I love Tove Jansson’s books. Many years ago, I was very impressed with The True Deceiver published by NYRB Classics, while The Summer Book by the same publisher found a place on my Best of 2021 list. And now, Art in Nature, published by Sort Of Books, is another work of hers I would highly recommend.
Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.
How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection. The scene of action is a summer art exhibition, outdoors in a park, and our protagonist is the caretaker, the only member of staff to stay overnight at the exhibition premises. He is proud of this art show where the mediums of expression on display are so varied – painting, graphic arts and the like…but what the caretaker loves best are the sculptures.
They grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing. They stood everywhere among the birches as if they’d sprung up from the soil, and when the summer night arrived and the mist drifted in from the lake they were as beautiful as granite crags or withered trees.
One night past the closing hours, he comes across a bonfire, cans of beer and a middle-aged couple arguing about a work of art they have recently purchased. They are quarrelling because they can’t see eye-to-eye on what this contemporary work essentially conveys. Until the caretaker surprises them with a whole new perspective on how they can view it.
One of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art. A young cartoonist, Sam Stein, is employed by a leading newspaper to step into the shoes of his predecessor – the popular and famous Allington who one fine day suddenly decides to step down. Allington is the creator of Blubby, a comic strip that has run for 20 fruitful years, guaranteeing his success.
Not ready to tamper with something that has worked so well, the newspaper decides to keep the comic strip running without Allington’s absence being noticed by his loyal readers, but this would involve hiring another artist to continue the strip in Allington’s name. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of rising cartoonist Sam Stein, and while the job is by no means a piece of cake, Stein rises up to the challenge. Working in Allington’s room and surrounded by his paraphernalia, Stein remains tormented by the suspense surrounding Allington’s disappearance and he wishes to dig deeper into the incident.
All he wanted was to try and find Allington. He needed to understand. He had a seven-year contract and he needed to be calmed or alarmed, one or the other, but he had to know.
What he subsequently discovers depresses him even further and he begins to question his sanity and the merits of his profession.
Jealousy and rivalry take centrestage in “The Doll’s House”, which begins on an innocuous note but steadily descends into violence. The artist in this tale is Alexander, an upholsterer of the old school, exceptionally skilled with a “craftsman’s natural pride in his work.” Alexander has lived in an apartment for 20 years with Erik, a banker by profession. Despite their vocations being as different as chalk and cheese, both men “have the same respect for lovely objects.” A day dawns when Alexander finally hangs up his boots and sells his upholstery workshop, while Erik retires from the bank.
They put Alexander’s samples in a cupboard and drank champagne to celebrate their new freedom.
Adapting to their new circumstances is difficult at first…
In fact, he (Alexander) didn’t care about reading as much as he once had. Perhaps books had tantalized him only as a stolen luxury in the middle of a working day.
But then Alexander is struck by the idea of building a doll’s house; a hobby that completely engrosses him to the point of obsession. Cracks begin to appear in his relationship with Erik who is relegated to the role of cooking and cleaning, while Alexander continues to be absorbed in his newfound passion. And when Alexander strikes up a friendship with a man who shares his zeal for the doll house, Erik’s role in the household further diminishes, a development that has repercussions.
Accurate portrayal of a part in a play or film requires study and research and this path takes an unexpected and novel turn in “A Leading Role”.
It was the biggest part she’d ever been given, but it didn’t suit her, it didn’t speak to her.
In this tale, our protagonist, Maria Mickelson, is a theatre actress who is expected to portray a timid woman called Ellen, a proposition she considers challenging and difficult (“An insignificant, anxious, middle-aged woman, an obliterated creature without any personality whatsoever!”). But then she realizes that the role entrusted upon her bears an uncanny resemblance to the personality of her distant cousin, Frida. Taking advantage of the fact that Frida is enamoured by the glamour of the theatre milieu, Maria invites cousin Frida to spend a few days with her at their desolate house in the country.
It was early summer, and she had driven out to their country house to open it for the season. The weather was dreadful, an ice-cold fog as grey and impenetrable as the role of Ellen. Down by the dock, the reeds vanished out into the empty nothingness of the lake, and the spruce trees were black with moisture. The fog forced its way into the house and the fire wouldn’t burn.
The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation (“And Flora fell asleep on her fur coat and the day passed into evening and she awoke and drank a little champagne, just one glass so she could experience everything with that much greater clarity”), while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.
Given that Tove Jansson was an artist herself – writer and creator of the Moomin strips – it’s perhaps no surprise that art and artists dominate much of these stories. The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process – the joys of being good at what you do, and the perils of being devoted to it to the exclusion of everything else.
The characters in these tales are often isolated individuals treading an unfamiliar terrain and often at odds with the demands of the outer world. In a nutshell, Art in Nature is a lovely book, another gem from Jansson’s oeuvre.