An NYRB Classics Original
Tove Jansson was a master of brevity, unfolding worlds at a touch. Her art flourished in small settings, as can be seen in her bestselling novel The Summer Book and in her internationally celebrated cartoon strips and books about the Moomins. It is only natural, then, that throughout her life she turned again and again to the short story. The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is the first extensive selection of Jansson’s stories to appear in English.
Many of the stories collected here are pure Jansson, touching on island solitude and the dangerous pull of the artistic impulse: in “The Squirrel” the equanimity of the only inhabitant of a remote island is thrown by a visitor, in “The Summer Child” an unlovable boy is marooned along with his lively host family, in “The Cartoonist” an artist takes over a comic strip that has run for decades, and in “The Doll’s House” a man’s hobby threatens to overwhelm his life. Others explore unexpected territory: “Shopping” has a post-apocalyptic setting, “The Locomotive” centers on a railway-obsessed loner with murderous fantasies, and “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories” presents a case of disturbing transference. Unsentimental, yet always humane, Jansson’s stories complement and enlarge our understanding of a singular figure in world literature.
Like Jansson (The True Deceiver) herself, many of her protagonists are artists, be they illustrators and cartoonists or painters, authors, actors, architects, interior designers, or sculptors. Jansson frequently depicts people who in turn study human character, and her vignettes are remarkable for their cell-like precision. In "The Listener," she writes of an elderly woman who crafts an elaborate tree of family secrets; "Traveling Light" tells of a young man so burdened by others' confidences that he has tried to escape on a voyage at sea. She also studies alienation: people experiencing gradual estrangement from loved ones ("Black-White," "The Doll's House") and those imposing isolation on themselves ("The Storm," "The Squirrel"); in each case, she illustrates the growing rifts with vivid light/dark imagery. Jansson further explores surreal, dissociative themes, such as a man who becomes obsessed with his double ("The Other"), and, in the title story, a woman whose former roommate has co-opted her past. Themes range from madness to sweet reminiscence, murder to survival, in tales that are relentlessly observant. As she writes in "The Listener": "Probably few of us pay adequate attention to all the things constantly happening to the people we love "