin and the transformation of the buildings from dull ochre to glowing orange as the sunlight filtered down and warmed everything it touched.

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We ate our weight in pasta and gelato and pizza and cannoli and drank litres of wine and freshly squeezed orange juice. We saw so much beautiful art and architecture that our eyes and minds struggled to drink it all in. On our final days in Florence, the sun came back to stay and we sunbathed in the hotel gardens with their stunning view of Florence’s rooftops, read our books, and felt like the real world and its troubles were a million miles away. So, it might not have exactly been the holiday I had anticipated, but it was a marvellous one nonetheless. Italy never disappoints!

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Small Island by Andrea Levy

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When I saw the advertisements for the stage version of Andrea Levy’s prize winning novel that I’d obviously never read a few months ago, I was intrigued. I had smugly dismissed Small Island as a book club book – a bit of a potboiler, with some history thrown in – and thought it wouldn’t be my cup of tea. However, it being adapted into a play and being performed at the country’s most illustrious theatre, made me reconsider my earlier snobbery. Perhaps there was something in this novel, after all? I then went on a backstage tour of the National with my students, and saw the props and staging being made for the show, which looked very interesting indeed, so I promptly booked a ticket and made a mental note to get around to reading the book before my night at the theatre. With a week to go, I finally made a start, and after an initial struggle to get into it, I was soon swept away.

The book tells the story of two couples; Jamaicans Gilbert and Hortense, and Britons Queenie and Bernard. Hortense is marked as special from birth; she has ‘golden skin’ and so is destined for a great future. Brought up by her well-to-do but strict and unsympathetic aunt and uncle, she is taught to be a lady, the measure of which is how well she can speak English with a proper British accent and make a sponge cake. Intelligent and ambitious, Hortense trains to be a teacher, and dreams of the day when she can make something of herself. However, there are limited opportunities in Jamaica for her to have the life she longs for; for that, she will have to go to the Mother Country. The Mother Country is what Gilbert has spent the recent war fighting hard for. Though his reception in Britain was mixed at best when he was posted there as a member of the RAF, he can’t wait to return when he finds the post-war Jamaica he comes home to is shabby, down-at-heel and far too small now he has seen more of the world. Gilbert wants to go to England, but he can’t afford the boat fare. Hortense wants to go to England, but she can’t go alone. A chance meeting through a friend throws this odd couple together; haughty, educated Hortense, and the devil-may-care joker Gilbert are complete opposites, but Hortense has the boat fare saved and Gilbert is willing to marry her in order to secure her passage. Though they barely know each other, they join forces to enable their separate dreams to come true, though little do they know what awaits them in their fabled land of dreams.

Queenie is a pretty, clever and ambitious daughter of a country butcher, whose marriage to the blundering, awkward Bernard Bligh is made out of desperation to get away from a life of drudgery on her parents’ farm. She and Bernard start their unsatisfactory married life in the largely boarded-up, cavernous Bligh family home in Earls’ Court, West London, where Bernard’s father also lives, left a nervous wreck after the previous war. When war is declared, Queenie throws herself into helping those affected by the Blitz, while Bernard is sent to Burma. After the war, Bernard’s mysterious failure to return home forces Queenie to open the house to paying guests, and one of her first lodgers is Gilbert, come ahead of Hortense to secure work and a place to live, and who had met Queenie during the war. Queenie is, however, one of the only people in the local area who doesn’t care about the colour of the wave of recent West Indian arrivals’ skin, and she soon finds herself at loggerheads with her neighbours over her perceived immorality in letting ‘such people’ live in her home. Gilbert is also shocked by his reception in London, and the indignities he faces on a daily basis as he tries to secure work. When Hortense arrives, intent on becoming a teacher and living in a fine house, she is horrified by the run-down, racist Britain she encounters, and the house in Earls Court soon becomes a battleground, as these inhabitants of two small islands collide.

There is much more to the novel than this, and plenty of to-ing and fro-ing in time to reveal the pasts and motivations of the various characters, who intertwine in numerous interesting and heartbreaking ways. I was absolutely swept away by the worlds in London and Jamaica, Burma and India, that Levy draws on the page, and her ability to juggle so many different stories, settings, time periods and characters while managing to make them all intersect with one another was truly impressive. It’s a marvellous, ground breaking book – one of the first fictional representations of the Windrush generation – and a heartrending, sobering account of the reality of the racism, hatred and injustice experienced by many of the post-war immigrants who were promised a better life in Britain. I cried and I laughed and I almost couldn’t bear to finish, and this was made even more so by having seen it come alive on stage before I’d managed to make it to the end of the novel. The stage version is magical – so clever and inventive – with wonderful visual tricks and a fantastic cast. I was wiping away tears by the end, and it was so lovely to see the world I’d been immersed in come to life before my eyes. If you can make it to the theatre to watch the play,¬† go – and if you can’t, read the book and let your imagination do the work for you. You won’t regret it!

Reading Roundup

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It’s the school holidays, and this means I’ve actually got time to a) read b) blog about what I’m reading. I’ve been flying through books like nobody’s business and I’ve picked the good, the bad and the brilliant to tell you about!

