Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room European Backpacking Challenge
Published in Swedish in 1991, and recently translated into English, Letters from Klara is a collection of short stories written by Tove Jansson in her seventies. The Summer Book and The True Deceiver are still my favourites of Jansson’s literature for adults (as though the Moomin books aren’t for adults), but this collection was a blessed relief after the shocker I just finished.
Letters from Klara is peppered with older women who don’t feel old, or feel as though they should be treated as old. Sometimes they are the protagonists, like Klara the letter writer, the Mama in A Trip to the Riviera, or sisters Ina and Ada, other times they are the disruptive element in the lives of people younger than them.
As is to be expected of Jansson, the characters are finely observed. Kati, the putative daughter-in-law in The Lily Pond, doesn’t say much, but we know exactly how she feels about her boyfriend Bertil’s mother. Robert, introduced as an art student, is revealed completely by Jansson’s framing of his absence. Jonna and Mari, two older women who spend their summers on a private island, play nice mum/mean mum with Lennert, the angry young man who crashes into their cottage having paddled his canoe out to sea because, he tells them, he wants to die.
Many of the stories explore human nature and the impact of the world around us on our ability to relate to each other. Three of the best in the collection are The Pictures, Emmelina, and My Friend Karin. The latter, only fourteen pages long, was a trigger for lots of thoughts.
The Pictures is a beautiful examination of repressed emotion. A father finds it hard to communicate with his son. The son, an artist, rarely speaks. He paints the same landscapes and still lives over and over, even at the artists’ commune in a foreign city. His father sees terrors, believes dangerous creatures are trying to get inside the house. He experienced terror during the war but believes that his son doesn’t want to understand him. Until finally his son does understand him. There’s something nightmarish about the story, something akin to Kafka’s The Castle. Jansson’s turn of phrase is perfect, summoning up visions such as the receptionist at the commune building.
Her face was small and tapered, with enormous eyes painted black. She was dressed self-consciously in the nonchalant offputting style which was that year’s sexual challenge. Victor thought her clothes indicated poverty.
Emmelina is a gothic wee tale about depression and the yearning for death that can leave you paralysed or bring random anger to the surface. You can read it as an allegory of the same ilk as Churchill’s Black Dog, or as a straightforward tale about unsolicited euthanasia.
My Friend Karin features the extended family of a minister to the royal court of Sweden, and their varying levels of acceptance of god. I liked how the narrator didn’t accept the things she was told, that she questioned the logic, such as the omniscience of god and Jesus and their plan to use Judas as their fallguy. I also liked the influence on her thinking by Uncle Olov.
Uncle Olov said once that they have a copyright on forgiveness, and what he meant was that you can’t take anyone else’s forgiveness seriously. He said to Mama once, “All that stuff about letting people be born in sin and giving them a bad conscience and then nobly forgiving them. What kind of nonsense is that?”
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m sure, I used to be a Christian. I was brought up to believe in the Bible as the actual word of God. As I grew older and the science bit of my brain started to apply logic, I struggled with that concept, but I found a church that was a community of people who found a way to view the Bible differently. As I grew older again and my experience of the world started to influence my thinking, I found that there was a lot that I couldn’t square. The whole thing of starting out in trouble like a naughty child, being expected to feel bad about it so that you are compelled to subjugate yourself to a higher power who then weighs up whether you feel bad enough and have done enough to change, before pronouncing you good again. So much of the way that I engage with the world is rooted in that principle. Over the months of therapy I’ve been having, I’ve realised that I’m constantly striving for other people’s approval (my dead parents, my husband, my family, my work colleagues, my friends) and feel crap about myself the instant that I feel like I’ve let someone down, no matter that their expectation might be unrealistic or that I’ve done enough to satisfy my own expectations. It’s no way to treat each other.
And then there’s the way that, for some people, no matter how much they live by the principles of Christianity, living selfless lives, loving other people, they end up being abused by those who also call themselves Christian or they suffer more hardship in life than it is necessary for anyone to suffer, and are told to suck it up because they’ll get their reward in heaven if they don’t make a fuss on earth.
