Summer Reading Recap: Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man

Dorothy B. Hughes

I’m not often very good at making a to-read list and then sticking to it. More often than not, I go off course when one of my to-reads turns out to just not be what I’m in the mood for, or I run across an exciting and unexpected title and forgo things that have been gathering dust on my shelf in order to satisfy spontaneous curiosity. This is neither good or bad, as far as I’m concerned, it just tends to be how I read. But this summer, I actually made a to-read list (here), and I’ve done a decent job of  keeping up with it. Of the five books I listed, I’ve read two so far, starting with Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable ManMy brief and informal recap is below, and if you’re at all interested in Hughes’ work, you may also enjoy the following pieces on her work:

The Sultana of Subversion: Three Hardboiled Novels by Dorothy B. Hughes,” by Jenny McPhee, bookslut, June 2012.

An Unsung Heroine,” by Sarah Weinman, Bookslut, February 2004.

Fever Pitch,” by Ariel Swartley, Los Angeles Magazine, May 2004.

Dorothy B. Hughes, A Mystery Writer and Historian, 88,” New York Times Obit from 1993, written by William Grimes.

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I was primarily interested in Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man because it is a crime novel (written by a woman) set in Arizona and from the cover description, it sounded like the main character was in some way dubious or not what he seemed–I love those unreliable narrators. About 60 pages into the book, however, my expectations were completely turned on their head in one of the cleverest narrative twists I’ve read in some time.

I’m not often troubled by spoilers, but I won’t ruin this for anyone by going into the aforementioned twist in detail. Suffice to say that Hughes’ revelation is partially a revelation because it shouldn’t be one at all, and yet the dropping of one small fact changes everything you’ve read up to that point and contextualizes the rest of the novel in a far more meaningful way than your average ‘wrong-man’ scenario. She’s a gifted writer–her prose is spare but really descriptive when it needs to be, and she puts a great deal of empathy into her characterizations, which I think is pivotal in a good crime novel. Through her characters in The Expandable Man Hughes not only effectively conveys a sort of looming paranoia and tension–and the agonizing feeling that the person one most needs to escape is, perhaps, oneself–but also ably places both herself and her readers in the same frame of mind, which makes for a rather jittery reading experience. (In a good way, of course.)

I’ll also say that this is one of the best evocations I’ve read of Arizona since Betsy Thornton’s High Lonesome Road (makes sense–Hughes lived in New Mexico), and it’s particularly touching to read her descriptions of Phoenix on the verge of becoming the sprawling, overdeveloped, contentiously urban city that it is today. I loathe Phoenix as it is now–as it’s been since my childhood–and in some ways, that’s just the Tucsonan pride coming out. But in the 60s, when the book is set, Hughes describes a city which is not yet large enough that one can easily hide there, a city which is only just starting to raze the natural landscape for suburban housing developments and which still lays claim to meandering country roads winding next to canals shaded by mesquite trees.

I wasn’t totally sold on the way the plot wrapped up–there’s some last minute amateur sleuthing that is a little contrived–but this is beside the point. I will certainly be tracking down more of Hughes’ books soon–maybe next In a Lonely Place, which was turned into a movie with Humphrey Bogart.

From Arizona to Iceland: A Summer 2012 Reading List

In honor of the summer solstice today, I thought I’d put together a list of books I’m very much looking forward to reading this summer. A few of these are new releases (or soon-to-be releases), a couple are older titles. All of them should be entertaining, which is what you obviously want in a summer book–a blazing sun and 50%+ humidity can make it hard to focus on denser tomes–although not everything on this list is, perhaps, a traditional ‘beach read.’ I seem to have also planned myself an armchair world tour, starting in the U.S. and working my way half way around the world before I’m done.

Any particular book that you, dear readers, are looking forward to dipping into whilst poolside this summer?

