October 2014

Walter Biggins


The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella

A few years back, I was knocking around Titan Comics, in Dallas, Texas, scarfing up graphic novels by the score. Bellying up to the counter to make my purchases, I tried not to roll my eyes as the proprietor -- your classic "Comic Book Guy," fat, imperious, and bespectacled -- scoffed at my purchases. Flipping through my back issues of Peepshow, Underwater, and Palookaville, Jeremy snorted: "Drawn & Quarterly must think highly of its little pamphlets, given what they charge. Shame no one else shares their enthusiasm." "Oh, Jaime Hernandez and all his punk-rock Barbies. Ho-hum." "So, you're catching up on Concrete, are you? Did we just flash back to 1988?" Etc.

Then he came to the hardback volumes of Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, published by Drawn & Quarterly. I had only vaguely heard of Jansson but the cover designs were astonishing, and I had instantly fallen hard for Jansson's thin, brittle but meandering and playful line. I bought the first three volumes on a whim, and was about to ask Jeremy his recommendation on the purchase, but he'd gotten a faraway look in his eyes. I realized that I'd never seen him give a true smile, a non-snarky, uncondescending smile, before that moment. "Moomin," he said. "I grew up with Moomin." Jeremy then revealed -- and this was not a revealing kind of guy -- that, as a military brat, he had spent his childhood all over Europe, including stints in Jansson's home country Finland.

He was hardly alone. Lots of Europeans grew up with the Moomintrolls. The cuddly, irascible, hilariously philosophical creatures were everywhere, as ubiquitous as Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts. Their adventures were chronicled in children's books, comic strips, audiobooks, TV specials, animated movies (a new one comes out this fall), and various bits of merchandise from toys to stuffed animals to commercials. Translations exist in over 40 languages. Just as there's a Schulz Museum and multiple Legolands, there is a Moomin World in Finland. A prog-rock band even recorded an album based on one of Jansson's Moomin books.

So, the Moomins made Tove Jansson rich, famous, and beloved. But I'm not sure they did her any favors, emotionally. She tired of her inescapable creation, eventually turning over the comic strip to her brother Lars, retreated periodically to a remote island with her lover, and wrote. Rather a lot, actually -- five novels, and six short story collections. She also painted diligently. Through it all, she kept the Moomin empire running, creating new designs and beguiling, funny stories for it, even though -- if The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories is any evidence -- she was sick of its demands and the attention she garnered for it.

Then again, perhaps not. Love of isolation vs. the need to connect with others is a perpetual seesawing motion in the Moomin strips and stories, which are as psychologically dense and casually pessimistic as, well, Peanuts. Maybe Jansson was always wired this way. With prose, she found another avenue for expressing her dark, funny anxiety. As The Woman Who Borrowed Memories -- the first major collection of Jansson's stories to appear in the United States -- shows, Jansson translated her concerns and style from drawing to writing without any hiccups, and with a prickly grace that's all her own.

Several of the stories involve artists on the brink or just past it, in narratives that seem curiously close to Jansson's life. In "The Cartoonist," a young artist takes over drawing a beloved comic strip after its creator (Allington) abruptly quits. Soon, the new guy (Stein) is doing so well that none of the readers have noticed the transition between artists, and the strip continues to be popular. None of that stops Stein's anxieties, or thoughts of Allington overtaking his life:

As Stein worked on Blubby, Allington grew more and more real to him. Allington not coming up with ideas and staring down at the street through the gray windowpanes, Allington brewing tea and rooting around in his drawers, answering the phone or completely forgotten between deadlines, Allington famous and worn out. Did he feel lonely, or was he wary of people? Did he work better in the mornings or later when the paper was quiet? What did he do when he got stuck, or did he work at a steady pace for twenty years? Now I need to be careful, Sam Stein thought. I mustn't romanticize him. If Allington had stood at a machine for twenty years, no one would have made a big deal of it. He was popular, and well paid. So am I.

Stein should be happy but he's obsessed by Allington's presence. He can't get the guy out of his head, and Jansson reflects this in the prose, slipping from a third-person consideration of Stein that becomes third person -- but about Allington -- and then switching to first person. Jansson's prose gets consumed by Stein's voice, which is consumed by thoughts of Allington.

Around and around we go. I'm reminded here that Tove cast off her Moomin strip after five years to her brother Lars, who wrote and drew the strip for the rest of its duration. Several of these collected stories are constructed as exchanges between Jansson and her fans. Well, one-sided exchanges: In "Correspondence," a Japanese fan writes letters asking Jansson, with increasing urgency, for advice on how to become a great artist. She's obsessed with the Moomin creator. In one letter, Tomiko writes, "List to me Jansson san and write to say when I can come," even though it's clear from previous letters that Jansson has turned down this request repeatedly. What starts as fan mail becomes annoying, and then alarming. It's hard to imagine that Jansson didn't deal with some version of the obsessive fan regularly. In "Messages," we get a barrage of short messages to Jansson from various correspondents -- critics, fans, haters, her long-distance lover, crazy people.

So, how is all this not just precious navel gazing? Part of it's simply Jansson's blunt, dry wit. Here's a message, in full, from "Messages": "Couldn't we meet and chat about the old days at school? I'm Margit, the one who punched you in the stomach in the playground."

In "Letters to Konikova," Jansson deftly turns the tables, with her writing fervent -- and then borderline obsessive -- letters to a loved one who's a fellow artist. She's able to lampoon herself as effectively as she lampoons her fan base. She can be a crazy obsessive, too.

Most of Jansson's characters are obsessives, driven by art, isolation, desire, or some combination thereof, to create. They're constantly being crowded in by their obsessions and their creations. Creation, however, doesn't necessarily make them whole, or even bring them joy. In a few stories, they end up worse off than they started. In most instances, the desire to escape life leads, ironically, to greater connection to others -- and often that connection isn't wanted by the protagonist. The relationships portrayed are uneasy, fraught with something Jansson doesn't necessarily tell us, but we can guess at. The stories tend to end on ambiguous notes, like arias that don't find their cadences, like books that end mid-sentence.

But at least they obsess over interesting things, beyond the rigors of the working artist's life. Or, wait -- that's not quite right. What makes Jansson's stories so compelling is that they spin elaborate metaphors -- in tales veering through straightforward realism to dreamlike fantasy to science fiction to black comedy -- of the artist's life, starring people who aren't "officially" artists. "The Doll's House" features an upholsterer who starts making a doll's house that overtakes his real apartment -- and his lover's patience. "The Locomotive" paints a vivid portrait of a guy obsessed with trains. "The Summer Child" features an eleven-year-old boy who's so worried and woebegone that his misery radiates outward to the family he's staying with -- that damn kid makes an art out of his own misery. In "A Foreign City," an old man negotiates his way through a new city, with a language he doesn't speak, by drawing his emotions and needs on paper. In "The Woman Who Borrowed Memories," a woman artfully -- if deceitfully and damagingly -- imagines her life as more radiant and brilliant than it is, simply by stealing the memories of those forced to live around her. In "A Leading Role," an actress performs the same sort of thievery, inviting a drab cousin over to her house so that she can study the cousin for a role. She's an artist of a sort, a superb narcissistic inventor of her own life. All Jansson's characters are.

Maybe we all are. We all invent narratives of our lives that present us in the most flattering light. We all lie to ourselves. We're all obsessed with our peculiar notions of What The World Should Be. At least Jansson admits it. Through irony, droll wit, and a bleakness shot through with flashes of beauty, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories lets us laugh at ourselves, or at least smile wistfully at our delusions.

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590177662
304 pages