Archive | January, 2013

Tove Jansson – the Complete Artist?

15 Jan

O to have but a tenth of the talent of Tove Jansson… I have just watched an inspirational BBC4 programme about the writer and artist on i-player. Starting out as a much-in-demand graphic artist, Jansson is best known as the author of the Moomin books that she wrote for children. As mentioned here before, I have been reading the Moomins to my own children in the order that the books were published, reacquainting myself with the magic of her stories and characters, her dialogue and illustrations. But there was much more to this remarkable woman than the children’s author.

I’ve always been in awe of the Renaissance Man or Woman. Part of my admiration for Rex Warner springs from this. As well as that great series of allegorical novels that he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s, Warner was a classicist, a poet, a children’s author and an essayist. In addition, he could be found in his local pub playing darts with the regulars. What a man! It’s also part of my fascination with Wyndham Lewis – artistic innovator and leader of  the Vorticist movement, writer of modernist novels (Tarr is a superb book, somewhat in the Ulysses mould) and memoirs, survivor of World War One’s trenches, poet and philosopher (though not always a wise one). It strikes me that Jansson belongs in this company.

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Scandinavian cityscape

Jansson was a highly accomplished writer of adult fiction, writing deceptively simple narratives in pared-down prose, sprinkled with beautiful images. I’ve described elsewhere how in second hand bookshops, I unearthed ancient and tattered copies of the two books of hers that had been published in English during the last century, The Summer Book and Sculptor’s Daughter (by coincidence, my late, great friend, Dyre Vaa Saetre’s mother was also a Scandinavian sculptor’s daughter, that of the renowned Norwegian sculptor, Dyre Vaa). In this century, the inestimable Sort of Books has been steadily publishing translations of Jansson’s other books. I’ve read them all and made a convert of my mother along the way. Perhaps the most revealing of them is The True Deceiver. In this novel, a writer and illustrator of children’s books (hmm, sounds familiar…) regrets that the beautifully executed backgrounds of her illustrations must always be adulterated with the fluffy animals that are the stars of the books. Two volumes of short stories are among them too, Travelling Light and Art in Nature, the latter of which I found to be much the more consistent. And yet Jansson’s writing for adults wasn’t published until she was 58. This in itself offers hope to the novelist struggling to find the time to write and attract publishers’ attention while the clock continues to tick away…

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Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures in Oslo’s Vigeland Park. Dyre Vaa is Norway’s second most famous sculptor…

The BBC4 documentary also made clear what a fabulous – if unfashionably figurative – painter Jansson was. One of the paintings featured, a wartime portrait of Tove and her family, retains tremendous power. To her constant frustration, this aspect of her work never really received its due. All of this and Jansson had a talent for life too. She was the hostess of wild artists’ parties, summer inhabitant of a remote and empty island, the great companion and love of her partner’s life… If you can track down this intriguing documentary, I recommend that you do so. In the meantime, both her children’s and adult’s fiction awaits.

Jansson looms large over my imaginative landscape. Her books have been with me since first year juniors (that’s age seven) when our teacher began reading Comet in Moominland to the class. In my last year at school (aged sixteen or so), I was rebuked by my form tutor – an English teacher – for reading The Exploits of Moominpapa during silent reading. How was she to know that I was also reading Orwell and Huxley? In my notionally Scandinavian-based novella about a would-be lighthouse keeper, the ghosts of the Moomins are never faraway. And below is a short extract that demonstrates it.

* * *

For the last two weeks of shore leave, he resolved to remain at home in his apartment in the evening. There’d be no changing his mind this time. It would give him more time to work on his book, or if he were honest, to avoid writing it.

He’d just begun re-reading Moominpappa at Sea. He found that he couldn’t remember that much about it. Was it the one where the surviving Moomins – Pappa, Sniff, Snufkin and Little My – revisited their summer retreat after the deaths of Moomintroll (in the Great War), the Snork Maiden (in childbirth) and Moominmamma (in unexplained circumstances)?  No, no, he was getting it mixed up with Woolf. He had read the first fifty pages. There was no comparison. The Moomins got straight down to business, reaching the lighthouse in the opening chapter, whereas the Ramsays, so far as he could remember, had spent most of the book sitting around, talking about the mere possibility of visiting the island.  They’d got there a good deal quicker than he had, come to that.   

