by Sonya Chung
I am sometimes tempted to create and claim an alternate childhood: sepia memories featuring fantastical lands, imaginary friends and foes, brilliant DIY costumes and dwellings; and, of course, books upon books from which such storytelling genius sprung. I am a writer, after all, and what is a writer if not a card-carrying lonely bookworm from birth?
But in my real childhood, we didn’t have books; my parents weren’t readers. In any case they would not have read to us, because English was not their first language, and, looking back, I recognize that they were too troubled and exhausted for bedtime rituals like storytime. My sad childhood story, then, is that, without the solace of books, I was simply lonely. In pre-adolescence I became a romantic with low self-esteem, fixating on boys to sweeten the bitter sadness. Then, as a teenager, I stumbled from depression into organized religion: God would fill all that loneliness with his unconditional and all-powerful love. It was an irresistible idea at the time; it was what there was.
Books didn’t save me until I was an adult. They are still saving me. Another way of saying this is that, literarily, I am about 11 years old—falling in love over and again with that secret understanding, the deep solace that odd, lonely children typically find in books about odd, lonely children. I am consoled by beautiful, strange, truthful books quite as if I were still that achey-hearted, depressed young girl: I prefer these books to humans as true friends, and even seem to believe that they were written for me.
This is my best explanation for why the adult stories and novels of Tove Jansson (pronounced TOO-vuh YAHN-sun) have captivated me so fully. For some 25 years, Jansson wrote and illustrated the beloved Moomintroll books for children—15 books that made her Finland’s best-known author abroad. In 1968, at age 54, she published Sculptor’s Daughter, a collection of short childhood memoirs, and from then on wrote almost exclusively adult fiction—11 books over the next 30 years. But the Moomin books, and the years she spent writing them, evidently stayed with her; the result was a stirring art, both light and dark, consoling and disturbing, spare and intricate. A simplicity of expression belies the mystery of Jansson’s art—ostensibly plain, teeming with profound delights and worries—all of which this reader’s stunted, sad-girl soul is grateful to have discovered.
Hopefully many more will soon share in the bounty: in honor of Jansson’s centenary (she died at 86), New York Review Books is releasing this fall an extensive collection of Jansson’s stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. Drawing from five previously translated collections, the new book will join three of Jansson’s adult novels—The Summer Book, The True Deceiver, and Fair Play—in the NYRB Classics series.
Jansson’s transition from writing for children to writing for adults strikes one as rather seamless; as if, like the boats and icebergs that populate her Nordic setting, she floated slowly but fatefully, propelled by gentle undercurrents and the occasional potent storm—from dawn, to dusk, to dark and starry night. Earlier this year at The Millions, Alix Ohlin wrote:
Childhood, as I knew it, was rife with secrecy and weirdness, with actions that made sense to you but not anybody else. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Moomin. . . Tove Jansson understood that secrecy and strangeness are endemic to childhood.
What Jansson understood too was that the same secrecy and strangeness permeate all human experience; and that much of what we fear, want, and love remains unchanged, from beginning to end.
Sculptor’s Daughter is the book that straddled Jansson’s two literary careers, both temporally and substantively: the vignettes written in present tense, especially, read like a child speaking to another child, even as the insights and observations resonate hauntingly for the adult reader. In “Parties,” for example, Jansson invites us into the raucous evenings hosted by her artist-parents, and we understand that we are encountering both the child in real time and the author in retrospect:
I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes. . .
The table is the most beautiful thing. Sometimes I sit up and look over the railing and screw up my eyes and then the glasses and the candles and all the things on the table shimmer and make a whole as they do in a painting. Making a whole is very important. Some people just paint things and forget the whole. I know. I know a lot that I don’t talk about.
All men have parties and are pals who never let each other down. A pal can say terrible things which are forgotten the next day. A pal never forgives, he just forgets and a woman forgives but never forgets. That’s how it is. That’s why women aren’t allowed to have parties. Being forgiven is very unpleasant.
