Book Review: A Winter Book (Tove Jansson)

Some accounts offer us the heightened middle of a life led: A Winter Book offers us the book-ends to Tove Jansson’s long life. Herein lie twenty stories dealing with childhood and older age; however, for the larger part, the reader is really engaging with semi-autobiographical material. We can suspend our imaginations for a certain period and indulge in the idea that pure fictions are present, but at the back of the reading mind is the knowledge of something different taking shape. The feeling is all the more succinct for this reader, having recently immersed in Jansson’s much acclaimed The Summer Book (1972, 2003) and her novel, The True Deceiver (1982, 2009). The body of work is like a succession of waves.

A Winter Book (Sort Of Books, English translation from the original Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart, 2006) is, according to the introduction by Ali Smith, a combination of select stories about childhood from Jansson’s first collection (Sculptor’s Daughter; Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968) and a smattering of pieces from various later sources, translated into English for the first time. The stories span periods between 1968-71 and 1991-98: the latter being three years before Jansson’s death at the age of 86.

The reader must first accept the slow pace of the story offerings in this collection in order to begin the process of engagement (whether having read previous Jansson offerings or not). Each piece stands alone, but as the reader delves deeper into the pages, Jansson’s characters start to return to the shore, in the analogy: of course, here are the repetitions of Jansson’s parents, Signe (known as Ham, for Hammarsten) and Viktor, both artists, but here too are others such Old Charlie, sketched in to a few of the stories, before taking his leave again. This sketching process is one of Jansson’s signatures. She uses an economy of words which, for the most part, works well (we are left to think); however, perhaps a little more could have been offered in the economy of words that form some of the story titles: Albert, Jeremiah, Annie are titles that don’t frame the story offerings so well.

Fourteen of the twenty stories in A Winter Book are concerned with childhood. It is Jansson’s childhood and what soon becomes clear is the worldview of this child as inculcated by two artistic, Bohemian parents in the early 1920s or thereabouts, in Helsinki and the outer lying islands of the Gulf of Finland. Parties, for example, is an account of a child/Jansson who is subsumed into the culture of her father’s Bohemian gatherings, and her mother’s own art and engagement with these parties, and who doesn’t question any of this way of being: she just accepts it as the normal way of things. She writes as the child narrator, in concluding the piece:

‘I go to bed and hear Daddy tuning his balalaika. Mummy lights the oil lamp. There’s a completely round window in the bedroom . . . One can see out across all the roofs and over the harbour and gradually all the windows go dark except one. It is the one under Victor Ek’s asbestos wall. There’s a light on there all night. I think they’re having a party there too. Or perhaps they’re illustrating books.’

Jansson’s mother was an illustrator. Added to this forming worldview, as written, are moments of understanding of childness, some succinct wisdoms extolled, and comprehension of the (ir)rational logic that children sometimes express. For example, in The Stone, the child narrator pushes a metallic-like object she’s found all the way home and up several flights of steps, believing it to be made of silver (silver, not gold, which will make her rich); there are wisdoms such as ‘a [male] friend never forgives, he just forgets, and a woman forgives but never forgets’, and the quiet Zen-like quality of ‘One always lands up somewhere. That’s important’; of the irrational — or rational — logic, in The Iceberg a child narrator articulates that, if no-one speaks about the iceberg that the family row past, then that iceberg therefore belongs to her.

Jansson’s accumulated wisdoms, as spoken through her child narrator, also include (in Parties), regarding breaking the day in gradually following a gathering, ‘One must be able to move about in peace and quiet and see how one feels and wonder what it is one really wants to do’, and (in The Dark) ‘It is terribly important to find a hiding place in time.’ In fact, this is another wave to gently form and break (in the reading realisation that this ‘hiding’ is a motif that finds its occasional return): Jansson is hiding from the world that troubles her — in the very real sense of her returns to her summer island retreat (as seen in The Summer Book), as well as can be assumed in her children’s books about Moominvalley and its own worldview, and also in particular Winter Book moments such as in Snow (in which a child/Jansson, and her mother hide away in a snow-bound country house, where the latter works at her art); in Flying (in which the child narrator imagines flying and effectively hides away on the ceiling); in The Iceberg (in which the child expresses a desire to climb into a small grotto on the eponymous ‘vehicle’ floating by).

In The Boat and Me, Jansson describes her older child self, defying her father’s wishes by taking a small boat out for a solo rowing trek around the islands. It is a process of hiding, in part, but it’s also indicative of the spirit of adventure, the love of raw nature, and a certain sign of the times. Jansson shows here how children just need to do things sometimes (‘I don’t know why it’s important’, implying that it just is), and tells of ritual and rite of passage in rowing all the creeks and headlands and seeing ‘her territory’ (land) from the vantage point of the sea.

