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Authors: Tove Jansson

The Listener

BOOK: The Listener
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The Listener

Tove Jansson

Translated from the Swedish by

Thomas Teal

To my brother, Per Olov

Tove Jansson’s artwork for the original Swedish publication of
The Listener
), Bonniers, 1971

when it began, and the first sign of change was in her letters. They grew impersonal.

She was a quiet, well-to-do woman of ordinary appearance. Nothing about her was provocative, disturbing, or exaggerated. But she was a good letter writer. Not brilliant, of course, not amusing, but in her letters Aunt Gerda took up and examined every detail communicated to her without ever subjecting her correspondents to meddlesome advice. They had grown accustomed to the fact that she replied at once, not anxiously but with care and serious interest. Her letters often ended with a wish for a productive autumn or a pleasant spring, and this generous time limit seemed to give them full freedom to take their time with their next letter.

Reading one of Aunt Gerda’s letters was exciting, like reliving one’s own experiences, only this time dramatised and clarified on a wider stage, with a Greek chorus observing and underlining the action. And with
the certain assurance that she would never reveal the confidences with which she was so often rewarded.

Now, and for some time past, Aunt Gerda waited weeks and months with her replies, and when she finally did write, her letters were marred by unworthy excuses, her handwriting had grown large and loose, and she wrote on only side of the paper. And her masterfully detailed sympathy had lost its warmth.

When a person loses what might be called her essence – the expression of her most beautiful quality – it sometimes happens that the alteration widens and deepens and with frightening speed overwhelms her entire personality. This is what happened to Aunt Gerda. Soon she was dropping names, forgetting birthdays, faces, promises. She began coming late – the woman who always used to sit and wait on the steps and still be the first to arrive. Her tardy presents were too expensive, too big, too impersonal, and accompanied by embarrassing excuses. No longer the lovingly calculated gifts that she had made herself. No longer the pretty, touching Christmas cards put together from pressed flowers, angels, and occasional glitter. Now she bought expensive, glossy cards with printed wishes for joy and happiness.

As a result, the dispatches Aunt Gerda sent out bore sad witness to her transformation – a vast, depressing lack of attentiveness. People carry their loved ones with them. They are forever present, and life is full of easily grasped opportunities to show them one’s affection. It costs so little and achieves so much. Her siblings and nieces and nephews and friends all felt that Gerda had lost her style,
her sense of responsibility, that she had grown self-centred from living alone – or perhaps it was the inescapable forgetfulness that comes with age. But deep down they knew that the change was deeper. It was inexplicable and basic and a matter of shifts in the mysterious stratum that forms a person’s character and worth.

Aunt Gerda was aware of what was happening to her, but she didn’t understand it. The acts and attitudes that had been a voluntary adaptation and concession to her own kindheartedness became very suddenly an overwhelming burden. She was plagued by self-reproach. Time, the passing hours, the need to be punctual, was perhaps the most difficult of all. Days with an afternoon or evening invitation had their own timing, capricious and anxious even in the morning. In an odd way, they were bifurcated, so to speak. On the one side was Aunt Gerda’s genuine anticipation as she arranged the things she wanted to have with her when she left home. And on the other side was a great uncertainty with regard to names, faces, words, and the grasp of detail and context that must be complete for anyone who loves.

On that side, too, was the enemy – time. Time that relentlessly approaches a certain predetermined second at which someone on the other side of a door begins to wait. A second is less than one breath, and everything that follows is too late, more and more too late. When Aunt Gerda approached the appointed time for departure, her unease became unbearable. She made peculiar mistakes, misread the clock, started doing small irrelevant chores. She grew suddenly tired and fell asleep in
her chair, and if she’d set the alarm clock, she might go out on the stairs or into the attic for no reason at all just when it rang. When the poor woman finally managed to arrive – too late – she couldn’t keep herself from annoying her host and hostess with desperate and overly detailed excuses.

