rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Why yes, I am going through all the Tove Jansson the university library has, why do you ask?

This is described on the cover as Jansson's memoir of her early youth, but that's far too conventional a description for what's actually going on here. I mean, that blurb implies context, the kind of memoir where one says my parents were thus, and we lived here, and I did this. That is not this book.

This book is a series of episodes, each of which is a perfectly acceptable short story by itself, which when assembled produce a picture of what it was like to be Tove Jansson at a very early age. Of a necessity, of course, this includes a lot of description of her parents, her mother the illustrator, her father the sculptor, but a lot of people just drift through. They are there, the way that people are there or not there to small children. Some of the people she talks to and with are not physically real people, because Jansson was of course the sort of intelligent and articulate small child who had conversations with anyone she could call into being or elaborate upon as if they were present, as well as the people who actually happened to be present. There are phases when you are young when all that sort of thing, consensus reality, is irrelevant to the way things are and the question is whether it is an interesting conversation. This may be the best writing I have ever seen from the perspective of that age, the age where with a peculiar double vision one knows both that a certain place is blessed or cursed and that one is by others' definitions being silly. One of Jansson's greatest gifts as a writer is that she doesn't give a damn what other people think and didn't as a kid either.

And the picture we get from her of Helsinki between the wars, and of her family, is consequently highly colored, vivid, individual, indelible. There is the cousin who claims to have the favor of God because a bird perched on her wall hanging of Christ and nodded its head three times. She is insufferable about it to the point of organizing the young cousins into a Bible class. "It was then," says Jansson, "I began to build the golden calf." There is the summer they have guests at the summer place, who keep poking their heads into her father's studio and suggesting motifs, and he becomes quieter and quieter until there is a giant storm and two feet of water come into the studio and he dashes into the house to explain with cheerful gusto that all his clay and plaster are ruined and he will, so sorry, not be able to keep any of the past month's work. There is the time she sees an iceberg and throws a flashlight onto it, watches it ride glowing glasslike out to sea. The parties at her parents' apartment, where the goal is for everyone to stay up as late as possible, and then they all fall asleep sitting up and have to rouse very gently in the morning, opening the curtains an inch at a time and pondering for half an hour over whether it is really pickled herring that everyone wants for breakfast and, if so, whether there is any, because it is unquestionably and undoubtably too far to the pantry from the table.

The whole is illustrated by photographs, many by Jansson's brother, some familial in other ways, black and white, technically stunning, usually focused on things like water on rock. They feel oddly relevant despite having nothing in particular to do with most of the text.

As one would expect, then, this is a brilliant book, not in the slightest like books by any other writers, and full of elements which would crop up in her later work but not in the same way. It is not a book that teaches you to know her (I expect she does not want us to), but it is profoundly lovable.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
I have noticed that Tove Jansson's books seem to take place either in summer or in winter: summer at its most exuberantly summery, winter at its most mysterious. The principal exception I can think of, Moominvalley in November, is an odd book all round and sees autumn as a transition more than as a season of its own. This may have something to do with the essential Scandinavian nature of Jansson-- hers is a world where seasons are sharp, clear, and noticeable, and where they substantially affect one's way of living more than they do in, say, most of the U.S.

This is a winter book.

In a village so small that everyone lives not only in one another's pockets but in one another's daydreams, Katri lives with her brother, Mats. Their mother died in the fall. Katri quit her job at the only store soon after, because the storekeeper wanted her. Katri is intelligent, brutally honest, and disliked, a woman as hard on herself as on everybody else, who doesn't name her dog, who can do anything with bookkeeping, who has yellow eyes and wears a wolfskin collar. The children throw snowballs at her window and chant 'witch' though she is only twenty-five. Katri would do anything for her brother, who is young and underestimated by everyone, and dreams.

Up the hill in a decaying family mansion lives Anna Aemalin, old and alone, an illustrator of books for small children which sell hugely and are greatly critically acclaimed except for the rabbits: they have too many cliched little bunnies in them. The village calls her house the rabbit house. Anna is wealthy.

