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Matthew Battles on Tove Jansson

Over at the B&N Review, Matthew Battles (Harvard University’s rare books librarian and author of Library: An Unquiet History, Widener: Biography of a Library, along with other articles) has a long, interesting piece on Tove Jansson. He talks a bit about the recently released Fair Play, but I really like this bit about BTBA winning title The True Deceiver:

Rarely have fiction’s ubiquitous and essential challenges been more forcibly evoked than in Jansson’s short novel The True Deceiver. The novel opens in a coastal village besieged by snow—“this steady snow piling up against doors and windows and weighing down roofs and never stopping even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shovelled out . . . People woke up late because there was no longer any morning.” Katri Kling, the novel’s fierce, embittered, and sharply intelligent anti-heroine, is fixated on the sumptuously empty house of local celebrity Anna Aemelin, an illustrator of children’s books whose art consists of mesmerizingly detailed paintings of forest underbrush populated by plump, downy bunnies. The yellow-eyed Katri lives above the shop where keeps the books—and whose shopkeeper torments her with his presumptuous longing—and takes care of her slow brother Mats and a large, nameless dog. “It’s unnatural not giving your dog a name,” the villagers mutter; “all dogs should have names.” But Katri refuses to name the dog out of a kind of wild and scrupulous honesty: “Dogs are mute and obedient,” she reflects, “but they have watched us and know us and can smell how pitiful we are.

“People idealise their animals, and at the same time they patronisingly overlook a dog’s natural life—biting fleas, burying bones, rolling in garbage, barking up an empty tree all night… But what do they do themselves? Bury stuff that will rot in secret and then dig it up and bury it again and rant and rave under empty trees! No. My dog and I despise them.”

All but allergic to the kind of white lies most people use to get through their days, Katri has become a midwife of hard truths, both relied upon and reviled by her neighbors. Children chant “witch” when they see her, but late at night their parents call upon her cruel insight. (“Why do you go to her?” one villager asks a neighbor. “Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back. You’re different.” Katri sets about winning her way into Anna Aemelin’s life by showing her how people take advantage of her and one another through the never-ending succession of tiny, self-deceiving frauds. But as Anna falls under the spell of veracity, Katri begins to learn that even her scruples can add up to untruth. In their encounter with love, art, and lying, both the artist and the truth-teller undergo a kind of quietly cataclysmic domestication. Even the dog gets a name.



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