Apparently you can have too much of a good thing. This is not something I’ve experienced myself, but as it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged, I’ll go with it. So even if you are an inveterate bibliophile there can be times when humungous, bicep-busting books can be off-putting, particularly if like me, you’re a non-Kindle using commuter. You don’t want to be lugging The Count of Monte Cristo onto the train (or so my osteopath insists). This week I thought I’d look at books that are small and perfectly formed: 1 novella and 1 short story collection that are little gems.
Firstly, Fair Play by Tove Jansson (1989 my edition trans. Thomas Teal 2007, 127 pages). Jansson is most famous for creating those weird hippo/mouse hybrid creatures the Moomins:
Recently I kept reading about how good her writing for adults is, so when I saw Fair Play in a bookshop I decided it was A Sign. A Sign for me to spend money, which admittedly is what every bookshop says to me. But Fair Play was worth every penny. It is a beautifully observed, delicate portrait of two artistic women sharing a life together. Jonna is a visual artist, Mari a writer:
“They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. 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.”
This is what Fair Play captures so well, the unspoken subtleties that exist in a long-term relationship, with the person you know better than anyone. With a restrained lightness of touch, Jansson presents moments in time between the two women, detailing events that seem simultaneously fleeting yet loaded with meaning.
“They hadn’t noticed the fog moving off….suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia. Jonna started the motor. They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”
The novel has no ostensible plot, and there is no sense of time – each chapter could occur chronologically, or could be moving back and forth across the trajectory of their long relationship. It doesn’t matter. You finish the novel with the feeling of being allowed glimpses into two unique, intertwined lives, while understanding how we all essentially remain unknown.
“It’s gone so quiet,” Jonna said. “What did you think? Wasn’t that a good storm?”
“Very good,” Mari said. “The best we’ve had.”
Jansson’s writing is stark, yet beautiful. I will definitely be seeking out more by this writer.
Secondly, The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim (2009, Comma Press, trans. Jonathan Wright, 90 pages). The cover of this collection includes a quote from The Guardian, proclaiming Blasim “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive”. Like Fair Play, this was the first time I’d read this author, and it seems like such an oversight as he has so much to say that is important. Blasim is a deeply political writer, by which I mean not that he is polemical, but that he is engaged with how literature works within a wider society:
“Because literature in this country is literature that goes through phases. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic. They are lamenting readers that don’t exist. They claim the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the broad sense of the word. There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.” (‘The Market of Stories’)
Blasim’s stories detail lives caught up in war: illegal immigrants, hostage experiences, propaganda- makers, asylum-seekers. He is acutely aware of how stories are manipulated in this media-saturated world, and how there can be many truths held within the one story:
“This story took place in darkness and if I were destined to write it again, I would record only the cries of terror which rang out at the time and the other mysterious noises that accompanied the massacre. A major part of the story would make a good experimental radio piece.” (‘The Truck to Berlin’)
The short stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are all the more powerful for their brevity: there is a sense that in such unstable times, words are a luxury, and every one must count. Certainly Blasim’s words count; his stories are powerful, extraordinary, bleakly funny on occasion, and deeply moving.
Back to frivolity: to end, a reminder that smaller is sometimes better (although frankly, when it comes to cookies, I’m still not entirely convinced…)