Travelling Light by Tove Jansson
Screenwriter and campaigner Line Langebek explores the emotional landscape of Tove Jansson's story of otherness.
I grew up with the Moomins, I grew up with Jansson as part of my storytelling compass. A Nordic landscape that seeped into my mind subconsciously, there for the taking whether I was aware of it or not. It was only later on, in my adult years, when Jansson’s adult books began to be translated into English that I discovered what she really meant to me. “Travelling Light” was one of the first books I read, infused with the same humour, but also a dark undertone that I had loved in the Moomin books. A collection of short stories, “Travelling Light” spoke to me about being an outsider, about wanting to be light footed, about being on the move. The stories are slow and unhurried, but perfectly formed, seeping into your mind until you understand: No man or woman is an island. In this sometimes-disconnected world the stories reminded me that we are all linked. All the different characters in the stories are seeking solitude one way or another, yet all are reminded that they are part of the world. Jansson doesn’t labour the point but you get it nevertheless.
I’m not sure I had an ‘a-ha’ moment the first time I read it. But for years afterwards I would pass it on as a present to others. Reading the book made me realise two things: The importance of the emotional landscape that has shaped me. And how we cannot escape the world.
"“Travelling Light” spoke to me about being an outsider, about wanting to be light footed, about being on the move. The stories are slow and unhurried, but perfectly formed, seeping into your mind until you understand: No man or woman is an island."
Slowly, I began to understand something about myself: The power of storytelling to change the world, how art is part of the overall narrative, and the importance of understanding that you’re part of the bigger picture. For me, that has meant feeling a certain responsibility towards what I create and how I use my skills. But also to understand, like Jansson did, that the smaller details are important too, that it all adds up and that change may take time, but the tortoise gets there just as well as the hare. We should care less about being ‘seen as being the right kind of person’ and more about what we do and why we do it. In a world dominated by Social Media noise this feels important. In her introduction to the 2010 translation (Sort of Books) Ali Smith talks about this and quotes from the opening story “An Eightieth Birthday”: ‘The real artists, though, are the dishevelled, stained outsiders, past their best, “critiqued long ago”, and the old woman whose birthday they’re celebrating, a survivor stubborn enough to always have painted trees no matter what the aesthetic fashion was, “till in the end she knew trees, the very essence of trees.” Out walking in the middle of the night with the disreputable old artists, May sees for the first time how very beautiful the city she lives in is.’
Jansson also reminds us to pay attention to what’s in front of us before it’s too late and as such this book fits perfectly into the narrative of change. As Ali Smith concludes, mentioning the final story in the book, which implicates us readers too: “I can’t write my story without you”. That, in a sentence, is it: The world is us and we are part of the narrative.
From the title story “Travelling Light” in Travelling Light
‘Everything was in the past now, gone, of no significance; nothing mattered any more, no one was important. No telephone, no letters, no doorbell. Of course you have no idea what I’m referring to, but it doesn’t matter anyway; in fact I shall merely assert that everything had been sorted out to the best of my ability, thoroughly taken care of down to the smallest detail. I wrote the letters I had to write – in fact, I’d done that as long ago as the day before, announcing my sudden departure without explanation and without in any way accounting for my behaviour. It was very difficult; it took a whole day. Of course, I left no information about where I was going and indicated no time for my return, since I have no intention of ever coming back. The caretaker’s wife will look after my houseplants; those tired living things – which never look well no matter how much trouble one takes over them – have made me feel very uneasy. Never mind: I shan’t ever have to see them again.
Perhaps it might interest you to know what I packed? As little as possible! I’ve always dreamed of travelling light, a small weekend bag of the sort one can casually whisk along with oneself as one walks with rapid but unhurried steps through, shall we say, the departure lounge of an airport, passing a mass of nervous people dragging along large heavy cases. This was the first time I’d succeeded in taking the absolute minimum with me, ruthless in the face of family treasures and those little objects one can become so attached to that remind one of…well, of emotional bits of one’s life – no, that least of all! My bag was as light as my happy-go-lucky heart and contained nothing more than one would need for a routine night at a hotel.’
Do one small thing for the benefit of your neighbourhood, your neighbour. No matter if anyone notices it or not.
Line Langebek is a screenwriter, translator, lecturer, mother and campaigner.