Katri knows both what she wants and, she believes, how to get it, but it isn't that simple. Jansson's books are never simple. Neither Katri nor Anna are victim or villain. They are two people whose proximities, whose enforced intimacies and non-intimacies, make clear to each that she is the opposite of the other, and that her own beliefs are not exactly working. Over the course of this deceptively simple novel, wrapped in the appearance of non-plot, shot with winter light, they ambiguously break and heal each other.

In the foreword it is mentioned that Jansson found this novel the most difficult of her books to write. Understandable, but it doesn't show at all. As with much of her work, this is as all-of-a-piece and flowing as a rock from the bottom of a river. The details are precise and sometimes funny, the lists of silly things people write to Anna to ask her about merchandising (she wonders desperately why they want to put a noisemaker in the little rubber bunnies when rabbits do not make sounds except when screaming), the way Katri demolishes the storekeeper in three words every time she talks to him.

I like Katri better though her motives are probably worse; witch is in some ways the right word for a person who so emphatically breaks herself over and over on the rock of her own absolute will. She has some kinship to Lolly Willowes, or to Bulgakov's Margarita, women who not only ignore the social norms of their cultures because of inner promptings but who do not even notice on some levels that there are social norms to be ignored. The image I take away most strongly from this novel is the one that Jansson also used for the front cover, Katri walking through the snow in the morning before the sun has risen, smoking, with her great nameless dog at her side, and her changing yellow eyes. Katri would not approve of that as a romanticized version of herself: she is probably thinking about accounting. That is the reason it is such a brilliant novel.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
As I have said before, bless the press of the New York Review of Books, for they consistently print things I want to read. I picked this up at Raven Used Books in Harvard Square while I was in town over the weekend; Raven is one of those places where you may as well just hand your wallet to the cashier when you walk in, and go from there. They stock a lot of NYRBs.

Jansson is primarily known for her magnificent Moomin books, those friendly but still numinous collections of the adventures of funny, endearing, never ever human people of several different peculiar varieties. This is one of her novels for adults, and I have to say, it is fascinating watching her write human characters, as I have never seen her do that before. She is, unsurprisingly, very good at it.

The Summer Book is--

well. I need to resort to analogy here for a moment. There is a French movie I am very fond of by Jacques Tati, called M. Hulot's Holiday, which is set at a seaside resort, and which has the peculiar property that it is so timelessly filled with summer that every time you watch it it does not feel as though you are watching the same film of the same summer over again, but rather that you are watching the next year along, with everything going on about the same as last year, just as it ought to, in the subtly shifting rhythms of the world. I can tell without having reread it that The Summer Book will have this quality.

It is composed of short vignettes, which might take place in the same summer, or in different ones, or in all summers at once. There is an island in the Gulf of Finland, and every summer for forty-seven years the same family has lived on it (according to them they live there always, and they are quite contemptuous of summer people although they clearly have a winter house; the island is where their real existence lies). Right now there is a little girl, Sophie, and a grandmother, and a father, though he spends most of his time in his study typing away at something. And there is no mother, which is the one change from the way things have always been, and not a good one.

Sophie and the grandmother have the island in their bones. Sometimes there are visitors, who don't, which is confusing for everybody. Sometimes there is weather, all the drama of storm and wave. On Midsummer there are meant to be fireworks, but they are a bit salt-encrusted. The grandmother carves animals out of roots in the thickets, builds a tiny scale model of Venice for her granddaughter, smokes too much, is intemperate and intransigent and impossible to live with and absolutely without question the best grandmother I have ever seen in fiction, end of sentence. Sophie is writing a book on the natural history of the angleworm, to explain whether it is all right that it splits into two halves to avoid being put on a fishhook. (Does it live, after all that, happily? Does the tail end grow a new head, or does it decide to be the head, and move up in the world?) She has a complex and tormented relationship with her cat, as who does not. She is a bit young to have grasped the concept of generations and doesn't remember her grandfather, but she is invested in asking questions and is fairly convinced the Devil has something to do with death-- the grandmother says that at her own age she is too old to start believing in the Devil and she's damned if she's going to.

