Monday 9 July 2012

Magical Finnish Stories - With Not a Moomin in Sight

Tove Jansson
Writer and artist Tove Jansson is best known for her children's books about the Moomins, which I have never read, but she also wrote for adults, and The Summer Book and A Winter Book are both utterly enchanting. The first is the story of an elderly artist who spends the summer with her six-year-old grand-daughter on the family's small isolated Finnish island. The second is a collection of Jansson's work (put together since her death), based on memories of her childhood, and correspondence, including letters from a young Japanese girl.

When reading a foreign author it's sometimes difficult to know how much of the writing is their work, and how much is due to the translator, but there is no problem here: Jansson's voice and style are the same in both books, although different translators were involved. She writes (or perhaps I should say wrote – it would be more accurate) beautifully. She is warm, wise, gentle and generous, and has a tremendous zest for life. 

The Summer Book was inspired by her mother, the illustrator Signe Hammarsten and her niece Sophie. It's not a conventional novel with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's a series of incidents, in which feelings and emotions are explored as the child (and the old woman) come to terms with their fears and learn about life, friendship, approaching death – and the way old age can provide new freedoms, as well as imposing physical and mental restrictions. I thought the following passage offered a poignant view of the way memory fades:

That's strange, Grandmother thought. I can't describe things any more. I can't find the words, or maybe it's just that I'm not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it's as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it's lost.

She and Sophie collect skeletons and stones for the Magic Forest; they build a miniature Venice in the marsh, but it is washed away by floods, just as the real city is threatened by water. They take an abandoned kitten, who is less than grateful for their ministrations, and they try to entertain Sophie's friend, who scared of them and the island, because it is all unknown territory and not all like her own home and family.

It's a magical time, but Jansson is never twee: life can be sad and hard, and people don't always get along. It's clear that Sophie and her grand mother love each other, but that doesn't stop them quarrelling. At times they can be cantankerous and cross, but they support each other, and Grandmother knows how to soothe Sophie's fears and anger, helping the child to discover truths about life for herself, and never imposing her own views and values. She uses what Granny Weatherwax (in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series), calls 'headology' to give her young grand-daughter what she needs, rather than what she wants.

At the end of the summer, before they return to the mainland, the family prepare the house for winter, and even leave notes for anyone who might be shipwrecked, telling them where everything is, and how to work the stove.

A Winter Book explores similar themes, and also seems to be drawn from Jansson's own life. There are delightful tales about her Bohemian childhood with her artist parents; a short story about a woman and a squirrel battling for survival; letters from a Japanese girl, turned into a kind of poem.

In one short, bitter-sweet tale, the child finds a huge, silver rock, as big as she is, which no-one else has ever seen, and tries to rolls it home, with disastrous results. In another she meets an iceberg, so close she can reach out and touch it, and considers jumping into a grotto which is just the right size for her to curl up in. Instead, she throws her father's lighted torch into the little cave: the iceberg glows like a green emerald, so beautiful that she cannot bear to look at it. In another story she is pursued by her angry father when she sails off alone after getting her own rowing boat at the age of 12, and elsewhere she feels joyous exhilaration when a terrible storm strikes at the end of a long, stifling summer. 

Most moving of all is her account of the onset of old age, and how she and her partner leave Klovharun (an island even more isolated than the one featured in The Summer Book) because they can no longer manage.

There came a summer when it was suddenly an effort to pull in the nets. The terrain became unmanageable and treacherous. This made us more surprised than alarmed, perhaps we weren't old enough yet, but to be on the safe side I built a couple of steps and Tooti fixed up some guide ropes and hand grips here and there, and we continued as usual but ate less fish.

Worse follows:

And that last summer something unforgivable happened: I became afraid of the sea. Large waves were no longer connected with adventure, only anxiety and responsibility for the boat, and indeed all boats that ply the sea in bad weather. It wasn't fair; even in my worst dreams the sea had always been an unfailing deliverance: the danger was after you, but you hopped in and sailed away and were safe and never returned. That fear felt like a betrayal – my own.

The thing that struck me most about both books is that I have rarely read anything where the author is so much part of the place where she lives. Jansson is part of the weather and landscape, and knows every inch of the land, sea and sky, and has the greatest respect for them. She makes no impassioned pleas for preservation the environment, but her way of life, dependent on the changing seasons, speaks for itself. She seems to be at one with the world around her, accepting her place in it, and working with it, not against it. And even when she is old and must leave her island, she still has hope for the future and an enjoyment in whatever life has to offer.

On the last day, when Tooti was clearing up the cellar, she found one of our kites from the 1960s and took it out on to the slope. Just for fun, she gave it a little push on its tail and at that moment a gust of wind came along and took the kite with it and it flew high, straight up, and continued far out across the Gulf of Finland.

Both books are published by More Than Books, with nice covers with French flaps (I like French flaps), and a selection of old photographs of the author and her family which would, I felt,  have benefited from captions beneath them. 

This was posted for the 'Something You'd Find on a Calendar' section of the What's In A Name  Challenge at
Tove Jansson as a child,
reproduced from The Summer Book.


  1. I have The Summer Book,True Detective, and Fair Play sitting so nicely together on my shelf, waiting, waiting...
    I'll come back and read this when I read them. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Nan, I think you would enjoy The Summer Book - you would appreciate her love and respect for the land and the sea, and the way their life is so much part of the seasons and the environment.

  2. I have only read Jansson's Fair Play, which consists of vignettes about her life together with her partner on the island. And I have also listened to an abridged dramatised BBC version of The Summer Book, but reading the book would probably be a better choice. Am really interested in The Winter Book too, though some of the stories are said to be found in her collection of autobiographical stories in Sculptor's Daughter (which I have but yet to read). Still, I think the French flaps must be a lovely thing to have and to hold. :)

    1. Michelle, as far as I can gather The Winter Book was put together by the publishers, with material from other sources, and yes, some of it is from The Sculptor's Daughter (which I haven't read either). It is a lovely collection though, and makes a nice introduction to her work. I must admit that until recently I didn't even realise she wrote for adults, but I really want to read some more.