Family photographs are interspersed with text, as if a book without visuals was not yet conceivable for Jansson; and the images, like the memoirs themselves, evoke the range of emotions—from silliness (her father’s pet monkey Poppolino) to melancholy (a lone boat, the endless horizon) to danger (white water crashing beneath a black sky) to perfect safety (smiling, towheaded Tove at Christmastime).
The Summer Book (1972),Jansson’s first adult novel, features a six-year-old girl and an octogenarian grandmother as co-protagonists. “That The Summer Book feels simultaneously idyllic and sad,” Ohlin wrote, observing too the seamlessness in Jansson’s oeuvre, “—that it has moments of earthy humor. . . renders it very much a piece with the Moomin books.” Sophia and her ailing but plucky grandmother (both wonderfully complex characters) spend the summer on a tiny island-among-islands in the Gulf of Finland in the wake of Sophia’s mother’s death. The mother is barely mentioned, the father distracted and solitary; their absence is an absolute tragic presence at the same time it is irrelevant to the games, explorations, and battles between Sophia and Grandmother—rendered in Janssonian prose that is at once austere and rich, and in vignettes with titles like “The Cat,” “The Cave,” “The Neighbor,” and “The Enormous Plastic Sausage.”
Along with idyll, sadness, and humor, there is fury, terror, art, philosophy, religion, science, and—perhaps most importantly in the universe that is Jansson’s child-adult continuum—play. For Jansson, play is all, and eternal—it is work, love, conflict, and art. In “The Magic Forest,” Grandmother sits on the forest floor and whittles “outlandish animals” from “wood that had already found its form. . . that expressed what she wanted to say,” and she collects bones. Sophia asks what she is doing, and she says, “I’m playing.” Sophia joins in the game, and when she finds “a perfect skull of some large animal” to add to the collection, they bring it to the magic forest, where it “gleamed with all its teeth.” Suddenly, Sophia screams, “Take it away! Take it away!” There is little narration accompanying this moment, but the reader recognizes the raw panic of a six year-old whose mother has abruptly disappeared from her life. Death has entered the game, has overwhelmed both art and play, and Jansson’s restraint is powerful: henceforth, “Grandmother often went to the magic forest when the sun went down,” that is, without Sophia, on her own.
Sophia and Grandmother are playmates, partners in crime, and arch nemeses: together they create adventures, console each other, and argue. Their companionship is as genuine and complex as any between adult peers, perhaps more so. A testament to the fineness of the novel’s art—its authentic gaze into life’s beauty and pain—is that, when we discuss the book as a text in one of my undergraduate classes, I can choose—depending on the arc of the discussion and my sense of the students’ emotional maturity—whether or not to bring out the implication, in the final moments of the final vignette (“August,” the end of summer), of Grandmother’s impending death; and thus Sophia’s double abandonment at such a young age. The complexity of the relationship stands on its own, and the students have generally not seen that sorrowful ending without prompting; perhaps they can’t bear to.
The responsibility of that decision is one that I believe Jansson herself would appreciate. A theme that tracks from The Summer Book into Jansson’s stories, and most notably into The True Deceiver, is that of “pure” honesty. It seems clear that during her many years as a famous children’s book author, Jansson struggled with the question of whether children need protecting from the hard truths of life, or if, like the child of “Parties”—little Tove herself—it was better to understand, from an early age, “That’s how it is.” In The Summer Book, when Sophia and Grandmother find a dead sea bird, Sophia becomes angry and insists on a good story to explain it; despite herself, Grandmother concedes and tells her that he died when he was singing, “right when he was happier than he’d ever been before.” Later, when Sophia prays to God to “make something happen” because she is bored, a great storm comes, and she is frightened for having caused it; Grandmother again calms her by telling her that she herself prayed for the storm first.
