Too many days have passed in a fog and even this is hard to write, because I had already written and lost it, so peeking out from the blur of la grippe (flu), I hope I find the inspiration that assisted me first time round.
I came across a review for Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book after spending an evening reading Katie Metcalfe’s sublime poetry here.
Metcalfe is a young contemporary poet from Teesside, in the North of England, who churns out poetry at an astonishing rate and has an abundant talent for getting to the heart of it, all of it, any of it, whatever it is she chooses to write about in that heart-felt way that only poetry can do.
Inspired by the Arctic and snowy landscapes, it was no wonder a book like Jansson’s would appeal to her. And something about it appealed to me too, a collection of tales to read in winter, semi-autobiographical bite sized vignettes of another creative spirit.
Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was not known to me, but will be known to many as she was the author of the children’s fantasy Moomin books. The Moomins are a family of pale, rotund trolls with large snouts, resembling hippopotamuses. Sniff, Snufkin, Moominmamma, Moominpapa and more, they live in Moominvalley in the forests of Finland and have lots of adventures.
Jansson was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature in 1966.
Her first collection of stories for adults The Summer Book was published in 1972, and this more recent collection spans her writing career, like seaside keepsakes gathered over the years. I now have The Summer Book, but shall make that a seasonal read as well.
The daughter of creative parents, her father a sculptor and her mother an illustrator, Jansson’s own imagination has been given full rein and it comes out in her first stories, which are told from the perspective of a girl, whom I am sure was the author herself. In fact all through the book, I was left more with a feeling of reading non-fiction than anything else. This selection draws from five collections presenting the best of her short fiction.
In one story entitled Snow, she writes of a girl and her mother being snowed in, the light slowly disappearing as the windows are covered up and expresses her delight in having escaped the outside world, warm in the safe and secure presence of her cheerful mother.
“..we have gone into hibernation. Nobody can get in any longer and no one can get out!”
I looked carefully at her and understood that we were saved. At last we were absolutely safe and protected. This menacing snow had hidden us inside in the warmth for ever and we didn’t have to worry a bit about what went on there outside.
Jansson spent every summer living and working on a tiny island off the coast of Finland, returning to Helsinki for the more difficult months and clearly spent many summers in boats and on the island during her childhood. Another memorable story was The Boat and Me, she is given her first boat at twelve-years-old and wastes no time in asserting her new-found independence, taking the boat out along the coast to look at her favourite spots from another perspective, with little regard for the hours that pass by or the hearts that might be fretting.
I go slowly, hugging the shore, into each creek and out round each headland; I mustn’t miss anything out because it’s a ritual. Now I’m about to see my territory from the sea for the first time, that’s important.
I pulled up the anchor-stone and rowed straight out into the path of the moon. Of course the moon’s path is lovely as a picture in calm weather, but when it’s rough, it’s even more beautiful, all splinters and flakes from precious stones like sailing through a sea set with diamonds.
And at that very moment Dad turned up…
But my favourite story has to be the one that follows, in a section entitled Travelling Light, signifying the latter years, where annoyance is more likely the emotion of choice to greet uninvited guests in place of the enthusiasm or delight of her more youthful years. Even when that guest is an island-hopping squirrel.
Either I am incredibly gullible or this story will teach you something new about the intelligence of squirrels, as a reader I was right there with squirrel and hoping for the best, while Jansson was lining up his escape options, ill inclined to do anything to encourage the lonesome animal to stay.
She didn’t care about squirrels, or fly fishermen, or anyone, but just let herself slip down into a great disappointment and admit she was disappointed. ‘How can this be possible?’ she thought frankly. ‘How can I be so angry that they’ve come at all and then so dreadfully disappointed that they haven’t landed?’
Not just a quiet, honest collection of stories, but containing wonderful black and white photos that add to the atmosphere the author evokes and make us feel the heaviness and significance of that final story, Taking Leave, the last visit, when the nets have become too heavy to pull, the boat too difficult to handle, the sea too unpredictable for two aging women. It is with a quiet sadness but knowledge that many happy hours were spent, that we turn the last page on that final visit.