Sort Of Books’ newest publication is the first English translation of Tove Jansson’s first short story collection, The Listener, which was first published in Finland in 1971. 2014 marks the author’s centenary, and what better way to celebrate than in picking up one of her stunning books?
As with several other works of Jansson’s upon the Sort Of Books list – The Summer Book, Fair Play and The True Deceiver, to be precise – Thomas Teal was responsible for the flawless translation of the collection. The book’s blurb states that in The Listener, Jansson ‘revealed the clarity of vision and light philosophical touch that were to become her hallmark’. It goes on to herald the collection as ‘a tour de force of scalpel-sharp narration that takes us from a disquieting homage to the artist Edward Gorey, to perfect evocations of childhood innocence and recklessness’.
The Listener is comprised of eighteen tales in all, and as ever, the difference between each and every one is striking. The stories are of varying lengths, and beautiful vignettes which run to just three or four pages sit alongside longer character studies. In the title story, the ‘listener’ is Aunt Gerda, who was ‘fifty-five when it began, and the first sign of change was in her letters. They grew impersonal.’ The narrator goes on to say: ‘When a person loses what might be called her essence – the expression of her most beautiful quality – it sometimes happens that the alteration widens and deepens and with frightening speed overwhelms her entire personality. This is what happened to Aunt Gerda’. Later stories focus upon such things as freak weather conditions, growing up, and sharing one’s private island with a wayward squirrel.
Throughout, Jansson’s turns of phrase are beautiful, and each has been translated with such care: ‘In essence, Aunt Gerda was not much more than silence’, ‘The nights were luminous – the transparent, lingering blue that comes with spring’, and the description of a man’s cap as being ‘little more than a leaf that had floated down onto his hair’, for example. The author finds beautiy in absolutely everything, from the most simple of everyday tasks, to the nature which surrounded her. She makes even the mundane and commonplace endlessly fascinating, and is shrewd, profound and articulate in each and every story.
Jansson’s work is always incredibly perceptive, particularly with regard to her younger characters. The portrait of the young girl in ‘Unloading Sand’, for instance, is utterly sublime, and Jansson marvellously captures her vivacity: ‘With each step she moved further from the cottage, running and chewing, down to the shore and over the stones, jumping and skipping, precise, eating the whole way’. Nature is prevalent throughout The Listener, as is the exploration into intricacies of relationships, and the attention given to art and those who make it. The Listener is a stunning collection which is just as strong as Jansson’s later work, and it is sure to be adored by all of those who encounter it.