Time passed and things did not improve. It is difficult when a person one values behaves badly, so much so that no one can rush in and help. In the middle of a sentence, Aunt Gerda would forget whether one of her sister’s children was a boy or a girl and stop abruptly in a panic and then say, very softly, “I mean, how is your … child?” She introduced herself to people she’d known for years, and her fear was so visible that it cast gloom on everyone she knew.

It is important to describe all this in order to understand Aunt Gerda’s behaviour in the late winter of 1970.

Probably few of us pay adequate attention to all the things constantly happening to the people we love, a steady, compact mass of activity that can be grasped in its entirety only by a person like Aunt Gerda – before she changed, of course. Loved ones take exams and degrees or fail to take them; they get pay rises and grants or fail to get them; they have children and miscarriages and neuroses; they have trouble with the help and their sex lives and teenage rebelliousness and misconceptions and money and maybe their stomachs or their teeth; they lose their faith or their jobs or their self-confidence or the person they’re trying to live with and then lose
themselves in politics or self-deception or disappointment or ambition; they get disloyalty and funerals and all sorts of frights thrown right in their faces; and eventually they get wrinkles and a thousand other things they hadn’t expected – and I had all of that in the palm of my hand, thought Aunt Gerda in distress. It was all as clear as an etching and I made no mistakes! I never made a mistake. What is it that’s happened to me?

She often woke at night and was unable to fall back to sleep. Sometimes she wondered where the calm, happy people might be found, if such people even existed, and whether she might dare to let herself be captivated if she ever did find them. No, Aunt Gerda thought. They too carry some secret weight, they too hide some burden that they want to share.

Letters, gifts, and affection’s glossy greetings are important. But the ability to listen face to face is even more important, a great and rare art. Aunt Gerda had always been a good listener, aided perhaps by her difficulty in expressing herself and by her lack of curiosity. She had been listening to friends and relatives ever since she was young, listening while they talked about themselves and each other, carrying them with her in a huge, artfully constructed mental map of crisscrossing lives. She listened with her whole large, flat face, unmoving, leaning slightly forward, with downcast eyes, though she would occasionally look up, quickly and in obvious distress. She didn’t touch her coffee and let her cigarette burn down. Only in the short pauses that even a tragic tale leaves open for trivial but necessary explanations did she permit herself
a lungful of smoke and a deep swallow of coffee before replacing the cup on its saucer carefully and without a sound. In essence, Aunt Gerda was not much more than silence. Afterwards, it was difficult to reconstruct what she had said, maybe only a breathless questioning – Yes? Really? – or a quick expression of sympathy.

As the years went by, and Aunt Gerda’s weight of insight grew, it troubled no one that she knew so much about them. They counted on her protective faculty; they let themselves be misled by her peculiar air of innocence and neutrality. It was like telling secrets to a tree or a devoted pet and never having afterwards that queasy feeling that you’ve given yourself away. But now it was as if Aunt Gerda had lost her innocence. Her broad face listened the same way – open, unfurrowed – and, though her brief expostulations were the same, they had lost something of their shyness and the simple desire to know in order to understand and so to love. There was not the same pain in her eyes, and she had developed an annoying, involuntary gesture that was, perhaps, apologetic.

Not many of them called Aunt Gerda that winter and spring. Her apartment grew very quiet and peaceful, she listened only to the elevator or sometimes to the rain. She often sat at her window and watched the change of seasons. She had a bay window in a semicircular projection that was rather chilly. The window was round and now in March embellished with icicles. The spikes of ice were thick and finely chiselled by running water. In the evening, they turned blue. No one called and no one came. It seemed to her the window was a great eye
looking out over the city and the harbour and a strip of the gulf under ice. The new silence and emptiness was not entirely a loss; it was something of a relief. Aunt Gerda felt like a balloon, untied, soaring off its own way. But, she thought, it’s a balloon that’s bouncing against the ceiling and can’t get free.

