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Thursday, 29 May 2008

Fair Play, A Novel

When does a collection of short stories become a novel? Many authors have taken characters from novels and incorporated them into short stories, often as minor characters. Holden Caulfield crops up in a couple of Salinger's for example and we also get to see characters like his brother and parents in others providing a backdrop to the novel. But they're still short stories, stand alone works that you can read and appreciate without any knowledge of The Catcher in the Rye. Likewise William McIlvanney incorporated characters from his earlier novels in stories, e.g. the protagonist from A Gift from Nessus crops up in the first short story in Walking Wounded.

In the Wikipedia entry as it stands today, Tove Jansson's book Fair Play is listed amongst her short story collections. It is easy to see why. The book consists of seventeen short sections, vignettes, that have little to connect them to each other apart from the fact they each revolve around the lives of two seventy year-old women who live for part of the year on a remote Finnish island and for the rest of the year in Helsinki "at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbour." Unusually there is a communal attic, a "necessary, neutral interval between their domains". Jonna is an artist, Mari, a writer.

The book is clearly described on its title page however as, Fair Play: A Novel and so we are left in no doubt as to what the author's intentions were. The question is: Does she succeed?

The book calls the women "friends" but it is fairly obvious from the jump that they are a couple. It would be easy to call them lesbians but in my experience to use a term like that can tend to place too much emphasis on the sexual orientation of the individuals to the detriment of the relationship. It is easy to think of these two women as a couple; sex does not appear to be an issue and the book does not concern itself with it. The women do things together, they do things apart; they are a normal couple, they shop, watch TV, share their day's experiences with each other … they even get jealous and fret about their future together despite the fact they have obviously been together a long time.

Amongst other things, like woodcarving and lithography, Jonna likes to take photographs and home movies which they look at on their evenings together when they're not taping classic films. Their preference is for the likes of Fassbinder, Truffaut, Bergman or Renoir; Jonna also has a fondness for "what she call[s] 'pure movies' – Westerns, Robin Hood films, wild pirate romances, and a lot of other simple stories of justice, courage and chivalry."

Mari, on the other hand, doesn't make such a fuss about her projects. We never find out what kind of films she prefers. In the chapter, 'Killing George', she brings a story to read to Jonna who insists on interrupting her with comments and suggestions. Mari, like any author, fights to defend her characters but finally gives in and allows Jonna to take on the role of editor. She is not totally subordinate – far from it – but it's clear that she has grown used to Jonna being the way she is and, since Jonna means well even if she is sometimes a bit thoughtless, Mari has grown used to taking a back seat.

Fair Play presents a slide show, snapshots if you will, scenes from lives that have taken seventy years to organise themselves into a workable relationship though who is to say if it is a perfect one. And like all snapshots there's only so much shown but, if you have enough snapshots, you begin to build up a composite picture and that's exactly how this book unfolds. It reminds me of a Rolf Harris painting. Rolf used to paint on these huge boards with the kind of brushes that the rest of us use to paint our living rooms and his catch phrase was, "Can you see what it is yet?" Splash by splash a picture in built up and it's not until the end that you realise you've read a novel and not a collection of stories. This is suggested in the opening chapter, 'Changing Pictures':

           “There should be an element of surprise when people’s eyes move across a wall covered with pictures. We don’t want to make it too easy for them. Let them catch their breath and look again because they can’t help it. Make them think, make them mad, even … Why did you leave so much space right here?”
           “I don’t know,” Mari said. But she did know. Suddenly she knew very well that deep down she didn’t like the painter colleagues who had done these undeniably very fine works. Mari began paying attention. As she watched Jonna rehang the pictures, it seemed to her that lots of things, including their life together, fell into perspective and into place, a summary expressed in distance or self-evident clustering.”

The novel, written in her eighties, is clearly semi-autobiographical, with Tove being the fictional Mari, and her lifelong partner, graphic designer Tuulikka Pietelä, being Jonna; the couple were together for forty years and actually lived for part of the year in a cottage on the remote outer edge of the Finnish archipelago until 1991. Perhaps this is the reason I felt that the book focussed more on Jonna; she certainly is the dominant of the two but that's always the case in any relationship; it is not a bad thing, just a fact of life.