Firstly, the good:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Of late I have been making a concerted effort to read more books from outside of my cultural comfort zone (i.e. not British, and not pre 1950) and a new colleague is a huge fan of Adichie, so I duly borrowed Americanah from the library for some holiday reading. It’s the story of Ifemelu, an ambitious young Nigerian woman, her high school boyfriend Obinze, and their contrasting young adulthoods as they both attempt to escape Lagos for the promised land of America. Ifemelu goes to study in America, and finds herself suddenly exposed to her race and how it identifies and defines her in the eyes of others in a way she never experienced in Nigeria. While she struggles to find work and to make ends meet, she also struggles to assimilate to a new culture where she is, perplexingly, considered lesser than everyone else around her. The shock of this is enough to send her into a deep depression, during which she shuts Obinze out completely. Once recovered, she starts a successful, controversial blog, about race in America, dates American men, and finds herself moving far away from her Nigerian self. Obinze, meanwhile, never makes it to America, and finds himself sleeping on a friend’s sofa in London instead, working in menial, low paid jobs under a false name, unable to get the visa he needs to be there legitimately. He is forced to return to Lagos, where he becomes highly successful, but at the heart of his sanitised existence in a luxurious suburban compound, there is something essential missing. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos after years in America, will she be able to readjust after so long in another culture? And can she and Obinze ever reconnect, after so many years living completely different lives?

I loved the structure of the novel – it goes forward and backwards in time, and in and out of different characters’ experiences, allowing for a gradual unfolding of their lives and how they end up where they do. The characters were wonderfully realised; I felt like I knew Ifemelu and Obinze intimately, and was so invested in them and their fate. Adichie’s observations on the cultural behaviours and expectations in all three countries were incredibly thought provoking and I particularly enjoyed the extracts from Ifemelu’s blog, which raised points about race I’d never thought about before, and made me feel incredibly ignorant. I was utterly immersed in the story, and emerged from it feeling emotionally moved while also being incredibly challenged. I am now very much wanting to read more by Adichie and other contemporary African writers; recommendations would be welcome.

Now for the bad:

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

I was sent this by Penguin to take part in a promotional blog tour, and was very excited at the prospect of a neo-Georgian murder mystery featuring a former slave who had been brought to London to work for a wealthy white couple. It sounded very intriguing in the blurb – great marketing! However, I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters, and had to pull out of the blog tour, because unfortunately I could find nothing positive to say about it. The story itself is certainly interesting enough to keep reading – if it weren’t for the writing. Dear God, the writing! Every sentence has at least two similes, most of which are nonsensical and serve no purpose in terms of aiding description or telling the story – they’re just needless decoration. As an English teacher, nothing irritates me more than the current trend in literature for this very MA Creative Writing style of prose that seems to be pushing the excessive use of figurative language to the point where sentences actually become meaningless. This technique is nothing short of abuse of the English language and I cannot abide it. I’ll give you a few examples:

‘For a time, there was only the scratching of brushes against stone, like mice in a cupboard.’

The use of the onomatopoeic ‘scratching’ here is already sufficient to produce an auditory response in the reader; we can imagine the bristles of the brush making the harsh sound the word creates for us as we say the word in our heads. The random addition of ‘like mice in a cupboard’ adds nothing to this impression that has already been created, and instead just functions as a pointless and distracting addition to the sentence. One minute I’m imagining the scene the author is actually trying to depict – someone cleaning the floor – the next, I’m suddenly asked to imagine mice running in a cupboard. Why? These sounds and images bear no relation to one another. Why is this considered to be good writing? If one of my students had written this, I would have crossed out the entire simile and given them a good talking-to.

‘The wooden hulls clacked against each other like oyster shells in a bucket’…’I was black as a fly in butter’…’I felt watched as a clock’….’London air, wet as a kiss’…’his new black coat stretched tight as a cheek’…all of these examples are within the same two hundred word section. Utterly pointless simile after simile. I could go on and on.

I’m sure for some people this kind of writing is very atmospheric and wonderful but because I am a shameless pedant, I’m afraid I just can’t get on with it. All the Amazon reviewers seem to disagree with me, however, so I am clearly in a grumpy minority!

Finally, the brilliant:

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

I’m sure everyone apart from me has already read this, but it was a new discovery for me after spotting it on a recommendation table in Waterstones, and in my desire to read outside of my cultural comfort zone (as explained above), I snapped it up. The fictionalised true story of a middle aged couple’s resistance to the Nazi regime in wartime Berlin, this is a truly remarkable novel about the human cost of hatred and paranoia. This is both a damning indictment of the Nazis and of those who used their regime to fulfil their own pathetic desires to wield power over and cause suffering to others – and a wonderful affirmation of the essential goodness of the majority of humanity, and the lasting ability to love, to help, to protect and to fight against injustice, even in the face of fear and horror and hatred. I have never read a novel set in Berlin during WWII, and it was fascinating and horrifying for me in equal measure to understand more about what it was actually like for people living there at the time. I was moved to tears by the bravery of many of the characters, and by the needless suffering so many of them had to endure. I am so grateful that Michael Hofmann, the translator, made it possible for me to read this beautiful book. If you haven’t read it, you must.