I have a thing about islands. It goes back to my training in cartography; islands are wonderfully discrete units to map. As social-ecological systems they provide a clear place to draw boundaries, and feel knowable as a tourist, even though for large ones like Australia this is an entirely illusory sentiment. So I really enjoyed it when Lauren Groff’s Introduction of a book of Tove Jansson’s short fiction, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, began with, “Tove Jansson is a writer of islands”. The phrase has many meanings here, as Jansson – best known as the author of the Moomintroll series for children – spent most of her life in the Pellinge archipelago of Finland. Such an island features heavily in her novella for adults The Summer Book (also excellent). In that book Jansson wrote, “An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete…” Groff pushes the analogy further, linking short fiction to the discreteness and completeness of islands. In Jansson’s words (quoted in Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words. (2014)):
I love the short story, concentrated and united around a single idea. There must be nothing unnecessary in it, one must be able to hold the tale enclosed in one’s hand.
I read predominantly short fiction to fulfill my craving for narrative. In a busy academic life, I know that a full-length novel will cause me to neglect my responsibilities, or stay up too late to meet obligations in other parts of my life. Those are the practical reasons why I read short fiction. The full reason includes my joy at the concision and self-contained nature of good short fiction, for instance Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America or George Saunders Tenth of December (if I’m feeling resilient). Groff’s insights on Jansson show me that my love of islands may also be connected.