Jonna and Mari interact like a real couple and they are certainly not a perfect couple:

           The little red light came on. Fassbinder confronted them in all his exquisite, controlled violence. It was very late when he was done. Jonna switched on the lamp, slipped the cassette into its cover, and put it on the shelf labelled “Fassbinder”.
           “Mari,” she said, “are you unhappy that we don’t see people?”
           “No, not any more.”
           “That’s good. I mean, if we did see them, what would it be like? Like always, exactly like always. Pointless chatter about inessentials. No composition, no guiding idea. No theme. Isn’t that right? We know roughly what everyone will say; we know each other inside out. But here on our videos every remark is significant, nothing is arbitrary. Everything is considered and well formulated.”
           “All the same,” said Mari, “sometimes one of us might say something unexpected, something that didn’t fit, something really out of the ordinary that made you sit up and take notice. You know, something irrational.”
           “Yes, I know. But make no mistake: great directors know all about the irrational. You talk about things that don’t fit – they use such things, with a purpose, as an essential part of the whole. Do you know what I mean? Apparent quirkiness but with a point. They know exactly what they’re doing.”
           “But they’ve had time,” Mari objected. “We don’t always have time to think, we just live! Of course a filmmaker can depict what you call quirkiness, but it’s still just canned. We’re in the moment. Maybe I haven’t thought this through... Jonna, these films of yours are fantastic, they’re perfect. But when we get involved in them as totally as we do, isn’t that dangerous?”
           “How do you mean, dangerous?”
           “Doesn’t it diminish other things?”
           “No. Really good films don’t diminish anything, they don’t close things off. On the contrary, they open up new insights, they make new thoughts thinkable. They crowd us, they deflate our slovenly lifestyle, our thoughtless way of chattering and pissing away our time and energy and passion. Believe me, films can teach us a huge amount. And they give us a true picture of the way life is.”
           Mari laughed. “Of our slovenly lifestyle, you mean? You mean, maybe they can teach us to piss our lives away with a little more intelligence, a little more elegance?”
           “Don’t be an ass. You know perfectly well...”
           Mari interrupted. “And if film is some kind of edifying god, wouldn’t it be dangerous to try and emulate your gods, always knowing that you’re coming up short? That everything you do is somehow badly directed?”

Although the women might be interesting enough on their own, Jansson includes some unusual secondary characters for the couple to interact with: one day Mari is visited by Helga, a woman in her fifties with a fear of thunderstorms who doted on Mari's mother, her scout leader when Helga was a girl; later Jonna takes on a student, Mirja, overweight, always hungry, dour and a source of jealousy between the old couple; most fascinating is the outspoken ninety-two year old Wladyslaw Leniewicz, The Marionette Master, who comes to stay with Mari for a fortnight in the middle of winter and who keeps her talking into the early hours, and finally there is Verity, a chambermaid at the Majestic Hotel in Phoenix who takes delight in organising their mementoes on the dresser in their room and then drags the women to Annie's bar to try her special banana drink.

These characters provide a backdrop to help us understand the relationship between these two in much the same way as the other stories provide obstacles for them to have to deal with as a couple: a seagull who has flown into one of their windows; the storm that threatens to sink their small boat; the fog that traps them in their boat or the Russian artillery raining shells onto the island as they practice in the distance, something they accept in a surprisingly matter-of-fact fashion.

The book can be called "slow paced" and "a quick read" and both are equally valid descriptions; not a lot happens and words aren't wasted describing it. And yet the layers build up, chapter by chapter until we know quite a lot about this slightly eccentric pair of ladies.

As a novel though it does have its climax in the final chapter; a letter arrives from Paris that puts a great strain on their relationship. How this is resolved says so much about this couple and, in particular, Mari who proves herself to be a much more resilient person than I might have expected her to be. This is a novel. The stories have an order and Jansson does not repeat details so you need to remember what has gone on before. That the chapters are self-contained does make them feel like short-stories and most of them would actually work as stand-alone pieces but they are so much more when read as they were intended to be read, as a novel.

Last word? If anyone wanted to test the assertion that character is plot then this is a good book to use.

Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki, Finland. Her father, Viktor Jansson, was a sculptor, and his mother, Signe Hammarten-Jansson, was a graphic artist. She studied art at Konstfack in Stockholm, the Finnish Art Society, and the École d'Adrien Holy and École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She became an accomplished artist before beginning her career as a cartoonist in the 1920s.