It wasn’t fair, of course, to mention Woolf and Jansson in the same paragraph. Woolf set him in mind of the Fillyjonk; her writing was just so completely joyless. It had given him an idea, though. For the rest of the evening, he kept himself entertained re-working the modernist canon for children’s TV. There was Ulysses re-imagined as Pogles’ Wood, with Mr and Mrs Pogle as Leopold and Molly Bloom, and Pippin as Stephen Dedalus, a boy in search of a surrogate father.  Continuing the Homeric theme, there was the science fantasy version, 2001: A Space Odyssey, re-enacted by the Clangers (or possibly the cast of Button Moon).  Waiting for Godot seemed to have been written for the Flowerpot Men while The Wasteland was the perfect setting for the Wombles. He busied himself adapting some of the poem’s better known sections – London, the unreal city (‘Under a brown dog on a winter morn, a crowd strolled over Wimbledon Common’), the fortune-teller sequence (‘Madame Cholet, famous clairvoyant’) and the visions of Tiresias (‘And I Great Uncle Bulgaria have foresuffered all’). The evening simply flew by. There were just five days to go until his return to the lighthouse…

All text and images © PSR 2015

Working on Two Projects at Once: an update

11 Jan

I have worked hard over the years to increase my writing output. I have become all the more aware of the passage of time as I get older and my desire  has grown to complete as many as possible of the projects with which my imagination teems. So how have I tried to achieve this?

Around the turn of the century, I took work as a freelance music journalist in order to build up a writing CV. This work soon occupied most of the time that I’d freed up by going part-time in my ‘day job’.  At the time, I found this frustrating because it meant that I had almost no time for creative writing. Between 1995 and 2002, I produced nothing of publishable quality. On reflection, this experience helped me in two ways. Firstly, it allowed me finally to abandon the manuscript upon which I’d laboured during those years, my would-be ‘state of England’ novel. I had written 125,000 words that were leading nowhere. I had to let go of it. I came to realise that this was no bad thing and that I’d learned a great deal from the experience. Secondly, working for a music magazine had improved my efficiency as a writer. Being given a week in which to write the 9,000-word main feature on Black Sabbath, for example, works wonders for focussing the mind and for developing a more fluid and natural writing style. And reviewing classic albums in 200 words is a great way to hone the economy of your writing. As a result, over the next couple of years, I was able to produce two novellas and a clutch of short stories with which I was reasonably happy. I felt that this was my metier. And then came the idea for my big World War Two book and another six years spent on a single project… For all that, I don’t think I’d ever have been able to complete this project had I not become a much more focussed and methodical writer.

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The writing den

All of which brings us back to my latest strategy. In an earlier post (The Twin-Pronged Approach), I mentioned that since midsummer I’ve been working on two writing projects at once. One is thematically linked to my last completed manuscript and has a Cold War Setting. The other is a departure of sorts for me, set in and around a fictional east European state and with an unusual structure. Both were conceived some four years earlier but placed on the back-burner while I worked on my long novel with a World War Two setting. So over the summer holiday season, I worked on the Cold War project. I continued work on this until the end of October, when I had precisely 14,500 fairly well polished words. When I began to run out of steam on this project, as planned, I put it to one side and began work on the other. I have just spent a week out in my rural writing den and now have 17,500 words of this manuscript completed too. I’ve related before how pushed I am for writing time. In essence, I have one day a week in which to concentrate properly on my writing and the weeks that I get for annual leave. In addition to this, I write relatively slowly and meticulously, working to make each sentence count. So for me this represents pretty solid progress.

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The view from my writing den window in winter

So far, so good, then. It would appear that this approach is working for me. The test will come when the fictional country project runs into the buffers and I return to work on the Cold War project. Will I be able to pick up the thread? Will inspiration have returned? We shall see… Certainly, the fact that I tend to plan out in detail before embarking helps when picking up a project after some months since I effectively have a road map to show where it is heading. Some writers claim not to have a destination in mind and to be surprised by where their story takes them, by the things their characters do. Heaven knows where I’d be if I took that approach, and yet it must work for them. All of which goes to show that different things work for different writers. The one weekend that I spent on a creative writing course (led by two very good novelists) did nothing for me, but Kazuo Ishiguro, a writer whom I admire enormously, is the product of just such a process at the University of East Anglia’s creative writing school.

Happy reading and writing to all in 2013!

All text and images © PSR