The American Southwest

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

NYRB is bringing out this title by Hughes, a New Mexico-based mystery writer and critic (1904 – 1993), in July. I am not familiar with Hughes’ work (she was the author of 14 noirs and detective novels), but am intrigued by at least two other of her better-known works, the quirkily titled The Cross-Eyed Bear, and In a Lonely Place, which was made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The Expendable Man seems like a good place to start, though, particularly because I’m always on the look-out for books that accurately capture Arizona (my ‘homeland’). And the plot doesn’t sound half bad, either. From the description on the NYRB website:

“It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Denismore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

Switzerland, (East) Germany, Israel

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

I was delighted to receive a review copy of this title, forthcoming from Open Letter Press in September 2012. The book, which I’ve just started, is a sort of literary “Choose Your Own Adventure” loosely modeled “on the true story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose fabricated 1995 Holocaust memoir transfixed the reading public.” The Canvas contains two interconnected narratives which tell the respective tales of Jan Wechsler, a Jewish publisher and writer living in Berlin who receives a mysterious suitcase one Shabbos afternoon, and Amnon Zichroni, an Orthodox student of the Talmud who was born in Israel and is then sent to live with an uncle in Switzerland.

Part of the fun this book promises is the format–the two stories begin opposite and upside down from one another and read toward the center of the book. As it explains on the cover, “There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel. Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action. Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.”(For what it’s worth, I started with Jan Weschler’s story and already know that one of his opening chapters–in which he talks about the way books, particularly borrowed ones, are inexorably wrapped up in past memories–will remain with me for a long time. It’s just wonderful so far.)

Norway

It’s Fine by Me by Per Petterson, Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett

I believe that this book was already published in English in 2011, but Graywolf Press is bringing out another edition this coming October. It’s Fine by Me finds frequent Petterson stand-in Arvid Jansen (the narrator from the remarkable I Curse the River of Time and also In the Wake) in his youth, befriending Audun, a troubled new kid at his school who shares Arvid’s love of authors like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Per Tim Parks in The Guardian:

“…this edgy bildungsroman makes explicit what many will already have suspected: for Petterson, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter. For those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.”

I think Arvid Jansen is a marvelous, complicated character, and I think Petterson has done a remarkable thing in carrying him through multiple novels and multiple points of his life. (Also interesting is the fact that (I think) Arvid doesn’t actually narrate It’s Fine by Me–I think Audun does.) I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

England

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Another NYRB title, Angel is the story of a dreamy shopgirl in Edwardian England who rises above her circumstances to become a successful author wealthy manor-mistress. I’ll be coming to this book with prior–although perhaps inaccurate–expectations: it was the basis for François Ozon’s opulent, lavishly campy romp of a film, starring Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender. I don’t know how the movie relates to the source novel yet, but on its own, its a rather delightful feat of melodrama, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I certainly am.

Based on what I’ve read about Taylor and Angel–Sam Jordison’s recent post in The Guardian’s Books Blog, “Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor–the brilliant novelist,” is good for quick context–I won’t be surprised if the novel strikes a more serious, reflective tone, but either way, I’ll definitely be interested in comparing the original and its adaptation.

Iceland

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson)

I’m slowly but surely working my way through the cornerstones of Icelandic literature–the Sagas and the novels of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate to date, Halldór Laxness. Thus far, I’ve read The Great Weaver from Kashmir, one of Halldór’s early novels and certainly an interesting introduction to his oeuvre, even if it isn’t one of his ‘larger’ works. I’ve also read (and loved) Under the Glacier, which contains one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity.”

I’ve read about half each of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, and was greatly enjoying both when I got distracted in my reading–not finishing in these instances is not indicative of the books’ quality, for sure. But until I get the beginning of both of these half-read novels out of my head so that I can start them again fresh, I would like to read another one of Halldór’s ‘lighter’ novels. The Fish Can Sing, set in the small settlement of Brekkukot and told through the eyes of the orphan Álfgrímur, who–from what I can tell from pieced-together summaries–spends the book reflecting on his simple upbringing, storytelling, and the larger, (Danish) world outside of Brekkukot . I believe there’s an opera singer involved, too.

This is perhaps a measly pitch for reading the book, but it sounds wonderful to me. There’s a good review by M.A. Orthofer over at The Complete Review, and that site also archives a number of other reviews of the book, too.


