A Winter Book: selected stories
Sort of Books 2006
It seems that everybody who’s heard of Tove Jansson knows her as the author of a series of illustrated books about some Finnish trolls. Though I’ve yet to fall under their particular spell — and heaven knows enough people have urged me to — I’ve instead been captivated by her writing for adults.
My admiration began with the collection of short stories published in English as Art in Nature and continued with The Summer Book. Now, with the selection of pieces known as A Winter Book, I revisit some of the sense of wistfulness I’ve noted before, coupled with a fierce independence of spirit that permeates virtually every story.
Though there are references to ice and snow in some of the offerings, this alluring ragbag of writings (selected and introduced by writer Ali Smith) doesn’t deal exclusively with winter, but in a series of vignettes it does perfectly sum up that end of year feeling when one looks back to review what one’s life has accomplished and what it might all signify.
The three sections are entitled Snow, Flotsam and Jetsam, and Travelling Light, each taking their name from one of the six or seven pieces in that respective part. Part 1 is mostly set in Helsinki, where the author’s artistic parents would spend the winter months. These seven tales are partly autobiographical but also partake of that dream world which a solitary and imaginative child would conjure up for herself. Some narratives take on an almost mythic aspect, featuring for example a Sisyphean stone of silver, a mischievous monkey running amuck, flying without wings or a stream which may or may not duplicate gold and jewels thrown into it; yet all are set in a mundane urban environment.
Many of the items in Part 2 move to the island that will be familiar to readers from The Summer Book, when the Jansson family would up sticks to a treeless rock in the Baltic Sea. More realistic though these may be they nevertheless bring out the young Tove’s wilful determination to follow her own inclinations where adults are concerned, whether it’s sailing solo at night, attempting to board a mini iceberg or playing mind games with unwelcome visitors to the island.
Part 3 skips to the concerns of the adult Tove, the six stories being a mix of semi-fiction and pure creative writing. ‘The Squirrel’ ruminates on a wild visitor to an island: which is the alien, the animal or the single human? Following on that a trio of pieces feature, first, an imaginary Klara who writes with varying degrees of grumpiness to various correspondents, then a sequence of truncated messages, many quite demented, from Moomin fans and other personages; finally a group of ultimately quite sad letters, from a youngish Japanese admirer, which continue for several years until they end on a melancholy note.
That melancholy infuses the final two pieces too. ‘Travelling Light’ is about a misanthrope who goes on a cruise to London, hoping to get away from needy friends and acquaintances, but who finds that strangers are even more needy: little touches such as their urge to show family photos merely emphasises that while some ships may pass in the night others insist on travelling in convoy. ‘Taking Leave’ is an account of the older Jansson and her partner realising that age has rendered island living increasingly impractical, and they formulate plans to vacate the place for the last time.
Anger, melancholy, unsettling visions, the oddities of strangers, the possessiveness of fans — one could be forgiven for thinking A Winter Book is a depressing read. Yet I found it positive and, above all, a confirmation: that it’s not abnormal to occasionally shun company and rely on one’s own entertainment; that it’s a mark of creativity to see the world differently from others, to have that singular vision which you can, through your art, share vicariously with like minds; that it’s not unusual to be moody, to swim against the tide of approved behaviour, to love the exotic taste of beautiful words, to abandon mementos which one once set great store by.
This edition is decorated with exquisite archive photos of the author and her family at various stages in her life. Along with the superbly presented translations by Silvester Mazzarella, Kingsley Hart and David McDuff there are also brief but incisive appreciations by fellow writers Philip Pullman, Esther Freud and Frank Cotterell Boyce. As Pullman rightly observes, these are tales “as tough as good rope” yet as “beautiful as sea-worn driftwood,” a real breath of “Nordic summer” — and of course its seasonal counterpart.
Paula Bardell-Hedley (who publishes as Book Jotter) has been posting reviews and discussions about Finnish author Tove Jansson under the banner of Tove Trove, inviting other bloggers to join in as and when (no targets, no deadlines); this is my current contribution, posted — appropriately for the title — on the eve of the winter equinox.
Also for today the Twitter discussion #DelightfulXmas (focusing on John Masefield’s classic The Box of Delights) begins, continuing afterwards for twelve days for each of the dozen chapters. I hope to put up a couple of progress reports during this timeframe, with a review at the end.