During a recent trip to Stockholm, I came across a new collection of stories and essays by Tove Jansson in a bookstore. Though Jansson is perhaps best known as the creator of the Moomin series, her writing for adults is vast and varied. I have translated two of the essays from that new collection into English for the first time. The first, “The Island,” appeared on this site yesterday. The second, “Once, at a park,” here below, is a beautifully scattered, rhapsodic piece that defies genre conventions. Again, there are torsions in time and tense; again, the syntax can be somewhat shattered—and (again) there is a joyful disregard for the boundaries separating fiction, memoir, and essay. I have tried to retain, for the most part, the slight disquiet and disorientation the original sometimes conveys, because this carefully crumbling prose is directly related to the content of the piece.
Written in 1997, toward the end of Jansson’s life, “Once, at a park,” starts out as a classic piece on writer’s block—by writing about the impossibility of writing. But there is much more going on. Despite its conciseness, the story can be read as a reflection on Jansson’s extensive career. It touches on some of her lifelong obsessions (“I can’t understand why I must drag the ocean into everything I write”). It also addresses multilingualism (she screams at the polyglot French clochard in Finnish but writes the story in Swedish). And, at a crucial point in the narrative, it connects writing and painting (Jansson, of course, was a brilliant visual artist as well). It is true that “Once, at a park” offers a bleak reflection on the craft, but the conjunction of candor and artifice at the heart of the piece reveals, I think, an enduring fidelity to literature.
I’m sitting comfortably parked on a bench in a little park behind Saint-Sulpice and I’m supposed to find something to write about. It’s very quiet here. Pigeons copulate on a patch of grass, some tourists catch their breath on the benches across from me, an organ plays behind my back, far away.
A clochard comes every now and then and bothers the tourists—he explains, at length, that he also understands Italian. I just keep quiet, and eventually he goes away.
I can’t comprehend why this has to be so hard; one should be able to write just about anything at any time, in a purely professional way.
(I wonder how it is for other people.)
For the time being I have only written the date on the first page of my notepad but that was yesterday.
I try all right, but the more I try, the worse it gets, more and more insurmountable and unimaginable that I will come up with anything.
One could also just quit.
But I’m not there yet.
At times I’ve thought that one could begin with the simplest thing, something as safe as the rain on a cottage roof—a boy goes out to pee in the warm night, and then at some point one brings up the ocean.
I can’t understand why I must drag the ocean into everything I write. Furthermore, it’s so fucking hard to go on with something that was so wonderfully simple and I should know this well.
If one thinks about it in a completely objective way, one needs only two, three words (well, perhaps four, five) to get started and dive in, let go, and get to the safe side sixty pages or so later.
Now they’ve started with the organ again, the clochard is back. A sexton rushes out and tries to chase him away.
But something about love? No way. All the big love stories have already been used, and the lesser ones have no literary use.
What did I tell those kids who wrote and asked how one becomes an author? It was something like write about what you’ve lived, about what you know …
But I’ve done that. I’ve squeezed my middle age dry, and when I got seriously old, I did what I could with that, too, but then I tried to write about really young people, and that didn’t work out so well. And the kids wrote again and asked, And what do we do now, and I said write about your fears, and they did it, at once, and wanted feedback as soon as possible.
And what do I fear above all? To be a sore loser, to be second best. But this is not something one writes about.
One could imagine a terrible story about the constant obligation to choose. I come up with a certain someone and let him, one bright morning, all of a sudden, realize that he is subjected to constant choice, uninterruptedly and inexorably, every moment of his life. He can never be sure he’s made the right choices.
And it’s not just a question about what he did or said. He has to mistrust every tone, gesture, glance that could change the course of events in a completely unnoticeable but definitive shift that could develop, full speed, in any given direction.
He gets very scared. He tries to shut himself in, be inconspicuous, and become a nobody who makes no difference one way or another and, naturally, he understands that this was the most objectionable thing he ever could have come up with.
That was an unnecessary story, but I know another one that’s even worse: how about a painter who wakes up another bright morning and stands there staring at his palette and has no idea which color to choose—there they all are, with their beautiful names, be it cadmium purple or Veronese green or raw umber and ivory black at the edge of the palette, and the painter no longer knows what one is supposed to do when one paints or what any of it has to do with him—and how about an author who one bright morning stands there staring at the alphabet?!
At this point I got really tired.
I took my walking stick and went over to the trash can and dumped the notepad, a completely unnecessary gesture, unworthy of my age.
When I came back, the clochard was sitting on my bench—he seemed tired. He immediately resumed his old patter, saying that he also understood Italian and I got angry and answered him in very unfriendly Finnish, which shut him down for a good while.
Eventually he started to talk, almost to himself, about those hopeless types with their hopeless languages, you don’t know anything, he said, you know shit about what happened to me and what I made happen … I could bring you back to life, I could shake you awake but you won’t listen … You’re boring!
He ran out on the grass and the flock of pigeons took off with fluttering wings and he screamed at them: Stupid creatures, damned cretins, I am terribly sorry but I can’t help you, you poor devils who have lost everything …
Shortly thereafter he left the park.
First published in Resa med Tove. © Tove Jansson (2002) Moomin Characters™
Tove Jansson (1914–2001) was the author of the Moomins series for children. She was also the author of six novels and five books of short stories for adults.
Hernan Diaz is the managing editor of RHM. His first novel, In the Distance, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His short story “The Stay” appears in our Winter 2018 issue.