Damion Searls and Joseph O’Neill Discuss Amsterdam Stories

On Monday, I had the pleasure of attending a reading–at my local lit hub, Greenlight Bookstore–of selections from Dutch author Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories, followed by a talk between translator Damion Searls and author Joseph O’Neill (Netherland), who lived in The Netherlands as a child and also wrote the collection’s introduction. Preceded by a casual jenever tasting (jenever being the ‘whiskey of The Netherlands,’ but certainly an aquired taste…)  it was a really animated and interesting talk with lots of great anecdotes and insights about the Dutch cultural imagination, translation practice, and Nescio.

I wanted to share some of the highlights that I scribbled down in a notebook during the event, and also encourage New Yorkers with an interest in any of the above topics to attend Searls and O’Neill’s upcoming reading and talk at 192 Books next Tuesday, April 24, at 7:00 PM. 192 Books is a great shop, but it’s tiny, so if you plan on attending, take the advice on the website and RSVP for the reading at 212.255.4022. (Any of you Dutch-lit enthusiasts in Boston and the San Francisco Bay area should also check the NYRB Events calendar–there will be a number of events promoting Amsterdam Stories in both places over the next month or so.)

For reference, I reviewed Amsterdam Stories for The L Magazine recently. My review is here.

On to the talk highlights:

Nescio and His Counterparts

Joseph O’Neill read from what is, as far as I can tell, Nescio’s most famous story, “The Freeloader,” after which Damion Searls nominated him to narrate any forthcoming audio versions. (I can confirm: O’Neill does have a very soothing reading voice.) Searls then read a few pages of “Young Titans,” which is about many of the same characters (and is one of my personal favorites in the collection).

Both selections inspired their readers to make some contextual comparisons between Nescio and some of his “accidental contemporaries” (as O’Neill put it). For his part, O’Neill evoked Kafka, discussing the “existential dilemma of the clerical worker” that permeates both Kafka and Nescio’s work (although Nescio was more successful actually holding down such a job), as well as Robert Walser (which Searls seconded). O’Neill cited (the freeloader) Japi’s famous line–“I am, thank god, absolutely nothing”–as being a classic Walser statement; that line made me and probably many others think of Melville’s Bartelby (“I prefer not to.”) Searls made comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald and more notably, Mark Twain.

The Twain comparison was particularly interesting, for one, because the frequently held Dutch opinion that Nescio’s work is “untranslatable” is derived in great part from its colloquial style and phrasing–its “Amsterdam-style of Dutch.” Searls said that, in Dutch, Nescio’s writing reads a lot like Huck Finn.

The ‘Untranslatability’ of Nescio (and the concept of untranslatability in general…)

As I mentioned above, there has been a sense among many Dutch readers that Nescio was somehow ‘untranslatable,’ that his prose and stylistic qualities simply could not be replicated in another language. Searls took a very practical stance on this (much like that of David Bellos, in his recent book on translation, I might add). “The thing about translating, Joe,” he quipped to O’Neill, “is that nothing is untranslatable–you just have to decide what you care about and what you don’t.” He continued, saying that when he spent time and ‘read into’ Nescio’s work, he concluded that in one example, “contractions–not so important,” but rather, for the purposes of the English translation, the overall tone was what mattered most.

(For what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly subscribe to this perspective. )

Searl’s Involvement in the Nescio Translation

Although Nescio is still a huge deal in The Netherlands–someone pointed out that if every Dutch person hasn’t read his stories, it’s probably the case that they were assigned to read him in school, but skipped it–his work has never been translated into English before. There was some speculation that the Nescio estate was extremely cautious (‘maybe too cautious’) in allowing an English translation because it would likely be the source text–rather than the original Dutch–from which further translations into Chinese or other languages would be made.

Searls was introduced to Nescio while at a writing retreat in a Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. Since his primary second language (get that?) is German, he found a copy of Nescio’s stories in German and read that first. He loved it, and so decided to pick up the Dutch original to “see if [he] could handle it.”