Albert is related as a childhood friend, and the story also touches on the child logic: ‘[On the raft] we reached deep water, but that was alright because we had both nearly learned to swim.’ There is that spirit of adventure to the story of the child narrator and Albert setting sail and getting caught out by the fog, but there are also the child ruminations here on death and fear (the former being an area Jansson returns to in later life, later in the collection, but from a more world-weary perspective). When looking closely enough at the collection as a whole, we begin to see the way that nascent processes on death, as well as on love and beauty, art and play, begin to form.

In Snow, the child narrator/Jansson becomes anxious at the snow trapping them in their country retreat, but her mother stops working and tells her that they’re hibernating, and they play, and the child is overwhelmed with love for her because of all of this. In Annie, the housekeeper by that name has a tempestuous relationship with the child Jansson; the child admires Annie’s strength and beauty and Annie understands the state of childness when the child becomes anxious at them stealing bird-cherry flowers openly and brazenly (Annie acknowledges the child’s sense of ‘wrongness’ and introduces hiding into the act of theft). Later in the same story, Jansson describes how the child plays ‘house’ with the things left out for her by Annie, with a sense of duty, knowing that a better house could be built in a different room. In High Water, Jansson describes her father, a sculptor, and his love of- and inspiration gleaned from storms: so Jansson, the child, loves storms too. They are of art. It is another small incoming wave to tell of this child’s forming worldview, taken on from the adults around her. Jansson’s father seems to need purpose and/or to be someone in touch with the seascape. Perhaps this is also true of Jansson herself.

Flotsam and Jetsam brings these ideas of worldview, seascape, art or beauty together. Despite the story being a tale of the convoluted local rules of salvage and principle, we can see how the idea of ‘doing things correctly’ is forming. There is some degree of twisted correctness here in the tale, but there is the nuance that is with due concern to the process of art: art is in the doing. This can be further read in The Spinster Who Had an Idea, in which the eponymous regular summer island guest and would-be artist tries her hand at various art endeavours but then interrupts the almost sacred ritual involved in Jansson’s parents’ casting of plaster.

Art and play come together, in the interpretation, in Jeremiah, in which the child narrator/Jansson sees play as a kind of art form after meeting and being in attendance to (‘looking after’) a visiting geologist where neither speaks the other’s language and so the communication is in play. When a female geologist also turns up, it unsettles the play/art relationship. In The Spinster Who Had an Idea, the child ultimately struggles with the concept ‘what is art?’ and with her father’s interpretations of what this is to him (albeit unwritten, this is heavily implied).

There are stories in this collection that aren’t so subtle or are laden and convoluted and which don’t reach the depths to which they might aspire. The Dark, for example, is a messy stream of consciousness affair with no real focus apart from being the continued inculcated worldview of the child who believes her lot to be the way it is, perhaps the only way we can or should be. German Measles is concerned with jealousy for a pet monkey and about having a guilty conscience. As such, the tale is very slight and without great depth. The first of Jansson’s later writings in this collection, The Squirrel, is similarly somewhat lacking. Despite the occasional succinct observation, such as Jansson’s insight into words placed face down overnight (‘because if words lie face down there’s a chance they might change during the night’), The Squirrel is a long and somewhat turgid exposition alluding to age: the routines and fixations of an isolated old woman who hides away (between her island’s rocks, in her bed), who potters with unnecessary necessaries, and who considers exactnesses. A squirrel invades her island, but there’s no empathy or sympathy here for her or for the squirrel. It is the child Jansson as an elderly woman but it doesn’t feel like that child character who naively takes on everything of the adult world around her.

There is a similar distancing felt in Letters from Klara. The theme is the tribulations of age but this epistolary piece reveals little of any great significance, despite (again) the occasional moment or enigmatic touch, such as in one of the crotchety Klara Nygård’s letters regarding how the aged start to give away their possessions. There is a passing thought, however, that maybe Klara Nygård may well be linked to the wise old Madame Nygård, portrayed in Jansson’s novel The True Deceiver (there being a penchant for returning characters, as would seem to be the case). This is as much as can be taken from this piece.