She understood that this was no way to live; human beings are not built to float. She needed an earthly anchor of meaning and care so she didn’t get lost in confusion. One day, with water dripping from the eaves, Aunt Gerda decided to exercise her memory and pull herself back to the simple plane where her life had its justification. She made a list of the devoted people she could remember and of their children and grandchildren and other relatives, and made an earnest effort to remember when they were all born. The paper was much too small. Aunt Gerda rolled out a long piece of shelf paper on the dining room table and held it down with drawing pins. She made a big black dot, a round head for each of them, with the name and birth date and title in a pretty little oval. She placed their children alongside, connected to their parents with a red line. She put all romantic relationships in pink – double lines for unconventional or forbidden alliances. Aunt Gerda became engrossed. Some heads were burdened with perfect coronas of pink – like galactic suns, impressive and probably regrettable.

For the first time, Aunt Gerda became aware of her own private commentary, which was not entirely benign. She bought crayons in new colours and worked on conscientiously – divorces in violet, hate in crimson, loyalty lines
in bright cerulean. The dead were grey. She left space for memory to provide all the facts and data that fill and surround a life. She had time now to remember. Time was no longer a danger; it moved in parallel with herself and later on she would nail it down in a neat little oval. Aunt Gerda noted thefts of money, of children, of work and love and trust. She remembered those who drowned one another in bad conscience or who froze each other out. She drew their lines and erased them to make them more precise. Time was no longer bifurcated, and she listened only to her inner voice. Her memory delivered up tones of voice and silences, faces that clenched and went naked and then closed again, and all the mouths that talked and talked. Aunt Gerda gathered them all and put them to good use. What she wrote in the ovals lost its weight and its pain but retained its meaning. Aunt Gerda’s memory opened like a great seashell; every twist was clear and exact and retained its echo. Even very distant echoes came gradually closer, like whispers.

As the spring wore on, Aunt Gerda transferred her great life map onto better, thicker paper. She was bothered a little by repetitions that might strike some as banal, but all human behaviour follows quite primitive rules. And anyway she did have one unique event – an attempted murder. She inscribed it in purple and felt a little cold thrill, maybe not unlike the thrill a stamp collector feels when he fastens a priceless misprint into his collection.

Sometimes Aunt Gerda sat quietly without trying to remember, simply immersed in her solar system of past and emerging lives, sensing the future changes in the
lines and ovals, inevitable in the light of obvious cause and effect. She felt a desire to forestall what must happen, to draw her own lines, new lines, maybe in silver and gold, since all the other colours were taken. She toyed recklessly with the idea of making the dots and ovals movable, game pieces that could shift their context and create new constellations and entanglements.

Now and then the telephone rang, but Aunt Gerda said she had a cold and couldn’t see anyone.

Towards the end of April, Aunt Gerda began to draw a frame around her map, a frame of small, peculiar ornaments, not unlike the distracted figures a person doodles in a telephone catalogue while listening. She was listening, inwardly, to words in short sentences that summarised what she knew.

Her nephew called and asked if he might drop by, but Aunt Gerda replied that she hadn’t the time. The map was approaching its ultimate meaning. It was at a critical stage and would tolerate no interference.

The large planets hold the small ones in place with a firm grip. Satellites follow their predetermined paths. And the strong lines of the dead cross all the others, the double lines, the dotted lines, the coiled lines. Calculation, disappointment, and loss. Aunt Gerda had drawn the beautiful relationships in such light colours that they were hidden by the stronger colours, and perhaps some of them had been erased in the course of her work. Now she drew only words, in short intensive sentences, each of which summarised a truth. Each of them was meant for someone to listen to very carefully.
Did you know it was your fault he died? Do you know that you’re not the father of your daughter? That your friend dislikes you?

The map immediately needed alteration and Aunt Gerda drew her first line in gold. It was a terrifying and irresistible mental game that she called ‘the fatal words’. It could only be played in the evening by the window. She realised that such words must be uttered only at long intervals, if they were ever really uttered at all. Eight, nine words were sometimes enough for widespread and lasting alterations to the great map on the dining room table. And later, when the time was right, new words for a new listener and once again the picture would change. The effects could be estimated and predicted, like when you play chess with yourself. Aunt Gerda remembered some lines of poetry she’d read as a child.

BOOK: The Listener
8.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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