Friday, August 13, 2010

Jansson's True Deceiver

NY: NYRB, c2009.
181 p.

I've been hearing so much of Tove Jansson over the last while, especially since the New York Review of Books began issuing a few of her adult books in translation. This is the one that my library system had -- I am still looking out for both the Summer Book and the Winter Book. This particular novel has an intriguing cover, one designed by Tove Jansson for this book when she published it originally, in 1982.

It is really a story of two women: Katri Kling, a rather abrupt and unsociable woman who lives with her brother, and Anna Aemelin, a children's book illustrator who lives alone in her big old family home. Katri is practical to a fault; no-one really likes her, but they respect her skill with numbers and her completely disinterested arbitration in village disagreements. She has it in her mind that she will secure a place for herself and for her innocent brother by moving them into Anna Aemelin's house; after all it is far too big for just one old woman. To that end, she puts herself at the service of Anna, slowly and bit by bit, playing a deep game. Anna is a meek, naive woman who spends her time painting the forest floor extraordinarily well and then adding in flowery bunnies to suit her publishers. It is these flowery bunnies that have made her name, resulting in a good income and many, constant, fan letters.

Katri brings her business sense and general distrust of humanity to bear on Anna's dealings, rewriting contracts and settling fan letter responses logically and to the most advantage for Anna. However, Katri of course wants some benefit; she wants to share in the vastly improved income her efforts are bringing in for Anna. To Katri's credit, her goal is always to improve Mats' life, to secure a safe living space and bring him his dream of owning a boat of his own.

The book details the balancing act between these two women throughout a long, cold, and endlessly snowy winter. Anna goes into a sort of hibernation in the winter, sleeping through most of it and waiting for spring so she can go out into the woods and paint again. Katri is cold and dispassionate, rather like the weather. They come to a point where Katri seems to be in control -- but then Spring arrives, and the warming and the growth shake up the delicate balance, revealing Katri to have a heretofore unnoticed heart, while revealing Anna is not quite the naive, bunny-like creature she has always appeared to be. They have each changed the other: infected one another with their particular weakness, or added their own strength to the other's personality, depending on your viewpoint. It is all subtly told, with shadings of meaning in each sentence, and tiny events shaping the relationship between these women and all the townspeople.

The final question appears to be, who is the true deceiver? Which of all these people can be said to be wholly transparent? And is it best or easiest to live with other people, or without them? This is a wonderful novel that explores all these topics obliquely, without proclaiming any set answer. It reads as slowly and majestically as a winter storm, opaque yet with sudden swirls of violence that open up unexpected vistas. Really a wonderful work that proves you can't be satisfied thinking of Tove Jansson as just the author of the Moomintroll books, delightful as they are. One of the many quotes I copied out, of particular interest to the bookish:

The books still lay on the table, brand new, shiny in their tempting adventure colors. They smelled good. Anna raised one book after another to her cheek and inhaled the evanescent smell of unread book, unlike any other.

You can also find a fabulous online museum dedicated to Tove Jansson with lots of family history and her artwork. Even if the only Jansson you've ever seen is the Moomintrolls, do take a look. Beware, you can spend quite a bit of time there!

Other Opinions:

Emily Jane at Booked All Week says "The story seems a simple tale of deception, but it also deals with the complex themes of creativity, artistic representation vs. reality, and our general attitudes toward dealing with others in such a way that lends a sort of validating weight to this small book."

Ess at Book Handler states that "What this post comes down to is that you need to read "The True Deceiver" by Tove Jansson" and provides quotes to back it up

Swampwalker says "It’s a deceptively simple plot, and a small book, but I understand why the NYRB brought it back and why so many people rave about it"


  1. This sounds like a good one, thank you!

  2. Thank you so much for the link! And also drawing my attention to Tove Jansson's online're right, I am going to spend quite a bit of time there! I had no idea she was such a lovely painter.

  3. I'm really curious about Jansson, as I've heard her name mentioned enough times now. Your description of the book makes it sound really interesting -- I'll have to give her a try.

  4. I've got this one on my shelf to read, though I haven't read it yet. I'm QUITE excited, though- I have heard nothing but good things about Jansson :-)

  5. Lisa - yes, it's good...I like the way her writing is so different in its basic assumptions about people and social expectations. That's one of my favourite things about work in translation.

    Emily Jane - I'm so glad to have come across your blog via this book! I was also surprised to find the online museum, and delighted.

    Dorothy - I was impressed by the quiet atmosphere of the book; like the hushed and inward looking feeling of a blizzard really - quite suitable to the story.

    Aarti - Lucky you to have it on hand for just the right moment! Hope you will enjoy it as well.


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