Fair Play, Tove Jansson

Just as I enjoyed Jansson's The True Deceiver, I greatly delighted in this book, a series of vignettes from the lives of artists Mari and Jonna. The exploration of the line between work and life, and of the creative process, was one of the most intriguing aspects. In particular, Jansson devotes a good deal of time to the idea that one must be able to toil artistically in long, solitary stretches.

On abiding silences:

There are empty spaces that must be respected -- those often long periods when a person can't see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

Why do we need this?:

After all, a period of creative grace can be short. Suddenly, and without warning, the pictures disappear, or they're chased away by some interference -- someone or something that irretrievably cuts off the fragile desire to capture an observation, an insight.

And a final reminder of the necessity -- the vitality -- of this kind of aloneness:

A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love.

Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood

It's been a long while since I've revisited Cat's Eye, yet it still resonates (and perhaps is even more striking for me today than it was ten years ago). I was newly horrified with the small cruelties of girls growing up, newly tickled by the ruminations on development, and memory, and art. What is permanent, and what will shift? Time takes form for the narrator:

I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.

Truly lovely to revisit Atwood at her best.

The True Deceiver, Tove Jansson

This taut, enigmatic book probes the entanglement of two women in a ceaseless Scandinavian winter. 

There's a palpable loneliness in the peopling of Deceiver, and to some degree I wonder whether Jansson is saying that much or all of closeness is deception, or "flattery, empty adjectives, the whole sloppy, disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity." It is only in convivial silence that true companionship really seems to emerge, and it is in isolation that Anna, a book illustrator, can thrive. And see clearly. While this might be bleak in the hands of a less able craftsman, the message is surprisingly hopeful when we finally depart from the story:

... [she] sat and waited for the morning mist to draw off through the woods. The silence she needed was complete. And when every bothersome element had departed, the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow.

It "would have been unthinkable," Jansson writes, for Anna to depict the solemn scene by "cluttering the ground" with her signature flowery rabbits -- and so a new day, a new era, perhaps, is born.

The Book Borrower, Alice Mattison


It took me awhile to come around on this -- two books in one about female friendships, art, anarchy, and trolleys, among other things -- but by the last pages, I didn't want it to end. The Book Borrower is odd and a little slow moving, yet the characters are fascinating and well drawn.

Berry Cooper (or Gussie/Jessie Lipkin) in particular is captivating. Cooper is a sculptress, a centenarian, who was the subject of a book (of the titular book borrowing) that her sister wrote about their youth, when Cooper was suspected of causing a trolley accident as an act of political protest. By chance, Toby Reuben and her family are drawn into Cooper's orbit, not realizing, at first, that she is the subject of The Trolley Girl, passed among friends. Cooper's still a firebrand, a woman who understood "that feeling bad is sometimes necessary." Though she's unreliable, and you often wonder whether she's touched with dementia, she presents an interesting vision of a woman who lives completely for herself and her art, unconcerned with following a well-trod path---indeed, Cooper holds,  "People who think evil but unpredictable things are not as bad as people with predicable minds."

It'll be interesting to contrast this more closely with Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, which touches on some of the same themes.