Tove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, because she is wild, dreamy, flinty, and if her novels are to be believed, sensibly unafraid of all peoplTove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, because she is wild, dreamy, flinty, and if her novels are to be believed, sensibly unafraid of all people, and completely unconcerned about their thoughts and judgements. She seems to be a mad, sweet loner, a people-watching misanthrope, who loved and tried to understand the individuals who bothered to approach her.
Jansson was a Fenno-Swede, meaning she was part of a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. White on white in a translucent wonderland, right?
Regardless of whether subtle distinctions inform her work, she's most well-known for her children's novels and comics about a family of hippopotamus-like creatures called Moomins, which is an international cartoon brand on par with Barapapa.
Later in life, Jansson wrote a series of novels, ostensibly for adults. I like these more, since her singular voice, full of gentle harshness, is more direct. It is the same voice, but without a gloss for children. In her adult novels, she calmly observes more absurdity, more madness, and more people behaving in very irrational but typical modes, unmediated by the sweetness of cartoon figments.
Sun City centers around a retirement home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Of all places, a Fenno-swede decided to write about my university town! I knew it was a book about the elderly, but the setting really surprised me. At the liberal arts school I attended, there were retirement homes and senior condominiums nearby, some with overlapping economic interests, board members, and nebulous but vaguely shady though clearly contractual links to the college. Certain famous though obscure people retired to these places. I remember Peter Handke's name adorned plaques and symposia materials around the college. Though I never did see him in person, it was clear that he was a resident nearby, and to stave off boredom, he occasionally came over to participate in academic matters as some sort of unofficial writer emeritus. In another such exchange, a friend and I had dinner with a retired Broadway actress. She'd married old money and settled nearby and liked to regale college students with stories of transatlantic New York City, using "cookie" as a term of endearment for everyone.
Sun City reminded me of these strange but genuine undercurrents that run between the main population of retirees and everyone else in Florida coastal towns. How the Florida coast is God's waiting room. How all sorts of people from everywhere shed their once-glamorous skins or sell off their businesses, and since they can't afford California living or are just too weird for that other sunny state, they rock in rocking chairs, passing the rest of their time in Florida. The book is a collection of some such retirees, living together, and gently tormenting one another with their opposing quirks. There's even a once-famous character, much like the old Broadway star, milling among the philistines of his generation, polite, patient, and completely forgotten. Did Jansson at one time occupy this role as a strange, wild-eyed Nordic retiree who did something vaguely fantastic but obscure, known to no one in a land of sunny forgetfulness? Or maybe she was a tourist, visiting friends. Either way, she accurately captures this milieu....more
A slow burn. I took a while to get into it, since NW is self-consciously experimental. Fifty pages in, and I remember why I love Zadie Smith. It is noA slow burn. I took a while to get into it, since NW is self-consciously experimental. Fifty pages in, and I remember why I love Zadie Smith. It is not that she helps my feeble mind recall the 90s: when airfare was cheap, globalism was novel, and being in a city with as much diversity and cultural incongruity as possible was the transcosmopolitan goal ("I was hanging out with this half-Jewish Jamaican guy last night. He's from Brazil, Sikh by choice, disclaims his birthright, vegan. We were smoking and listening to Russian rap online via Radio 3 Switzerland until 4am"). That's her big theme: interesting Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Africans living together in the dirty part of London in a country formerly only of boring white people. And the local colour is always more interesting for all their hard luck.
She always hooks me with incidental details. Half-faded decals of cartoon characters in a children's hospital. Her characters' use of smartphones and how the phones complicate social interactions, i.e. people using phones when they are with their friends, signalling they are bored, lonely, distracted. The mould that grows on the ceilings of unventilated apartments of people from hot countries who crank the heat in mid-winter. Seeing the wave of your friends have children, who then email you photo attachments of exhausted mother and child, in which the mothers look more sweaty, dishevelled, and alien to you than you've ever seen before. People's rooms being an expression of their inner states of mind.
I love her for these details alone, because I've been in these rooms and situations too many times. But she also fleshes out 4 fully realized people: Irish social worker, young black mechanic, professional black lady barrister, and a homeless guy (I've definitely met the lawyer). These characters, their lovers, parents, and dependants roam through Smith's old council estate, Willesden, and around to other similar neghbourhoods, causing drama, suffering, and struggling with the actual problems and non-problems of their late 20s and 30s.
Smith is still crap at endings. Her endings are abrupt, and always leave me flipping casually back through the book to see if the build-up warranted that kind of trailing off. I finally re-read the end, the beginning, shrug, and go on with my life. For her, it's the details and characters that matter.
Smith is maturing. NW is my favourite so far. ...more
Raymond Queneau tells an innocuous micro-story about a testy guy on a bus, whom later he spots elsewhere. The content of the story is meaningless, andRaymond Queneau tells an innocuous micro-story about a testy guy on a bus, whom later he spots elsewhere. The content of the story is meaningless, and actually the foundation of a series of exercises where the same story is retold in 99 variants. A variable, style, or theme is foregrounded in each entry: biased, reactionary, auditory, gustatory, colors, logical analysis, haiku, etc. Initially, I was charmed by how the shift in emphasis reframes an entire story and makes subsequent entries seem fresh, and in some cases, very different from the versions that preceded it.
The book is understandably uneven, a hazard of strict formalism. Some entries don't quite work. Part of that can be attributed to translation, since the translator makes rather personal decisions in altering the text. For example, she subs a dated West Indian dialect for Vulgaire, and a Peppy-le-Pew-fake-fransez for the equivalent of English-sounding-silly-to-French-people. Some of the translations are plain bad. The translator did as best she could to preserve the spirit of the original, in spite of an extreme amount of variance due to formal constraints; often with mixed results.
Some of the entries, while they may have taxed Queneau's abilities as a polymath, yield very little to divert or educate a reader. I'm thinking of the permutations set and also the twin entries where every other letter is placed on the opposing page. I had to stare at both pages at once and try to synthesize every word by shuttling my eyes from page-to-page (Novel drudgery! How witty! I bet this is how people grow cock-eyed. Oh fuck! Did my right eye just lock? AM I COCK-EYED? SWEET CHRIST!)
Many of the more abstract entries garnered nothing more than "Wow, that Queneau! What a word-genius! That exercise must have been difficult. I hope it's better in French, but probably not." 30 variations would have been a brilliant mélange of reference frames and emphasis, shifting perspectives and complex harmonies-- the proverbial 13th (or in this case, 100th) blackbird. And yet, 99 is beyond showing-off. In the later entries, it's sterile and masturbatory. 99 is overkill. 30 max, Ray. Maybe I'm limited. Maybe it's the translation. More than a few of the entries are nonsense, and not a la dada, but in the way that strict formalism sometimes leads to pure non-transcendent gibberish....more
Thankfully I remember little about this book, having read it a year ago. What remains is the cheap, undelivered promise of giving readers the super-poThankfully I remember little about this book, having read it a year ago. What remains is the cheap, undelivered promise of giving readers the super-power of divining a person's psychological make up by hanging out in their room. Instead of keen Sherlockian spytech, the book was filled with empty personal anecdotes and sparse common sense observations ("Liberals like books and maps; Conservatives like sports and flags").
Yes, Dr. Sam Gosling, a person's bedroom is a mimesis of her mind, at least in fiction. Expanding this point by talking about your students' dorm rooms accompanied by platitudes does not even create fiction, let alone pop social psychology. Big font, book-length garbage....more