There is something delightfully unique about Tove Jansson's writing. I can't really explain what it is--she is so creative and there is a magical quality to her storytelling. Even writing autobiographically it feels like she is telling you this mesmerizing, funny story that engages you fully maybe even in a tactile way. If you have read her before, you'll know what I mean. It's as if she has an entirely different way of looking at the world. If I told a similar story it would never sound so interesting. I think, too, there is a merging between autobiography and fiction and it works both ways. In her short stories I see glimpses of her own life and in the memoir, The Sculptor's Daughter: A Childhood Memoir there is a short story feel to them as if you are entering a world not quite real. But it is real, just foreign to me by nature of time and place.
Tove Jansson was born in 1914 and I get the sense that the Tove telling us these childhood stories is perhaps ten or likely even younger. There are nineteen chapters that read almost like stories in their own right. Each complete in itself, but less like stories perhaps, and not quite full-fledged memoir (since they are told from a child's vantage point) but maybe impressions and observations. Little vignettes of different aspects of her childhood, people and places and events.
What's so charming about this book is the voice she uses. While the book was published in the late 1960s, she captures a child's wonder perfectly. She even gets just right the feel that a child is looking out over her world--of her parents and neighbors and home and nature and seeing, observing, but maybe not seeing everything exactly as it really is. The nuance is not that of a knowing adult, but rather with a lovely sense of wonder. Most people lose that as they get older. I know I (sadly) have, so it is a real talent that she can still capture that essence of youthful delight.
And her childhood was not really average and everyday, I think. Both parents were artists, so you can see where her talent must have come from. Her mother was an illustrator and her father a sculptor. They shared their house with a menagerie of animals, down to a monkey! Living in Finland they were close to the sea and must have spent their summers on an island. She has a great appreciation of nature. And we're talking northern Finland where she could get close enough to almost touch an iceberg. Just imagine. No wonder her stories are so unusual and so vivid.
Curiously my two very favorite parts of this book have to do with snow and cold and ice, which I am happy to leave behind with spring now having arrived. But the imagery having to do with these things can be really beautiful and Tove Jansson has a way of making it seem quite compelling. I almost wish I was there despite the frozen world she describes (which I think surely must be the mark of a really talented writer). This is a testament to what true cold/winter is like since she was on an island in Finland (which sits in part just inside the Arctic Circle.
"Summer came so early that year that it might almost have been called spring--it was a kind of present and everything one did had to be thought out differently. It was cloudy and very calm."
Tove is in a rowboat with her parents and they spot an iceberg and all she can think is that it is her iceberg and if anyone says a word about it, it won't be hers anymore. Her father only remarks that it broke off early and only recently, and they continue past it. And so it was hers! She knew it would follow her home. She went to bed and then woke up in the night with the house utterly still. She takes a flashlight and goes outside and there it sits at the end of the point bumping against the rocks. Just a little bit closer and she might have jumped over to it.
"I lay down flat on the rock, reached out with my hand and broke off one of the icicles in the grating. It was so cold it felt hot. I held onto the grating with both hands and could feel it melting. The iceberg was moving as one does when one breathes--it was trying to come to me."
"My hands and my tummy began to feel icy cold and I sat up. The grotto was the same size as me, but I didn't dare jump. And if one doesn't dare to do something immediately one never does it."
So, she takes the flashlight and tosses it over and tells the iceberg to "clear off!". She goes back to her house and turns to look back.
"When I got to the steps I turned round and looked. My iceberg shone steadily out there like a green beacon and the batteries would last until sunrise because they were always new when one had just moved to the country. Perhaps they would last another night, perhaps the torch would go on shining at the bottom of the sea after the iceberg melted and turned into water."
Isn't that wonderful? Imagine being so close you can pull an icicle off an iceberg. And then imagine it floating off into the horizon with the light illuminating it in the icy darkness! I am sure snowy winters are more than common, they are expected in Finland? No wonder she describes a snowstorm so very perfectly.
"I looked at everything until I knew that soon we would be done for. This snow had decided to go on falling until everything was a single, vast wet snowdrift, and nobody would remember what had been underneath it. All the trees would sink into the earth and all the houses. No roads and no tracks--just snow falling and falling."
"The fringe of the forest couldn't be seen any longer, it had slid over. The world had capsized, it was turning over quietly, a little bit every day."
"The whole world was full of things rolling, slithering and falling."
"The snow stopped falling downwards, it flew horizontally. It fell upwards and disappeared. Everything that couldn't hold on tight rolled out into space and slowly the sky went dark and turned black."
So much snow that there house is covered and the family as if in hibernation.
"At last we were absolutely safe and protected. This menacing snow had hidden us inside the warm for ever and we didn't have to worry a bit about what went on there outside."
"Then we began our underground life. We walked around in our nighties and did nothing. Mummy didn't draw. We were bears with pine needles in our stomachs and anyone who dared come near our winter lair was torn to pieces. We were lavish with the wood, and threw log after log on to the fire until it roared."
I'll keep reading my way through Tove Jansson's books. Since I am only just finishing her childhood memoirs it seems fitting to pick up a Moomin book next. I've got The Moomins and the Great Flood to start with. It is the original Moomin story, which was published in Finland in 1945. I think it is going to be as much of a treat as Sculptor's Daughter was.