Letters from Klara by Tove Jansson (transl. Thomas Teal): Short stories to delight in

Cover imageI have to confess that these are the first short stories I’ve read by Tove Jansson although I’ve very much enjoyed her novellas, given a new lease of lease of life by the lovely Sort of Books. I’ve harboured a fondness for them since their publicist sent me a copy of The Moomins and the Great Flood on hearing that H’s elderly aunt was a huge Jansson fan back in 2012. She was delighted to share it with her grandchildren and I’m sure would have been very pleased to hear of a clutch of newly translated short stories.

Comprising thirteen pieces, Jansson’s collection opens snappily with the titular ‘Letters from Klara’ which ranges from punchy advice on ageing to a consoling letter to a goddaughter on the loss of her ancient cat, all delivered in a jaunty no-nonsense tone. There should be something to please all Jansson fans in the stories that follow but rather than turn this review into a long list of synopses, I’ll mention just a few favourites. In ‘Party Games’ a class reunion ends surprisingly amicably after a revealing parlour game rakes up old memories and resentments. A desperate and argumentative young man strides into an elderly couple’s retreat, taking shelter from a summer storm, and finds himself calmed in ‘Pirate Rum’. The vignettes from a child’s diary offer snapshots of summer, solitary adventures and learning to paint in ‘About Summer’. In ‘My Friend Karin’ – one of the longer stories which range from a few pages to over twenty – a woman looks back at the conflict between her own beliefs and those of her deeply religious family through her friendship with her beloved cousin who sees God in everything.

The stories in this collection range from bright summer recollections to darker, almost fairy tale-like pieces – alone in a foreign city, a young man finds himself painting the phantoms which haunt his father; an enigmatic young woman has a way of helping people towards their hidden desires using unconventional methods. There’s often a thread of humour running through them: ‘Mama, you’re a snob.’ says a daughter chidingly only to receive the reply ‘So are you, thank goodness, though you’re still in the early stages’. Deftly translated by Thomas Teal, Jansson’s writing is clean, crisp and fresh. She excels at word pictures, simple yet vivid, and her characters are astutely drawn. This is an insightful, perceptive collection – sometimes playful, sometimes dark but always pleasing.

I’m sure Jansson fans with a sharp eye on the UK TV schedules will have spotted BBC Scotland’s documentary on her life, repeated a year or so ago, but for those of you who haven’t yet seen it here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYgC0nKyF0g. It’s a wonderful film, both uplifting and moving – Letters from Klara has set me up nicely for a third viewing.

19 thoughts on “Letters from Klara by Tove Jansson (transl. Thomas Teal): Short stories to delight in”

  1. I didn’t know about the documentary, so thank you for that informative link!
    I’ve got this one on my night table, so I will certainly get to it very soon indeed. I can never resist! Also, have you read the lovely biography by Tuula Karjalainen, which focuses on her art as well as her writing?

    1. Oh, you’re welcome. I think you’ll love it – so interesting and joyous at times. I’ve been meaning to read the biography but somehow it hasn’t found its way onto my list which is probably why I haven’t got around to buying it.

  2. I’m not a huge fan of Jansson’s short stories, but I’ve really taken the Moomins to heart as an adult even though I didn’t grow up with them. At JFK airport the other night, I sat across from a man who had a whole scene from Moominvalley tattooed on his leg in full colour. I wished I could have surreptitiously taken a photo of it.

    1. Quite hard to be surreptitious with that, I imagine! He must have been a particularly dedicated fan – think of all the hours it would take, not to mention the pain…

  3. TOVE JANSSON!!! Is she ever not awesome? This sounds like a great collection, I wonder, though, if the stories are collected elsewhere? Some of them sounded familiar. Absolutely second the recommendation of the documentary, which is absolutely lovely, and as Marina mentions the biography is an excellent read. Jansson is my hero! Lovely review, Susan.

    1. How lovely to see such enthusiasm! I think some of these may have been published before, Belinda. I seem to have lost the press release but I’ve a feeling that the next (and final) collection is a set of previously unpublished stories.

  4. This might be the time for me to confess that I’ve yet to be fully convinced by Jansson’s books for adults. I read her Summer Book with one of my old book groups, and while it gave rise to an interesting discussion, I didn’t love it as much as I had expected to. Maybe I should give her another try at some point…

    1. Maybe it was a case of raised expectations, Jacqui. There’s been a great outpouring of love for Jansson since her fiction for adults was reissued. I hope you’ll try again with her writing. The documentary would make a lovely reintroduction if you have time.

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