Authors: Tove Jansson
A CHILDHOOD MEMOIR
with an introduction by
by Ali Smith
SMALL CHILD IS DIGGING A HOLE
in one of the walls of the city apartment she lives in with her parents. It's solitary work, but she's already âgot quite a long way â¦ the wooden panelling went all right but then I had to use the marble hammer.' Luckily her father is a sculptor so she has the tools to hand; in fact the hole she's digging is in his studio wall.
She's making a âsecret tunnel' in a story called
because danger, when you're a child, âlies in wait everywhere.' After you're born pretty much everything is dangerous, the child announces at the end of this story, which begins with a nightmarish landscape â a too-gothic church, foul jagged rubbish glinting everywhere, locked doors, a house with no windows â and goes on to transform an innocent visit to the ice rink into âthe worst thing of all', a vision of existentialism in which âhundreds of shadowy figures skate round and round, all in the same direction, resolutely and pointlessly.'
The pile-up of terrifying images â not just dark ice and Scandinavian gloom, but snakes, monsters, a visit to the waxworks where âyou can see how easy it is to smash people to pieces â¦ crushed, torn in half or sawn into little bits' â becomes grist to the mill in a piece which turns into a children's game, funny and fast, moving at the speed of light and transforming danger into something exhilarating, the child ricocheting in near-euphoria between the joy and the fear of feeling anything at all.
But there's something else, something other than this game, at the heart of it. Her father isn't the only artist in the house, her mother is one, too; the child, descended from art, is hiding her escape tunnel behind a wall-hanging of a painting her mother made when she was young, of evening light in a wood, and when the child looks at this painting she knows that there's an even more intense state of feeling possible, something more powerful than self-torture and frenetic destruction, more powerful even than going into hiding.
Everything except the sky has gone dark in a vague greyish brown but there are narrow red streaks that burn like fire. I love her picture. It goes deep into the wall, deeper than my hole â¦ it goes on endlessly and one never gets to the place where the sun is setting but the red gets more and more intense. I'm sure it's burning!
Art and life, light and dark, child's play and deadly seriousness, hilarity and despair, creativity and existential cataclysm, and all of these oppositions held simultaneously and brought to work together: this
is Tove Jansson territory. More,
originally published in Finland as
back in 1968, could be said to be closer to home for Tove Jansson than any of her other fictional works.
ANSSON WAS BORN
in Helsinki in 1914 into an avowedly artistic family. Her father, Viktor Jansson, was a Finnish sculptor and her mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, or Ham to her children, was Swedish, an illustrator, graphic designer and caricaturist, and a career woman who eventually designed Finnish postage stamps, watermarks and banknotes. For Ham, art was work and work was money, especially since there wasn't much sure money in sculpture. Tove, born in July 1914 on the eve of the First World War, was a professional artist and writer herself as early as her mid-teens.
She began the first of the series of books for children that would make her internationally famous, the books about the Finn Family Moomintroll, in the middle of yet another war, publishing it in 1945; the story goes that she wrote and drew
The Moomins and the Great Flood,
a work centred on innocence and naivety, consciously to dispel some of the foulness, darkness and depression of the Second World War years.
The Moomins and the Great Flood,
only very recently published in English for the first time, is a book of darkness, mud and storms, where a mother and child, travelling to find both a home and the family's father, light their way with a tulip, find sun and hospitality and befriend many creatures
on their journey. At one point they set sail using an armchair for a boat:
âGo carefully!' cried the small creature. He was sitting on the backrest and looking around, for it had occurred to him that they might find something valuable floating in the water after the flood. For example a casket full of jewels. Why not? He kept a sharp watch, and when he suddenly saw something gleaming in the water, he shouted loudly with excitement. âGo that way,' he cried. âThere's something shining over there.'
It's only an old bottle, not treasure at all, but of course there's a message in it. One of Jansson's own repeated messages-in-a-bottle to us over the course of a lifetime of art and writing â seven decades of work (she died in 2001), for people of all ages â is that there'll always be treasure gleaming somewhere in what you salvage, and it'll probably be unexpected.
The phrase âless is more' might have been coined specifically for an aesthetic practice like Jansson's. She was a consummate editor, a composer of prose so tightly disciplined that the end effect is somehow universal and cornucopic. In Jansson's work, smallness, and attention to the smallest detail, most often leads her reader to something more like epic in understanding; and matters and practices in art and in prose are always, for her, related to matters of living and surviving. As the child puts it in the story called
Flotsam and Jetsam
a story about all sorts of salvage and surprises as well as how to live communally and graciously in a
wild and stormy world, âone mustn't have a single unnecessary thing in a boat.'
ten years after the death of Jansson's father, when her mother was 86 (Ham died in 1970). By now Jansson was working towards what would be the last, the darkest and the wintriest of the Moomin books,
Moominvalley in November.
âI want to write something new,' she told her partner, the graphic artist, Tuulikki PietilÃ¤, âin fully adult mode yet about what is still a small world.'
was the first of a dozen texts that Jansson would write specifically for adults rather than children, an important book in this transition for her, a threshold work; the next thirty years of her life would be devoted to fiction for adults.