Alongside his German translations, Searls has also translated from French and Norwegian (the latter of which he said–delightfully–that he learned basically just so that he could translate the author Jon Fosse, who he “thinks is really great.”) Amsterdam Stories is Searls’ first translation from Dutch, and while he doesn’t have speaking fluency in the language, his grounding in German allowed him to develop a comfort in written Dutch with relative ease.

Nescio in the Dutch Cultural Imagination

Image of De Titaantjes (sculptor: Hans Baayens) via Akbar Sim on Flickr.

The point that Nescio’s characters and writing still hold a place in the Dutch imagination came up several times. A couple notable examples of this:

  • A sculpture of his ‘young titans,’ in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark (see above image).
  • A Dutch pop band called The Nits had their biggest hit with the 1983 song “Nescio” (NYRB’s Tumblr has a video of the band performing the song here.)
  • [This didn’t come up during the talk, but is worth mentioning…] As recently as 2007, a newspaper survey of Dutch readers included his major short story collection in list of the ten Best Dutch Novels of all time

Searls noted that every Dutch person he’s ever met has known Nescio’s writing. Toward the end of the short Q&A that closed the event, he also related the best anecdote of the evening–a recent episode in which a Dutch man living in New York told him that “there is a bench in Red Hook that feels like Nescio!” that the man took took his father to visit  when he was in town.

Which, after reading Amsterdam Stories, I can totally understand. I might have to make a pilgrimage myself one of these days.

Amsterdam Stories

My latest review (on The L Magazine website here) is of the Dutch short story collection Amsterdam Stories by Nescio.

Nescio (“I don’t know” in Latin) was the pen name of businessman J.H.F Grönloh, who, born at the end of the 19th century and dying in the 1960s, lived through a rather fascinating time period in the world, which is certainly reflected in his writing. He wasn’t a prolific author by any means, but he is beloved to this day in his home country–as recently as 2007, a newspaper survey of Dutch readers included his major short story collection in list of the ten Best Dutch Novels of all time (“novels” is a bit of a misnomer, but still).

A few reviews/articles of interest related to Nescio:

“I am nothing and I do nothing”: On the Untranslated Nescio
An article on Bookslut written by Kevin McNeer, prior to the NYRB publication of Amsterdam Stories

Amsterdam Stories reviewed on The Complete Review

Amsterdam Stories reviewed in the KGB Bar & Lit Journal

My own review is below.

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A slim collection of novellas, short stories, and excerpts from an unfinished novel, Amsterdam Stories introduces English readers to the complete works of Nescio, one of the most beloved Dutch authors. Neither a particularly prolific nor commercially successful author during his lifetime, Nescio’s fiction now resonates as a love song to Amsterdam, a snapshot of The Netherlands in an era of profound change, and a bittersweet reflection on talent and youth fallen short of its promise.

Latin for “I don’t know,” Nescio was the pseudonym of J.H.F Grönloh (1882-1961), a co-director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In his professional life, Nescio embodied the middling bourgeois existence that haunts nearly all of his bohemian characters. Four of the best pieces in Amsterdam Stories explore this tension and follow the lives of a motley group of disaffected artists, including Koekebakker, a struggling journalist, and Bavnik, a self-deprecating painter.

In “The Freeloader,” Bavnik befriends Japi, an echo of Melville’s Bartleby who declares “I am nothing and I do nothing.” This pursuit intrigues as much as irks his acquaintances, each of whom is attempting to evade the numbing grind of office jobs and banal respectability. The story also showcases Nescio’s poetic use of language and lyrical repetitions: “The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal…”

Koekebakker narrates in retrospect, balancing light-hearted nostalgia with loss. “We were on top of the world, and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily,” he sighs in “Young Titans.” And yet, even though these young men were poor, working jobs which “confiscated the better part of our time… [and] kept us out of the sunshine,” even though Bavnik couldn’t paint the world as he really saw it, and their hopes came to nothing—the wonder of this age of possibility is clearly what matters to him in the end.