But in a story called “The Cartoonist,” and then later in The True Deceiver, Jansson—through the characters Samuel Stein, an upstart cartoonist, and the helplessly kind children’s book author Anna Amelein—takes up this question directly, vis-a-vis the letters that illustrators receive from children. Stein is learning the ropes of the cartoon business, and to his elder colleague Carter, who never opens the letters he receives, he says, “You can’t do that. You’re famous, they admire you. Those letters are from children, and they need to be answered.” To which Carter replies: “You’re too young. It’s better for them to get used to it right from the start, you know, used to the fact that things don’t turn out the way you imagined and that it doesn’t matter that much.”
Similarly, Anna’s newly arrived roommate and nemesis Katri Kling, an orphaned outcast in a small Finnish village defined by her cold rationalism and terrible honesty, says, “suddenly vehement”—
“But how long can they rely on what’s not reliable? For how many years do we fool these children into believing in something they shouldn’t believe in? They have to learn early, or they’ll never manage on their own.”
Jansson renders a worthy battle between the always-nice, mushy-minded Anna and the ruthlessly effectual Katri, challenging the reader to see just what’s at stake on both sides of the argument.
“And what about this one?” Anna went on. “Where’s the chitchat? He’s tried to draw a rabbit—obviously no talent at all—so here you could write something like ‘I’ve hung your picture above my desk’. . . You can fill nearly a whole page with the skating and the cat if you write big enough.”
“Miss Amelin,” said Katri, “you’re actually quite cynical. How have you managed to hide that?” . . .
“That doesn’t matter. The whole point is to give them a nice letter. You have to learn how it’s done. But I wonder if you can. I almost think you don’t like them.”
Katri shrugged her shoulders and smiled her quick wolfish smile. “Neither do you,” she said.
Time and again, Jansson took up this question, pitting blunt frankness against hand-wringing nicety. Mari and Jonna, the two women artists who live and work together in Jansson’s final, autobiographical novel Fair Play, embody yet more shades of this conflict. Jonna is matter-of-fact and unsentimental; Mari is more self-doubting and emotional. One day Jonna shoots a seagull that has been devouring eider chicks; Mari gets upset: “You just love guns! You just can’t stop!” When she calms down, she begins to philosophize, passive-aggressively, about the temperament of the natural hunter: “He’s considered to be bold and a little dangerous. You know, a person who plays for high stakes, who can be ruthless and take chances that other people don’t dare take.” Jonna reminds Mari of a wounded gull that Mari once tried to nurse back to health, but it was “full of worms. You can’t mend what’s totally broken,” and so Jonna killed it with a hammer.
“There are times,” Jonna went on without listening, “there are times when a healthy ruthlessness is the right thing.”
A near-exact episode, between young Tove and her friend Albert, occurs in Sculptor’s Daughter, after which Tove thinks, “[I]t was lovely to be able to cry. Everything was over and everything was all right. Albert always put things right.”
The ongoing, necessary struggle between compassion and candidness—the need for “healthy ruthlessness” in the midst of conventional politesse—permeates all of Jansson’s work and seems to me central to her sense of what it meant to be a “woman artist.” It’s women—weak and pathetic women—who are dogged by what her characters often refer to as a “bad conscience.” There seems always to be one such troublesome (female) soul in Jansson’s fiction: in Sun City, her dark comedy about a retirement community in St. Petersburg, Florida, it’s Evelyn Peabody, about whom the more sensible and aesthetically-minded Mrs. Morris observes:
[T]he woman stood there and rambled on about how of course he was an unpleasant old man but she had to do her best to comfort him because after all there was some good in every human being. . . she thought fleetingly of how often it seems to be the case that compassion derives from guilt and gives rise to contempt. Ready-made virtues struck her as being common, and she didn’t like Miss Peabody.
Nobody at the Berkeley Arms home really does; even the “unpleasant old man” Mr. Thompson rejects her so-called compassion. At the annual spring ball, the mayor drops dead in the middle of the dance floor, and Miss Peabody promptly goes to pieces:
Peabody just went on crying, from tension and exhaustion, for all the people who died from dancing and for all the people who never got to dance. . .
