December 10, 2009

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

Posted in Jansson Tove, NYRB Classics at 9:17 am by John Self

It’s always heartening to see a publisher get behind an overlooked writer, particularly when they’re helping us (re)discover writers outside our usual English language limits.  Pushkin Press, for example, have done admirable work in resuscitating the literary corpse of Stefan Zweig. In the UK, Sort Of Books have been reissuing – or in some cases commissioning first translations – of the adult fiction of Tove Jansson, best known for the Finn Family Moomintroll series of children’s books.  Two of the titles have also been picked up in the US by NYRB Classics, who use Jansson’s original cover illustrations.


The True Deceiver
(1982, tr. by Thomas Teal, 2009) drops the reader in the middle of a Finnish winter, where in the village of Västerby, “it had been snowing along the coast for a month … never stopping for even an hour.  … The continuous snowfall carried with it an imprecise darkness that was neither dusk nor dawn.”  Ideal conditions, then, to introduce the character of Katri Kling, a young woman who lives with her brother.  Katri is trusted by all in the village (largely for her numerical skills), but is cold and unclubbable.  When she offers to take the mail up to the home of reclusive writer Anna Aemelin, her exchange with the village postman is illuminating:

“Don’t you trust me?” she said.  “I can take the mail up to Miss Aemelin.  It’s important to me.”

“Are you trying to help?”

“You know I’m not,” Katri said.  “I’m doing it entirely for my own sake.  Do you trust me or don’t you?”

Katri’s purpose, stated in the opening pages of the book, is to work her way into Miss Aemelin’s life, and for her and her brother Mats ultimately to live in her home, a lighthouse known as “the rabbit house” after Miss Aemelin’s celebrated books for children.  (She “could render the ground in a forest so faithfully and in such minute detail that she missed not the tiniest needle.”)

The trouble with Katri is that she doesn’t seem to know when to rein in her ‘honesty’.  When once she brokered a deal between feuding families, she “helped both save face, but she also articulated their hostility and so fixed it in place for all time.”  As one villager puts it to another, “Why do you go to her?  Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back.”  Miss Aemelin objects to Katri pointing out how the storekeeper has ripped her off for a few pennies: and anyway, Katri has a grudge against the storekeeper, which may be clouding her judgement.

The beauty of The True Deceiver is how it fits so much into 180 pages, without making any of the elements seem discordant.  Katri is paired with her brother Mats: he is as “undisturbed in his clean, simplified world” as she is troubled by her mistrust of others.  He reads boys’ adventure stories, while she urges him to read what she considers to be literature: “I read them, I do,” he tells her, “but I don’t get anything out of them.  Nothing much happens.  I understand they’re very good, but they just make me sad.  They’re almost always about people with problems.”

For this Mats has an ally in Anna Aemelin, whose children’s books are considered charming by some, and ‘”stereotyped” by others.  She shares his love of escapist books, seafaring adventures mainly, and Jansson sets her in opposition to Katri in a power struggle for control of Anna’s house, trust in the villagers, even the loyalty of Katri’s dog.  The assistance which Katri offers Anna, such as with her finances, is primarily for her own benefit, or at least satisfaction (“Every time she wrote a captured sum of money into her notebook, she felt the collector’s deep satisfaction at finally owning a rare and expensive specimen”).

It’s not difficult to see Anna Aemelin and Katri Kling as representations of the warring instincts in Jansson (who lived in solitude): a successful children’s writer who nonetheless spent the last thirty years of her life writing darker adult books (like this one); the two characters’ respective approaches to the fan letters Anna receives from her readers are illuminating and even amusing (“Politeness can almost be a kind of deceit”).  What unites Anna and Katri is that they are both isolated, one by her fame and success, and the other by her distrust of people.

The True Deceiver is as oxymoronic as its title: calm and clear in its prose, but turbulent in the emotions depicted; a seemingly simple story which resists bashing the reader over the head with obvious conclusions.  It is a perfectly brittle, crystalline tale for the cold winter months ahead.

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19 Comments »

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  2. Colette Jones said,

    Sounds good, JS. I have a couple of Janssons on the shelf which I have not yet read, The Summer Book and Fair Play. Have you read them, and if so, do you rate them?

  3. John Self said,

    No I haven’t, Colette. I did have a copy of The Winter Book, but the couple of stories from it which I read didn’t engage me. I did buy a copy of Finn Family Moomintroll the other day, which Jeanette Winterson cites as her favourite book…

  4. Mary said,

    Finn Family Moomintroll ( and indeed all the Moomin books) are delightful witty children’s stories which manage to stay the right side of whimsy – perhaps because Moomin Mama is always so sensible and wise. I read them to my children and if I ever get any grandchildren I’ve got some copies saved up for them too! It’s interesting that you mention Tove Jansson wanting to explore darker themes in adult books. There are one or two darker and even quite frightening events in the Moomintroll books – Moomins are never `cute’ in the Disneyish sense – but there’s also a reassuring sense of underlying social order. It’s very good to read another of your blogs and and I’ll be interested to track down this novel. The attractive cover looks like one of Jansson’s own illustrations.

