I 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.