26 August 2012

The novelist as editor: Fair Play by Tove Jansson

Fair Play (1989) by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (Sort Of Books, 2007)

Fair Play is about two women-artists, one writer and one filmmaker, who are life-long friends and who try to make sense of their lives through art. Their relationship is told in vignettes describing their work and life in a seaside house and their constant engagement with different art forms: film, painting, literature, and photography.

That doesn't look very appealing based on synopsis alone. But the Finnish author Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is a peerless practitioner of concision. Her work is precise and tightly edited, making no room for anything that will destroy the whole composition. A seemingly extraneous detail must be thrown away; it is simply "idiotic" to let it stay. The principle is laid out early on while Jonna, the filmmaker, helps Mari arrange the pictures on her walls: "That pretty mirror is idiotic, it doesn't belong, we have to keep it austere. The sword's okay, if a little pathetic. Here, measure – it'll be seven, or six and a half. Give me the awl." No excess, no nonsense.

   "I know," she said, "rejection's not easy. But you reject words, whole pages, long impossible stories, and it feels good once it's done. It's no different rejecting pictures, a picture's right to hang on a wall. And most of these have hung here too long; you don't even see them any more. The best stuff you have, you don't see any more. And they kill each other because they're badly hung. Look, here's a thing of mine and here's your drawing, and they clash. We need distance, it's essential. And different periods need distance to set them apart – unless you're just cramming them together for the shock effect! You simply have to feel it... There should be an element of surprise when people's eyes move across a wall covered with pictures. We don't want to make it too easy for them. Let them catch their breath and look again because they can't help it. Make them think, make them mad, even..."

The prose itself follows this aesthetic of ruthless editing. Crop the unwanted stuff, emphasize the best parts, arrange things strategically, allow freedom of space, be intuitive, be instinctive, don't dumb down things for people, make them think, make them mad.

This is not a call for minimalism for the sake of minimalism, however. This is a thinking, pulsing piece. It's not entirely averse to the "irrational" and hodgepodge, but those tendencies must be required by genius in order to be permitted in a work of art. The great film directors, according to Mari, know all about the irrational. They use ill-fitting things for a purpose, to make a whole, to make a point. They know what they want to show. Their apparent quirkiness is part of the play.

In Fair Play, the barriers of art, work, and life are fluid. The characters' work ethic dictates the form and content of the art they create and the moral imperatives they set for themselves. A life-style of discovery and contemplation seems to be the ideal way to set one's self into the world.

Jansson's short pieces usually begin with a simple conflict, then the quirks and seemingly out of touch behavior of her characters are set off against that conflict ("It was excellent bringing in an irrational detail," Jonna said of a detail that seems out of place in a movie.), and then after an understated resolution the stories end with a seemingly harmless sentence – e.g., "They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn't look the same." – that does not sound in the least bit arbitrary but very wise and full of import given the intelligence and perception she invested in the simple telling.

"Endings can be really hard," Mari said of stories. Jansson's other strength is in stating the obvious but giving them a little tweak. Her sentence endings usually have a feel for the double entendre. It's obvious that a lot goes into thinking how to end emphatically but she makes the final sentence a unitary element of the whole.

   It was a very small bar, long and narrow with a pool table in the back. Annie herself tended the bar, the jukebox played constantly, and people came in steadily and greeted one another in passing as if they'd seen each other an hour ago, which perhaps they had. No ladies among the clientele.
   The friendly crowding, the jukebox, the pool balls clicking from the curtained-off section of the room, a sudden laugh in the even flood of conversation, a voice being raised to object or explain, and people coming in the whole time and somehow finding space. Annie worked as if possessed but with no traces of nerves, her smile was her own, and the fact that she was hurrying did not mean time was short.

We realize from the end of that passage ("the fact that she was hurrying did not mean time was short") that Annie's natural energy through all that hustle is partly derived from her love of her work and place. But we recognize it as we assess the whole room, visualize the atmosphere in the bar; all the details (the crowd, bar, jukebox, pool table, laughing, and conversation) clicking into their proper places.

In omitting the unnecessary and reducing things to their bare essentials, Jansson is the perfect model of Strunk & White school of writing. They would have gladly indorsed the novelist's clear and bright prose free of artificial darknesses.

   The picture went black and stayed black for a long time. Several weak flashes of light, nothing more, and the screen was empty.
   Mari said, "You have to cut that; no one will get it. It was too dark."

Art appreciation, and an uncompromising principle of art editing, nourish Jonna and Mari even as their friendship and love sustain them both. Readers of the novel can sense all these from a prose of high polish. Catch your breath. The wonder on offer is as limpid as a seascape under clear skies watercolor.


  1. Interesting, I never knew Jansson (d. 2001) wrote anything other than the excellent Momminpapa books for children, including her 1946 'Comet in Moominland'(an allegory of nuclear weapons according to Wikipedia) the first in a charming series of books which encouraged my life-long love of reading several decades ago now.

  2. Yeah, she branched out into novels for adults. I have yet to come across her Moomin series. The True Deceiver and The Summer Book I want to get into at some point.

  3. Another writer I've yet to read although was aware of moomins, through the TV series http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eZRwv-He54.

  4. Thanks for the link, Gary. I didn't know they were adapted for TV.

  5. Nicely done post, Rise. I haven't read this yet, but did read Jansson's The Summer Book, and your last line seems to capture the tone of Jansson's writing beautifully.

    By sheer coincidence I just sent a copy of Comet in Moominland to my 7-year old goddaughter, since at her age I'd been addicted to the Moomin books, and that's the one that still sticks in my mind.

  6. Thanks, Scott. Comet in Moominland seems like a perfect gift suggestion.

  7. Rise - you may also be interested in listening to Jansson's quite unique "Moomin" songs - strangely mesmerizing (and available on iTunes in the album "Moomin Voices").

  8. Thanks again! Methinks the Moominland is a complete universe.