  5. _lethe_ said,

    Good review, and I love the NYRB cover.

    One small remark: Tove Jansson lived with her partner, so hardly in solitude.

  6. John Self said,

    Oops, sorry _lethe_ – thanks for the correction. I was referring, I suppose, to the fact that she lived on one of the Pellinki islands, but you’re quite right, it was hardly solitude if she was cohabiting!

    Mary, thanks for the info on the Moomin books. I only realised when I got it home that Finn Family Moomintroll isn’t the first in the series, but I understand each volume more or less stands alone anyway.

    Also, the cover (of the NYRB edition) is indeed Jansson’s own illustration – for the original 1982 cover. It’s reproduced (in monochrome) inside the Sort Of Books edition, which is the one I read. I should add that Ali Smith’s introduction is excellent too.

  7. Trevor said,

    The NYRB titles go immediately into my shopping cart for their beauty alone — then your review sealed the deal.

  8. Sara said,

    Agreed about the Ali Smith introduction (I know I’m biased, but she’s excellent on Jansson in general). You can read a version of it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/nov/07/tove-jansson-true-deceiver

  9. Kerry said,

    First I loved your review, then Winterson cites one of her books as a favorite. You’ve made Jansson a must-read for me. Thank you, I think.

  10. [...] Favorite Lit-Blog Things: December 12, 2009 The Asylum has another excellent review up. If possible, the quality of his reviews is getting even better as he takes a [...]

  11. eva-marie said,

    Thank you for this piece of information!
    I was googling material for an academic essay on Jansson and ended up here!
    Best wishes from Sweden

  12. nicknick said,

    Hooray, NYRB review time! Fortunately I’ve got the book coming in the next few days. Unfortunately your review will have to wait till I’m done with it! I’m also after the five books of Moomin strips (complete) that Drawn & Quarterly is currently printing. In the US, at least.

  13. Tom Cunliffe said,

    My latest review too . . .

    http://www.acommonreader.org.uk/2009/12/truedeceiver.html

  14. jem said,

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention John. I loved the tone of The Winter Book – quite often cold and solitary. This seems to suggest more of the same. I think the relation between writing for children and adults is interesting, perhaps it says a lot about her as an author than she can handle both. Although I’m sure they demand different types of imagination.

  15. Simon T said,

    Just found this review – True Deceiver was one of my favourite books last year, indeed I think all her work is brilliant (surprised A Winter Book didn’t grab you, it’s my favourite of hers) and I’m so grateful to Sort Of Books for continuing to commission translations. Here’s hoping they do more… her writing is so different from anything I’ve read. Utterly without sentiment (as Ali Smith writes in her intro) but not callous or harsh.

    Of course, now my problem is that I’m coveting the NYRB Classics editions… can I justify having both sets?

  16. John Self said,

    Hi Simon. I don’t know why The Winter Book didn’t grab me, but now that I’ve found a ‘way in’ to Jansson, I will probably return to it. I believe we are to see a book of Jansson stories from Sort Of Books, titled Travelling Light, in July of this year, together with the third of the Moomin picture books for children, Dangerous Journey.

    Can you justify having both sets? Yes. Don’t ask silly questions.

  17. Simon T said,

    ‘Travelling Light’ is the third section within A Winter Book, but perhaps it’s a whole collection too? From whence this information!

    And you’re right, I know that *eventually* I’ll own both sets. I’m only buying 24 books this year (insane) so I might wait til next…

  18. [...] John Self recently wrote an excellent review of this book at his Asylum blog December 31st, 2009 | Tags: finnish fiction | Category: fiction, [...]

  19. jubakala said,

    As finnish people in general, I also love Tove Jansson. I grew up with Moomins as everybody else of my age. But her books for not so young people have been mystery to me. But this blogpost made me rethink this thing and maybe I head myself to library to get this book you are talking about. And finally I have to say that although Tove Jansson was a finn, she was speaking swedish, so I can’t get this book on it’s original language because my swedish have more rust on it than my car… But in finnish it will do as well, I believe so! Thank you very much for giving notice for finnish literature as well… And, if I recommend, read Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian: a brilliant book written by a man who never layed his foot to Egypt!

    Regards,

    The Metallica discography Guy


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