Since the republication of her 1972 novel
The Summer Book
in the UK ten years ago, a steadily growing readership here has seen several of Tove's works (and there are many more to come, which is tremendously exciting) become available in English, often for the first time. Each of these discoveries or rediscoveries is itself a sort of surprise, a fresh illumination of the quiet brilliance of Jansson's aesthetic. Now, as we approach the centenary of her birth in 2014,
is back in print here for the first time in over forty years. It is the revelation of a classic.
Tove Jansson's artwork for the original Swedish publication of Bildhuggarens Dotter (Sculptor's Daughter), Schildts, 1968.
Though it is the most admittedly autobiographical of her books, Jansson, who âfought shy of biographies,' all her life, would never herself have called it a memoir. Is it one? Strictly, no. But her books are always more than one thing (the only strictness she's ever interested in as a writer is aesthetic, like the tightness of edit mentioned above) and, in the same way as her writing for children can be read with an adult philosophical eye, allowing, in books written primarily for children, the child and the adult to co-exist,
is versatile. One of the things it goes out of its way to do is to return child consciousness and child logic to the adult state, complete with the wisdom of aftermath and experience. It might also be said to function as an aesthetic primer; it teaches its reader, both primally and with sophistication, about art and the uses of art, it is all about art's own versatility. Most of all, it is a calibrated work of art, of the imagination, in itself.
In it, a sculptor father who treats his studio and his work as sacrosanct (and expects everybody round him to) sculpts alongside an artist mother who works exceptionally hard, mostly for money (âlike in town when drawing was done at night and made you so tired that you felt sick'). The child inherits both modes, the mother's disciplined practicality and the father's more ceremonial theatricality.
The collection examines art and competitiveness in a world where the worst insult is the word amateur. âYou're not a real artist!' the child shouts at a woman she's jealous of. âYou're nobody's surprise!' There's a lesson in how to focus: âyou can close your mind to things if something is important enough. It works very well. You make yourself very small, shut your eyes tight and say a big word
over and over again until you're safe' (
). There's a lesson in how art can protect: âI captured this cruel thing on paper so that it couldn't get at me' (
). There's a lesson in how to draw a forest, in
a story about our responsibility towards the landscapes we inhabit â a story in which child becomes landscape and landscape becomes child, time disappears and the telling of stories allows the imagination space and the space we inhabit its own wild imagination: âThat was a good story â Another one.'
Safety is a grave matter in
where the telling of stories is more than just an act of pleasure, it's a ritual connected with warmth, security and home. There are rules everywhere; part of the joy of the book is in the following of them but a large part is in the breaking of them, the acceptance of natural wildness: âit was marvellous! The grass was under water, the sea was rising all the time, and the storm and the night made the whole landscape look quite different.'
One of the sources of power throughout is Jansson's effortless-seeming ventriloquism, her delivery of the child's voice, a device as clear as water, or perhaps as magnifying and altering (and as deceptive when it comes to true depth) as looking through clear water. Voice throughout
is an amalgam of formal and informal, a fusion of innocence and irony in the parroting of the parents' practicality and theatricality; it inhabits both the past tense and the present in a multiconsciousness of both which is only the beginnings of its skilled implication. It is never
sentimental. It can reveal in a throwaway comment â like âwomen always forgot to shut doors after them,' or Females âare asocial and wouldn't even obey orders during a war' â what's routinely said, what's acceptable and what's expected, as well as what's not being said, what can't be said and what's undercurrent in everything that's said.
Jansson's use of form is also deceptive, and masterfully subtle. The collection apes simplicity, looks at the outset to be a series of haphazardly organized childhood vignettes. On a closer look, each of its stories is a piece of discrete virtuoso; this is a book full of stories, each separately so good, so expertly judged that this would be more than enough; but best and quietest of all (and Jansson is a master of the quietness of form) each one is unexpectedly the source of what comes after it, each one blooms unforeseeably out of the one before. A word or phrase casually used in one will be the germ or seed for the next. It's almost invisible, as a formal device, only there if you really look. A mention of a grandmother hiding things under a skirt in
The Spinster Who Had An Idea
is followed by a full-blown, under-the-skirt story,
The Tulle Skirt,
where the child hides herself under one and looks out through it at the apartment as a dramatic new world. A throwaway moment in
The Tulle Skirt,
the image of an open window which happens to let a casual, pretty drift of snow fall on the apartment floor, gives way to
a story where the child and her mother survive in a house under deep snow â a story about how stories connect us, and how a sharing of stories
is the opposite of solitariness. The book is a masterpiece of this formal lightness of touch, and of an undercurrent connectivity. And, as the child knows, in art âmaking a whole is very important. Some people just paint things and forget the whole' (
HERE ARE REAL PEOPLE
here in these stories. Real things that happened to Tove Jansson and her family pass through them all: she really did sleep in a bunk high up on a shelf; her father really did have a pet monkey; her mother really did work that hard; and they really did spend summers on an island and winters in the city. Work colleagues and artist friends of her parents flit in quick-footed cameos through the text. Perhaps most delightfully of all it's interesting to know that the small drippy-nosed child called Poyu, who also loves to be tormented by fear in that story called
grew up in real life to become the Sibelius expert Erik Tawaststjerna.