“Peabody,” said Thompson sternly, “now that’s enough. Did you really care about the Mayor?”
“No! Not about him, not about anybody! But people’s lives are so sad!”. . .
“Bullshit,” said Thompson. “Peabody, there’s something wrong with you. If you’ll stop and think about it you’ll discover you don’t feel sorry for anyone in the whole world, but you don’t dare stop and think.”
But as clear as Jansson is about the follies of guilt and abstract compassion, she never holds her characters in contempt. She gives Peabody her due, which is to say she allows her as much of an interior life as every other character (the novel employs roving narrative omniscience with great skill). In a deft shift from third person to first person, a fascinating and somewhat frequent feature in Jansson’s fiction, we get this insight into Peabody’s emotional backstory:
The smell of wet grass and the sigh of the rain carried her far back in time and she could remember without pain. As always, she thought about her father. She loved him. He took them on a picnic every Sunday. . . There were too many of us, Peabody thought, and we were too little, and Mama worried all the time—there might be snakes and ticks and it might rain. Papa would run around setting things up. One time when it was cold and windy, he found us a barn. And one time he tried to build us a hut out of pine boughs. But it was too much for him. . . And then it started to rain, and he gathered us under a huge tree and Mama said if there was lightning, a big tree was the most dangerous place to be. And once I tried to tell her that we liked danger, but I don’t think she heard what I said.
Jansson shifts not only into subjective first-person consciousness, but into the territory of—what else–childhood. When Peabody remembers her parents, she remembers their anxiety and over-protectiveness, and at the same time, as an old woman, she misses being taken care of by them. She has become helpless and pitiable without them. “She should have remembered that it was always better to leave decisions to other people and not let yourself be misled by compassion. Once again, Peabody had made herself miserable, and there was no one to talk her out of it.” Contrast with Jansson, whose father was a confident, free-spirited sculptor: he kept a pet monkey and all manner of animals in the house, and in the story “The Monkey” (clearly based on her father, for the character is a sculptor), he watches his monkey dash out from under the warmth of his coat and up into a tree in the freezing cold: “[H]e thought, you poor little bastard. You’re freezing, but you’ve got to climb.” Danger, cold, what have you: you’ve got to climb.
“We say the phrase ‘a happy childhood’ as if it’s a given,” Ohlin wrote, “as if we understand it to be the most desirable thing. But the richly varied experiences of childhood, even at their most positive, must be more complicated than happiness.” In her memoir, Jansson never says, outright, “My childhood was very happy,” or perfect, or ideal, and I wouldn’t guess she thought that. But what we feel, in her descriptions of what it was to be a child, is a stunning directness: unmediated, unprotected, unadulterated by “bad conscience” or anything other than pure life itself. It’s that full range of experience that brings comfort and safety, not being shielded from darkness or ugliness.
Jansson respected the fine tuning of a child’s sensibilities: children know better than anyone—better than they do as adults—that the world is a dangerous, beautiful, terribly alive place. And a place—as in stories like “The Storm” and “The Squirrel,” featuring female characters whose conflicts are waged within their own minds—where one must work things out for oneself, often in pained solitude. I knew all this as a lonely child, and when I finally found literature, those truths were reflected back to me, and I found comfort. Am still finding it. And very much so in Jansson. Thankfully, art may be slow, but never too late.
In a rare moment of lyricism, Jansson wrote of storytime with her mother:
Through endless forest dark and drear no comfort near a little girl alone did roam so far from home the way was long the night was cold the thunder rolled the girl did weep no more I’ll find my mother kind for in this lonely haunted spot my awful lot will be beneath this tree to lie and slowly die.
Very satisfying. That’s how it was when we shut the danger out.
That’s how it was.
Sonya Chung is author of the novel Long for This World, a staff writer for The Millions, and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College. She is founding editor of Bloom.
Homepage photo credit: Reino Loppinen Lehktikuva