Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Nature of Art

Some of you may well have heard of the name Tove Jansson in connection with her famous series of stories about the Moomins.  Others may even know that she went on to write works of fiction for grown-ups too.  However, I doubt that anyone is aware that I have a very big bone to pick with Ms. Jansson...

You see, I read Comet in Moominland when I was a child - at about the same time as Halley's Comet was being discussed on television, leaving me with the horrible feeling that the world was about to end.  Luckily, I (eventually) got over the trauma; otherwise, I could never have brought myself to try any more of Jansson's work ;)

All of which brings us to today's book, Art in Nature (review copy courtesy of Australian publishers Allen & Unwin), a short collection of stories linked loosely by the theme of art and artists.  Thomas Teal's excellent translation from the original Swedish, combined with a fairly light, playful style, makes this a book you can whisk through in a couple of reading sessions.  Despite this though, there's a lot below the surface for the reader prepared to dig a little deeper into Jansson's world...

Many of the stories focus on artists, creators of all kinds who are connected by their inability to separate their talents from their personal lives.  While this can lead the reader to sympathise with their plight, for example in the case of the titular hero of The Cartoonist (a man who is worried about exactly what happened to his predecessor), some of these people are simply not very nice.

In A Leading Role, a reasonably successful stage actress, about to take on her first major role, realises that the perfect model for the character she is to play is her cousin, a shy, dowdy, middle-aged woman.  The actress invites the cousin to spend some time in her summer house, where she proceeds to intimidate and bully her poor relative - just to see how she reacts under pressure...

This charming woman is nothing compared to another of Jansson's creations though.  The Locomotive is narrated by a nasty, unreliable character, a man who spends his spare time meticulously painting pictures of trains - despite never having been on one himself.  An habitual loner, he becomes obsessed with a woman he sees at the local station, only to turn on her when she starts to get a little too close.

The story is told as a series of diary entries, but the writer continually interrupts himself, unable to write down his ideas clearly enough for his liking.  At one point, he even decides to switch from first- to third-person, in order to achieve a more objective sense of detachment.  The actual effect is to heighten the feeling that the writer is a little detached from reality...

Several of the tales feature characters who have their best years behind them, and The White Lady, a story about a group of women out for an evening at an exclusive restaurant situated on an island, is probably the most telling of these.  A night that starts with levity and humour ends with the women feeling old and past it, faced with the reality of youth and beauty.  In a nice touch, the story ends with a heavy irony; as the friends wait for the boat to take them back to the city:

"Look!" May cried.  "There it comes.  Isn't it like Charon's ferry or something?  You like similes."
"By all means," Ellinor said.  She was tired and in no mood for anyone's similes but her own. (p.64)
I wonder how many writers secretly feel like this ;)

Although the English title of the collection is Art in Nature, the original Swedish-language version was named after another of the stories, The Doll's House.  This was one of my favourites, a story centred on a retired craftsman who decides to fill up his dull, empty days with a project to build a two-metre high edifice.  The project begins on a whim, organically, seemingly building itself, but once the craftsman starts, he is unable to cut corners:
"Alexander was in the grip of a passion for perfection.  He was not aware of how closely, how perilously, perfectionism and fanaticism are related." (p.76)
Gradually, the fanaticism begins to overshadow the perfectionism, causing some issues on the home front...

On the whole though, the title for the English-language edition is an apt one.  While not all the stories have art and artists as their focus, most of the better ones do, and the title story itself (the first of the collection) is actually a fitting summary of the book as a whole.  An old man is the caretaker of a temporary, outdoor art exhibition, a huge success which is scheduled to be wound up when the weather gets colder.  One night, when he discovers a couple who have stayed behind in the park to celebrate a new acquisition, we see that the artistic aura of the exhibition has rubbed off on him.  His thoughts as he gets ready to sleep that night could act as a motif for the whole collection:
"But what I said was completely right, he thought.  It's the mystery that's important, somehow very important." (p.21)
 And that mystery is the beauty of all art :)