I’m definitely with Uncle Olov. Uncle Hugo, Karin’s father, is the sort of fire and brimstone minister that I remember from the church I grew up in. He’s hardline. He tells his niece that Satan’s minions are everywhere, waiting for her bad thoughts, especially at bedtime. Because it’s always good to make a child terrified of going to bed.
The thing I like most about this story is the way that Jansson expresses her challenge to overbearing religiosity through the simplicity of a child’s understanding of the world. She reveals how easy it is for adults to burden a child with anxiety, with the best intentions at heart, and an undercurrent of passing on historic abuses beneath the surface. The narrator expresses it well.
As I sat in the shade of an acacia’s delicate foliage, I could see that the landscape, in all its horizontal dreariness, was nevertheless beautiful, and I thought about Uncle Hugo, what an unusually virtuous person he was and how he was only trying to help people live slightly purer lives in accordance with God’s intentions. That is, if any human being can venture to say what God’s intentions are.
This made me think about the way different religious sects interpret the Bible, and supplement it with their own rules for holy living. All of them, it seems to me, take their starting point not from the Bible but from a single man’s interpretation of the Bible, usually backed up by some kind of angelic or other divine manifestation. Moses and his burning bush. Joseph and the Angel Gabriel. Mohammed, John Wesley, Joseph Smith, L Ron Hubbard. All of them have ventured to say what God’s intentions are, and God’s intentions always match the way they think society should operate. None of them are willing to accept the complexity and diversity of humanity. There’s a storyline on Coronation Street at the moment. A Muslim woman has been cast out of her family because she is a lesbian. She is a nobody to her parents. She is the source of blame for everything that is going wrong because she has gone against God’s intentions. But who’s to say that it’s not God’s intention for a woman to love another woman and live a good life?
Next Jansson’s story carried that thought about religiosity and its political equivalents further. Uncle Hugo lives in a small town in the Rhine Valley. The town itself isn’t named but the nearby wood where he likes to walk is. Buchenwald became the site of one of the largest of the Nazi concentration camps and was later reused for the imprisonment of Soviet political prisoners. Jansson drops it into the story so casually, relying on her readers’ knowledge of 20th century history to make a connection between hardline beliefs, intolerance and mass killing. I read Marina Hyde’s comment article in response to Boris Johnson’s appalling, inflammatory, bigoted, hateful statements about Muslim women who wear the niqab (or the burqa as he calculatedly misnamed it). Her final paragraph is what I have been thinking for a while now. Since the EU Referendum. Since the last US Presidential election. I had a heated debate with a friend last week about the need to take collective action about what is going on, and the need to proactively change and resist the things we don’t like about the world. I was told that I was overdramatising, that I wasn’t always right, that my interpretation of how western society seems to be sleepwalking again into fascism was just an opinion. And that’s how it happens, because currently, as then, as always going back through history, it’s dressed up as the protection of good Christian people from the infidels of other religions, but it’s all about the rich and powerful screwing over the poor and vulnerable, while those of us who are comfortable and don’t want to lose those comforts look on, hiding behind words like ‘overdramatisation’ and ‘just an opinion’.
Jansson’s good. Her apparently gentle story about a girl growing up in Scandinavia between the two world wars has made me furious.
Towards the end of the story, she uses a conversation between the narrator and Karin to again hint at the dangers of extreme belief.
You don’t know. It comes like a waterfall, like music, you’re very close to the absolute and then it vanishes again. Mama doesn’t know, no one knows. All material things become superfluous, and you’re afraid.”
I asked cautiously, “But what are you planning to do with your life?”
Karin looked past me and said, “It’s a matter of loving, absolutely. First and foremost, God. And then your neighbour, your enemies, the smallest sparrow and blade of grass. Therefore,” she added, “I can’t afford and don’t have time to love those who expect me to love them. I’m forced to give them up.”
“But who is your neighbour?” I said. “We’re just ordinary people, after all. We like you, I mean, your family, your friends, your best friend.”
Who is your neighbour is a very good question.