Jansson first began contributing her art to magazines when she was 15. Her 1946 publication, Comet In Moominland, first introduced the Moomin characters for which she became most famous. In 1953 she began drawing the comic strip "Moomin" for The London Evening News. She has been awarded the Finnish State Award in literature three times and became the first person to receive the Suomi Award.

Her artistic successes have been such that her work as a writer for adults has been quite overshadowed but she is the author of several novels and collections of short stories.

You can read three chapters from Fair Play here.


Dave King said...

Hi Jim,
I don't know the novel Fair Play, though as so often happens, you have left me with a thirst to fill a gap in my reading. So, judging the work purely on the strength of what you have said about it, my feeling is that the connection(s) between the vignettes which compose it, tenuous in one sense, perhaps, are more than enough for it to rate as a novel. Indeed I find the structure as you describe it, quite fascinating. Thanks for another great post - and many congrats on your novel!!

Jim Murdoch said...

It is a lovely book, Dave and I'm pleased to be able to draw people's attention to it. For various reasons I find myself drawn more and more to these delicate types of books where nothing much happens. It takes great skill to write them.

Thanks for the congratulations too. My wife always despairs with me I'm afraid due to my lack of exuberance. When I got my final proof copy, I checked a couple of entries to make sure the correct PDF had been used and then simply put it aside and got on with what I was working on.

I'm really not sure how I feel about book and the fact that it's now in print. It's ten years since I finished it and it literally has lain in a drawer since then and gradually been buried by all my other writing. I suppose it's like a film star having to promote a film he finished a couple of years before but which is only now reaching the cinemas. When I was doing the final edit I had forgotten so much that it really was like reading the book anew and I was pleased that I found myself enjoying the experience and getting back in touch with the characters.

I don't much care for the whole promotion aspect of being a writer but since I've already sold more than I expected – i.e. more than none – I suppose you could say I'm happy. I wish I had done more with my writing years ago when I was in better health but there's no point in whinging about it now. The publishing world is changing and it means that audiences are shrinking except for the lucky few and the burden lies squarely on the author's shoulders to get himself known. What I need is for someone to get excited about the thing and start passing on the word. I've spent months making contacts but the kind of people who will enjoy my novels are people like me, waggling their toes in the whole social networking thing.

It's like the books I review, sure I pique a bit of interest but realistically how many sales result? I know a couple of people who bought Naïve. Super and one who bought Fresh and that's it. Steve did a great review of my book but how many read it? I've got an ad going up soon and an interview planned so we'll just have to wait and see. And hopefully in time for Xmas the sequel will be ready and I can start marketing the set.

Rachel Fox said...

I read the Moomin books as a child and loved them but then tried them with my small girl last year and I was a bit disappointed and she wasn't particularly keen so we didn't even get through one...I would like to try her writing for adults though. It sounds interesting.

Don't get down about marketing and all that. You will have to send some out as freebies if you want to promote it, I think. Yes some will be wasted (but you never know where they will end up...books never get binned...just passed along)..but some might do the promoting for you.

Susan Sonnen said...

I'm going to save the link and visit it this weekend. Thank you! I have no doubt that I will love her book. It sounds like my quirky cup of tea. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

With my daughter, Rachel, it was Brer Rabbit, the Enid Blyton retellings which I was brought up with. To my great delight she took to them. As for the marketing, I wouldn't say it's getting me down but it is a area of the book business that I wish I didn't need to get involved with. And you are quite right, no one throws books away but it is pure luck where they end up. The odds are I'll be discovered after I'm dead; it so often happens that way, doesn't it?

And Susan, yes, do check out the three sample chapters. If they don't reel you in then the book probably isn't for you but I'll be honest, I was hooked after the first one. What struck me was how three-dimensional these two women became over the course of the book. Reading the chapters as short stories you don't really get that and, of course, rereading the first chapter after you've finished the whole book, changes it completely.

Ken Armstrong said...

if you like 'slow pace, 'quick read' and em... Scandinavian books perhaps try
'Out Stealing Horses' by Per Petterson

I really liked it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the pointer, Ken. I have to say that particular novel didn't appeal but I did order In the Wake which is an earlier novel. And since when was 272 pages a quick read? It took me two days to read Fair Play.

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