The romantic undertone of the Koekebakker stories may be attributable to the time of their writing—all between 1909 and 1914, prior to World War I. Contrast this with the “world in tatters” that Nescio describes in the astounding “Insula Dei,” which was written and set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Where his young artists spent their days wandering outside Amsterdam, admiring the setting sun “blazing yellow” on the dikes, “Insula Dei” finds its narrator, Dikschei, freezing on a “gray, icy day” waiting for a meager share of milk at the market. Meeting an ailing old friend, Dikschei takes him to a cafe, splurging his ration tickets on bread and ham. “These aren’t the first eventful times I’ve lived through,” he says, resigned. “[A]nd if I’m granted even more years… I will most likely get to my third war.” But in his friend’s declaration that he is “an island,” that no man can himself be occupied, Dikschei recognizes and embraces a quiet self-possession, an internal rebellion against forces beyond one’s control.

Fair Play

My most recent review is of Tove Jansson’s Fair Play a lovely collection of semi-autobiographical vignettes about two aging artist-companions living on an island off the coast of Finland. One can easily draw links between the stories about Jonna and Mari to Jansson and her own partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived, worked, and traveled for the better part of her adult life. However, the relationship portrayed in the book transcends direct corelation and more broadly–and beautifully–speaks to the tenuous balance of creating art and building a meaningful, lifelong relationship with another person.

Fair Play, like True Deceiver, which I reviewed last year, is a difficult book to write about. If this seems to imply that it is a “difficult read” or in any way not enjoyable–it doesn’t. Rather, Fair Play is truly lovely–a vibrant, enjoyable reading experience for Jansson’s clear and elegant prose and her subtly perceptive observations. But it is much more complex and rich than might immediately come across after you first finish the book. As Ali Smith discusses in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson’s work can be characterized by its “mysterious transparency.” Moreover, some of the most profound moments in the book take place in the spaces between conversation and revelation–in what goes unsaid. To quote Ali Smith again:

A lot isn’t said. “Don’t tell me things I already know,” one says to the other amiably. There’s a lot that doesn’t need to be said out loud. It’s a novel with a profound sense of discretion at its core. But the flip side of silence is voice, and the flip side of nothing much happening, as always with Jansson, is that absolutely everything is happening.

The other element that is worth drawing attention to is Thomas Teal’s absolutely seamless translation. Smith again:

The “blend of perfectionism and nonchalance” that Mari sees in Jonna is apparent all through Jansson’s own writing style–perfectly caught itself by Thomas Teal, a luminous translator of Jansson’s twin talent for surface and depth, simplicity and reverberation in language, and someone who knows how to convey her gift for sensing the meaning in the most mundane act or turn of phrase.

In summation, Jansson’s novels have been some of my most valued reading experiences over the last couple of years. We’re lucky that NYRB has made a mission of translating her previously unavailable “adult” novels. I’ve yet to read her Summer Book–although it’s been on my bookshelf since several Christmases ago–and if anything, Fair Play has made me look forward to dipping into that previous novel when the weather finally turns warm again.

My review of Fair Play was published on Three Percent. You can read it on their website, or see the full text below.

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“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Tove Jansson is most often recognized as a children’s author and illustrator—the visionary behind those delightful marshmallow hippos called “Moomins.” Her adult novels, which she didn’t begin publishing until she was nearly 60, have until recently remained very much in the shadow of the Moomin legacy. Fair Play is the most recent of Jansson’s ‘adult’ novels that New York Review Books has brought into English translation, following last year’s True Deceiver and 2008’s The Summer Book. The collection picks up two of the major thematic elements that run through each of its predecessors, namely the relationship between two women, explored against the back drop of a remote, idyllic setting. (True Deceiver was set in a snow-bound mountain village; The Summer Book on a small island in the Finnish gulf.) And as with the previous NYRB titles, Fair Play also draws on autobiographical inspiration: in this case, Jansson’s lifelong relationship with her partner, a Finnish artist and scholar named Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived for the better part of 40 years.