This is clear water of a book, both deep and crystalline, the work of a writer at the height of her powers, using them lazily and in perfect mastery, with a crooked smile. Jansson was over sixty when she wrote this, and it shows, a lifetime of having learned herself and her art and her oceans. It is the kind of book that invalidates many standard ideas about the nature of the novel, because it is in a conventional sense plotless, arcless, conflictless, not even really a pastoral. This is one reason I am quite often annoyed at standard ideas about the nature of the novel: The Summer Book is vital, there is nothing else like it. It is full of the sound of an old woman and a little girl laughing and quarreling, on an island, in the shadow of a newish grief, somewhere in the Gulf of Finland, every summer.

It is perfectly itself.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
This is an early Moomin picture book, notable for two reasons: its divergences from the way people are in the novels (the Hemulen loves housecleaning and the Fillyjonk is kind of creepy, which is brainbreaking), and its absolutely amazing use of cutwork and holes in the book.

You don't have to like the Moomins or know who these people are to appreciate the illustrations. The simple story involves Moomintroll looking for Little My, whom everyone believes is lost; he and the Mymble travel through forests, mountains, and caves, and each double-page spread has a different set of cutouts in the paper. All of the cutouts work both with the page after and with the page before. Some of them go down multiple layers.

So you'll get a spread of a dark forest path, in which the spaces between two trees are cutouts that show the next page, which is the meadow just outside the forest-- you can see the space outside the forest through the trees just as you would in real life. And there's a further cutout you can see just a part of, going down a second page, which gives you just one ray of sunshine.

Flip the page, and you get the meadow; the tree cutouts are now looking back into the picture of the dark forest we just left, and the full extent of the sun cutout is revealed, so we can see the whole meadow bathed in sunlight.

Every single illustration in the book is that well planned, or better. The compositions are arranged such that bits of the picture you didn't know were significant pop into relief in the cutout the second you flip the page.

It is such a tour de force that it almost feels petty to mention that the translated text is terribly rhymed and scanned, and also doesn't make very much sense. Honestly, I'd ignore it entirely-- you can follow what plot there is perfectly well from the pictures. And should. This is one of those picture books everyone can examine and be dazzled by.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I missed this one somehow when I was first reading the Moomintroll books (... last year). It was nice to see a Moomin book I'd never heard of in the library, a present from the universe.

At any rate, as is usual in the Moomin books, there are a great many creatures, who are not quite human, living in a valley somewhere very far northerly in Scandinavia and having the sort of lives that... well. I said to [personal profile] sovay earlier, "It's as if Ingmar Bergman had gone in for children's books in a big way," and she said, "Including the bit where it's not actually depressing even though it seems as though it ought to be." Yes. And including the thing where everything that happens is just slightly to the left of whatever you actually expected to have happen.

This is the one where the Moomintrolls have gone away for a while, and it's about the people who move into their house in their absence, the Fillyjonk who is recovering from nearly having fallen off the roof of her own house, the Hemulen who wants some excitement in his life and who wants to go out sailing but is too afraid to, the small child who may or may not be actually human who is imagining or else conjuring a giant creature in the back yard... Oh, and of course Snufkin, who wants to write a song.

And all of the people, except Snufkin (because Snufkin is best), remember the time when the Moomins were home as something of an Eden, a perfect time when everything went right, and they want it back, only they can't remember any of the details about it. Gradually, of course, it becomes obvious that things are going just as well as they ever have, Moomins or not. There's a very complex web of desire and absence and melancholy and not-loneliness and people not quite understanding each other at the heart of this book, and of course since it is Tove Jansson it is all in a story that could I think be read happily and with understanding by a six-year-old.

This is not my favorite Moomin book, because nothing will ever beat the eerie gorgeousness of Moominland Midwinter. But it is very fine, and I am so glad there was more when I had thought there wasn't.

I need to get hold of her adult novels, which are being reprinted as part of the New York Review of Books' efforts to brighten and improve the universe by reprinting things like T. H. White's book on falconry and the work of Adolfo Bioy Casares, so there is hope that I can find them eventually. Blessings on the NYRB, for somebody over there is psychic about what I would like to read in a way I have traditionally only associated with Virago Press: and the NYRB stuff occasionally actually turns up in bookstores.


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March 2017

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