Jansson then delivers a piece of unexpected art. Messages begins in prosaic manner with a brief note from Tuulikki Pietilä (Tooti), Jansson’s partner, to her. It soon transpires that Messages is a collection of excerpts, no more than a few lines long each, received in various correspondences following Jansson’s success as an author. It is, at first, difficult to grasp the idea of this piece, as seemingly banal as these messages begin. However, gradually, through careful selection and juxtaposition, there is a sort of world-weary nuance at play, and the whole is shot through at exactly the right positions with banal and beautiful counterpoints. In amongst the variety of requests for product endorsements for Moomin pictures (on sanitary towels and marmalade jars, for example), for specially requested tattoo designs, or a request made by a sheepish ‘friend’ in asking for a drawing for her grand-daughter, in amongst a missive from a plagiarist incredulous that permission should have been sought for use of Jansson’s work, and amongst sinister accusations and cold warnings of Jansson being ‘watched’, there are the short, unneedy information-giving banalities of love from Tooti and the occasional poignant and extremely beautiful comments of a young Japanese fan.

For example, immediately after the confident arrogance of a group of young upstarts seeking endorsement for plastic products (as also referenced in the writing on Anna Aemelin in The True Deceiver), there is the elegance of Japanese Tamiko’s humility:

‘Dear Jansson san, I have collected money for a long time. I will come and sit at your feet to understand. Please when can I come there?’

The final two messages read:

‘I brought the washing in, you can put the potatoes on at 6. Someone called Anttiia phoned.’

‘Dear Jansson san, Take good care of yourself in this dangerous world. Please have a long life. With love.’

The overall effect is quite stunning. This reader/writer is left to wonder what Jansson would have made of these comments/messages here. There is a natural connection from Messages to Correspondence, in which Jansson creates a story of some of Tamiko Atsumi’s letters to her. Tamiko comes across as increasingly obsessive in her ‘love’ for Jansson from afar. In its overall brevity, the piece develops an uneasiness because of this ‘love’, albeit potentially lost in translation in the faltering English of someone admittedly coming to grips with learning the language. However, deftly and simply, Jansson brings us back to Tamiko’s elegant, humble and poignant concluding words.

We have been on a journey and we continue with the final two story offerings in this collection. In Travelling Light, Jansson writes ‘My voyage had suddenly been altered and my peace destroyed.’ This line is apt for this piece as we initially travel with the author in what we read as an at least semi-autobiographical tale of someone determined to escape the clamour of people by leaving life behind for a trip on a ship into the unknown. However, the tale of the fictionalised Jansson we fall into the fictive flow with is unsettled some half-way through when the narrator transpires to be a Mr Melander. At this point a certain degree of interest is lost because, in the context of the collection as a whole, this just does not fit. Perhaps Jansson has been far too deft here for her own good in successfully unsettling the reading process in a piece that focuses, in part, on the unsettling nature of other people (though we can’t read this for sure). It is a shame because Jansson offers some fine perspectives of world-weariness, though the nagging returns as to who is narrating here and this, ultimately, overwhelms the idea of how someone eventually returns to character traits they’ve always apparently exhibited, as is the direction of the end of this story.

The collection ends with Taking Leave: undoubtedly an account of some poignancy for Jansson (being concerned with the inevitability of age and of having to leave her summer island retreat with her partner, Tooti, for the very last time); however, the deliverance of that poignancy is not altogether realised in the writing. There is a short and satisfying detour about whether to signpost visitors to the ‘secret room’ in their soon-to-be discarded house (they don’t signpost but Jansson writes ‘We put a small bottle of rum in [the secret room] as a surprise and as a reward’), but for the larger part Jansson makes use of the writerly device of Tooti narrating to her the tale of their boat being sunk one summer in a storm. It is a back-story nod towards the memories of place, times, objects, and leaving the island behind. The device feels somewhat clumsy though and Jansson then moves into her final symbolic ending: that of an old kite of theirs, found again, and taken away on the wind across the Gulf of Finland. Despite this, Taking Leave doesn’t quite leave us with a feeling of everything being left behind: Jansson floats off, as does her kite.

What A Winter Book does do is add to the character that is Tove Jansson, who we see in her childhood adventures and forming worldview and comprehensions of art and beauty and play, through her primary interactions with her artist parents, and in the affects on her by the occasional childhood friend, adult acquaintance rowing by, or oddity of adult such as Jeremiah the geologist or Annie the housekeeper rowing by her life in the analogy; A Winter Book also delivers the wisdoms of Jansson the elder, her world-weariness and resignations, and her coping strategies with the world that is so much bigger than she ever could deal with. Jansson’s identity is of the seascape: her writing is of waves and returns. In the end, Jansson lost faith in the sea, became fearful of it, and she knew it was the beginning of the end.

A Winter Book marks the book-ends of a long life in art and beauty, love and nature.
 
 

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