The Woman Who Borrowed Memories

Overview

An NYRB Classics Original
 
Tove Jansson was a master of brevity, unfolding worlds at a touch. Her art flourished in small settings, as can be seen in her bestselling novel The Summer Book and in her internationally celebrated cartoon strips and books about the Moomins. It is only natural, then, that throughout her life she turned again and again to the short story. The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is the ...

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The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories

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Overview

An NYRB Classics Original
 
Tove Jansson was a master of brevity, unfolding worlds at a touch. Her art flourished in small settings, as can be seen in her bestselling novel The Summer Book and in her internationally celebrated cartoon strips and books about the Moomins. It is only natural, then, that throughout her life she turned again and again to the short story. The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is the first extensive selection of Jansson’s stories to appear in English.

Many of the stories collected here are pure Jansson, touching on island solitude and the dangerous pull of the artistic impulse: in “The Squirrel” the equanimity of the only inhabitant of a remote island is thrown by a visitor, in “The Summer Child” an unlovable boy is marooned along with his lively host family, in “The Cartoonist” an artist takes over a comic strip that has run for decades, and in “The Doll’s House” a man’s hobby threatens to overwhelm his life. Others explore unexpected territory: “Shopping” has a post-apocalyptic setting, “The Locomotive” centers on a railway-obsessed loner with murderous fantasies, and “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories” presents a case of disturbing transference. Unsentimental, yet always humane, Jansson’s stories complement and enlarge our understanding of a singular figure in world literature.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
10/20/2014
Like Jansson (The True Deceiver) herself, many of her protagonists are artists, be they illustrators and cartoonists or painters, authors, actors, architects, interior designers, or sculptors. Jansson frequently depicts people who in turn study human character, and her vignettes are remarkable for their cell-like precision. In "The Listener," she writes of an elderly woman who crafts an elaborate tree of family secrets; "Traveling Light" tells of a young man so burdened by others' confidences that he has tried to escape on a voyage at sea. She also studies alienation: people experiencing gradual estrangement from loved ones ("Black-White," "The Doll's House") and those imposing isolation on themselves ("The Storm," "The Squirrel"); in each case, she illustrates the growing rifts with vivid light/dark imagery. Jansson further explores surreal, dissociative themes, such as a man who becomes obsessed with his double ("The Other"), and, in the title story, a woman whose former roommate has co-opted her past. Themes range from madness to sweet reminiscence, murder to survival, in tales that are relentlessly observant. As she writes in "The Listener": "Probably few of us pay adequate attention to all the things constantly happening to the people we love…" (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"[Jansson] writes about these things with sparkling wit and a quirky sensibility." —The New Yorker

"Complex, intriguing and haunting, Jansson's unusual short fiction is bound to enchant an English-speaking audience just as it did a Swedish-speaking one many years ago." —Shelf Awareness

“Jansson’s short stories are as yet unacknowledged small masterworks.” —Ali Smith

“They are tough as good rope, [Jansson’s stories], as smooth and odd and beautiful as sea-worn driftwood, as full of light and air and wind as the Nordic summer.”—Philip Pullman
 
“It could be said that everything she wrote is, in one way or another, about the creative interactions between art and reality or art and nature.” —The Guardian

“The Moomin books, and the years [Jansson] spent writing them, evidently stayed with her; the result was a stirring art, both light and dark, consoling and disturbing, spare and intricate. A simplicity of expression belies the mystery of Jansson’s art—ostensibly plain, teeming with profound delights and worries—all of which this reader’s stunted, sad-girl soul is grateful to have discovered.” —Sonya Chung, The Millions

From the Publisher
“They are tough as good rope, [Jansson’s stories], as smooth and odd and beautiful as sea-worn driftwood, as full of light and air and wind as the Nordic summer.” —Phillip Pullman
 
“It could be said that everything she wrote is, in one way or another, about the creative interactions between art and reality or art and nature.” —The Guardian
 
Praise for other NYRB Classics by Tove Jansson and translated by Thomas Teal:

 
“In this brilliantly translated novel from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, Finnish-born author Tove Jansson, whose Moomin children’s books may be familiar to some readers, gives us a spare, rich collection of vignettes. A novel, a short-story collection, and an autobiographical journey, Fair Play centers on the lives of two creative women—Mari, the writer, and Jonna, the artist...For those who have yet to discover Jansson, her writing is a true pleasure, and her characters, although sparse on dialogue, are complex, passionate, and deeply empathetic. Recommend Jansson to readers of Anita Brookner’s similarly introspective novels.” —Booklist, starred review
 
“Jansson reveals the ambiguities in every encounter. There are no easy moral judgments. Only the very finest art can show us so many shades of psychological nuance, yet make them visible with such clarity.” —Damion Searls, Harp
 
“Fairness and playfulness are at the heart of this delightful novel, which chronicles in 17 luminous snapshots a shared artistic life...Jansson has a knack for packing a good deal of wit and wisdom into ostensibly simple tales. These deft and gentle stories are as refreshing as a dip in chilly Finnish seas.” —The Guardian
 
“I loved this book. It’s cool in both senses of the word, understated yet exciting, and with a tension that keeps you reading. I felt transported to that remote region of Sweden and when I finished it I read it all over again. The characters still haunt me.” —Ruth Rendell
 