Each chapter in Fair Play serves as a snapshot, a brief window into the relationship between the frank and opinionated Jonna and the reserved and introspective Mari. Their day-to-day lives are quiet and happily mundane: they watch Fassbinder movies instead of going to dinner at a friend’s in the evening (with all its “pointless chatter about inessentials”). They re-hang pictures. They travel frequently, though their points of destination are often less than glamorous. On one trip through the American southwest, they spend a few nights at a local bar in Phoenix, Arizona; while in Corsica, one of their main destinations is a cemetery. They bicker frequently, and aren’t above childish jealousy or the occasional resentment. But mostly, they work, comfortable enough with the constancy of the other’s presence and support to spend the majority of their days writing and painting alone.

In “Videomania,” we’re told that Jonna and Mari “. . . lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s-land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side.”

Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains . . . They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

It’s in the couple’s companionable solitude that Jansson defines her ethos of artistic creation, a deeply felt belief about the importance of maintaining one’s personal life without sacrificing her creative work, and the substantial space that is required to successfully balance both spheres.

Despite the quietude of Fair Play, it is nevertheless a work of remarkable courage. Jansson’s is not the flashy sort of artistic boldness that proclaims itself by way of constant transparency and self-revelation. Rather, she is brave enough to occasionally withhold information, to provide confidential glimpses into her characters’ lives, while still maintaining a distance from them—a sort of respectful privacy. She doesn’t outline the women’s romantic lives—we don’t find them in bed together, or even see them embrace. Jonna and Mari don’t articulate their love for each other directly, although they certainly reflect on their feelings internally.

Fair Play is after all, a book about separation and space as much as it is about intimacy. “We need distance,” Jonna tells Mari, “it’s essential.” The reader is allowed a closeness to these remarkable women, but in the end, their relationship is like any one in real life: private and fully known only to those who are within it.

The True Deceiver

The New York Review of Books recently published a translation of Tove Jannsson’s The True Deceiver, which I reviewed for The L Magazine. (Review here.) Although I’ve had a copy of Jansson’s The Summer Book (also published by NYRB) on my to-have-read list for some time, my only real familiarity with her work is, of course, her Moomin books. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a great review of The True Deceiver for The Guardian. She really gets at the connection between Jansson’s adult fiction and work for children. I highly recommend her review, which can be read here.

The full text for my own review is below.

***

Although Finnish author Tove Jansson is best known as the creator of the “Moomin” characters—a family of comic-strip trolls resembling marshmallow hippos—she also wrote well-respected adult novels. Appropriate for the dark days of winter, Jansson’s The True Deceiver is a foreboding tale of conflicting egos and misapprehension which ultimately suggests that all human relationships must necessarily be built on some measure of (self-) deception.

The novel opens on a young woman named Katri Kling in an isolated, snowbound village. “Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness,” Katri muses. “[Y]ou’re screened from everything… You wait and hide like a tree.” Both entrenched in village affairs and separated from them, so Katri has hidden for years. Unflinchingly honest, she reviles “flattery [and] empty adjectives, the whole sloppy disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want…” But despite her candor, Katri protects her own furtive motive: to situate herself and her beloved younger brother in the home of Anna Aemelin, an elderly (and wealthy) children’s illustrator.

Gaining Anna’s trust through dubious means, Katri becomes a domineering housemate: she orders Anna’s groceries, cleans out her attic and takes over her finances. But despite obliging Anna’s “uncommon ability to forget unpleasant things,” it becomes clear that she is no victim. A power struggle follows, both women fighting to disrupt the other’s sincerest convictions.

The novel’s mounting tension relies on Jansson’s taut prose. Hopping among perspectives and alternating between passages of frenetic rambling and monosyllabic dialogue, Jansson encapsulates both women’s troubled self-realizations and the weight of the season. But as the winter wanes, so does the animosity. With spring approaching, the women come to a sort of strained acceptance. “Are you trying to be nice to me?” Anna asks after an unexpected confession. “Now you’re suspicious,” Katri replies. “But there’s one thing you can believe. I never try to be nice.”