“A dark companion to her glowing The Summer Book. Here the setting is winter, and the almost Highsmithian subject concerns a woman who inveigles herself into the life of a famous, and rich, writer. Jansson’s writing is, as always, understated yet acute and thrilling.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“Her description is unhurried, accurate and vivid, an artist’s vision...The sentences are beautiful in structure, movement and cadence. They have inevitable rightness. And this is a translation! Thomas Teal deserves to have his name on the title page with Jansson’s: he worked the true translator’s miracle...the most beautiful and satisfying novel I have read this year.” —Ursula K. Le Guin, The Guardian
 
“A novel about truth, deception, self-deception and the honest uses of fiction, The True Deceiver is almost deadpan in its clarity and seeming simplicity, and is at heart one of her most mysterious and subtle works.” —Ali Smith, The Guardian
 
“Poetic understatement, dry humor and a deep love for nature are obvious throughout [Jansson’s] oeuvre...The book is as lovely, as evocative as a film by Hayao Miyazaki.” —Time Out New York
 
The Summer Book manages to make you feel good as well as wise, without having to make too much effort...[it] says so much that we want to hear in such an accessible form, without ever really saying anything at all.” —The Independent
Kirkus Reviews
2014-08-14
Twenty-six spare, slyly off-kilter stories collected from the life work of Swedish-speaking Jansson, who wrote 11 works of adult fiction (The Summer Book, 1972, etc.) as well as a series of children's books (Moominpappa's Memoirs, 1994, etc.) before her death in 2001. Written between 1971 and 1998, these stories consider loneliness, family, aging and creative experience, sometimes all together as in the opening story, "The Listener," about an elderly woman who creates an elaborate chart of her memories. In "Black-White" and "The Other," artists find themselves erasing the line between art and life, while "The Cartoonist" expresses artistic ambivalence as a man hired to carry on someone else's cartoon becomes obsessed with understanding why his predecessor quit. "The Doll's House," concerning a retired upholsterer who builds a miniature world for himself and his uninterested lover, asks who ultimately owns the finished creation. In "A Leading Role" and "White Lady," actresses juggle artificial roles and reality. In "The Wolf," one of several stories with animal titles, a woman wonders if the Japanese artist she's hosting will draw the caged animal they see together at the zoo or the one he imagines. In one of the volume's most disturbing stories, it isn't clear if a woman writer living purposely alone on an island allows a squirrel to terrorize her or if "The Squirrel" is her creation. Other stories use travel to consider relationships, memory and isolation. Most, like "A Foreign City" and "The Woman Who Borrowed Memories," feature characters whose lives go out of kilter. But a few—"The Summer Child," about a rural family and the difficult boy they take in for the summer; "The Garden of Eden," about a woman negotiating between warring expat neighbors in Spain; "Travelling Light," about a man who can't escape his own generosity—offer slivers of gently sweetened optimism. Windows crop up often in Jansson's stories, reflecting the transparent wall between her lonely characters and their worlds but also Jansson's expression of intangible thoughts and feelings with lucent prose.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590177662
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 10/21/2014
  • Series: NYRB Classics Series
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 273,030
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) was born in Helsinki into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority. Her father was a sculptor and her mother a graphic designer and illustrator. Winters were spent in the family’s art-filled studio and summers in a fisherman’s cottage in the Pellinge archipelago, a setting that would later figure in Jansson’s writing for adults and children. Jansson loved books as a child and set out from an early age to be an artist. Her first illustration was published when she was fifteen years old; four years later a picture book appeared under a pseudonym. After attending art schools in both Stockholm and Paris, she returned to Helsinki, where in the 1940s and ’50s she won acclaim for her paintings and murals. From 1929 until 1953 Jansson drew humorous illustrations and political cartoons for the left-leaning anti-Fascist Finnish-Swedish magazine Garm, and it was there that what was to become Jansson’s most famous creation, Moomintroll, a hippopotamus-like character with a dreamy disposition, made his first appearance. Jansson went on to write about the adventures of Moomintroll, the Moomin family, and their curious friends in a long-running comic strip and in a series of books for children that have been translated throughout the world, inspiring films, several television series, an opera, and theme parks in Finland and Japan. Jansson also wrote eleven novels and short-story collections for adults, including The Summer Book, The True Deceiver, Fair Play, and The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (available as NYRB Classics). In 1994 she was awarded the Prize of the Swedish Academy. Jansson and her companion, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, continued to live part time in a cottage on the remote outer edge of Pellinge until 1991.

Thomas Teal has translated many of Tove Jansson’s works into English, beginning in the 1970s with The Summer Book and Sun City and more recently, The True Deceiver (2009, winner of the Best Translated Book Award) and Fair Play (2011, winner of the Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from the Swedish). He lives in Massachusetts.

Silvester Mazzarella is a translator of Italian and Swedish literature. For many years he lived in Finland, where he taught English literature at the University of Helsinki. His most recent translation from the Swedish is Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin (2014). He now lives in Canterbury, England.

Lauren Groff is the author of the novels Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton, and Delicate Edible Birds, a story collection. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic Monthly, as well as in the Pushcart Prize, PEN/O. Henry, and Best American Short Stories anthologies. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

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