A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Tove Jansson’s memoir, Sculptor’s Daughter (1968, 2013) is a collection of 19 episodes in the life of a small girl living with her artist mother (Swedish) and sculptor father (Finnish), sometimes in Helsinki, sometimes on their island in the summer, during the First World War and the Finnish Civil War of 1918, and in the 1920s. Thirteen of these stories have already been published in English, in The Winter Book (Selected Stories) (2006), but Sculptor’s Daughter is the full collection that she put together as her autobiographical memoir. If you read this, you read her childhood memories and embroidered histories and get a sense of her very early life.
Tove Jansson loved the comfortable and the familiar in her children’s writing, because (for example) pancakes, hot stoves and the right kind of shape for a boat were reassuring, and also beautiful. But (please open your Moomin books now) look at Little My: selfish, aggressive, destructive, amoral. Look at Sniff: also selfish, greedy, vain, cowardly. Look at the Groke: terrifying, vast, deathlike, frozen. Look at the Fillyjonk: cross, finicking, fearful, small-minded. These are the prickly and uncomfortable creatures inhabiting the warm fluffiness of the warm Moomin world, and they ruffle the cosy surface. Reading the Moomin books is nothing like reading a fairy-tale, even though its characters mimic its well-loved players: the prince, the helper, the princess, the sought-after object. Tove Jansson’s voice has other priorities, usually concerned with the importance of private projects, and how thrilling it is to be in a story with a recognisable pattern that you can tweak and wrench to suit what you want to happen.
All this is in her memoir, Sculptor’s Daughter. Its stories are about impatience, savage crossness, and arrogance. We have to work out why the child-Tove set out to sea on a wooden raft with her friend Albert at the age of, possibly, eight; why she tried to give her father’s monkey German measles (jealousy and boredom); why she rolled the stone across the tram-tracks and up the stairs (greed for gold); how she hid under her mother’s black tulle skirt and became the creatures that inhabit the dark (she could embody the darkness of a room without lights).
Some of the characters in Sculptor’s Daughter are terribly close to people in the Moomin books: ‘The Spinster Who Had An Idea’ is quite obviously the Fillyjonk, and the child-Tove narrative voice is utterly Little My. The iceberg with the caged grotto is like an enormous Hattifattener, or possibly the lonely creature in the woods that we never quite see in Moominland in Midwinter. Daddy is not quite Snufkin, but there is something very serious and Snufkin-like about his focus on work. Mummy is absolutely Moominmamma, painting and playing like a spirit of love.
These stories are pared down and spare. They show the workings of Jansson’s technique for dropping powerful information into a scene without announcement. It makes reading her stories a cautious process, because you never know what’s about to happen. When the child has cast off the black tulle skirt, and rushed around the room lighting all the lamps, and flings open the door to let the creatures of the dark get out into the night, there is a pause, and then:
‘Then I went into the sitting-room and looked at the snowdrift. It looked very pretty in a long curve on the floor and it was getting slowly bigger.’
We weren’t told that it was snowing outside, because we’re only told what the child thinks is interesting: there’s snow in the room, on the floor. The adult reader is taken aback, and has to creep down her train of thought, and fit into her version of things to see what she sees.
In the episode of the raft, the terror of what the children are doing is masked by the child narrator’s jealousy of Albert, who is one year older than her, and can do everything better that she can. She very badly wants him to be impressed by her, so she watches him (expertly) finish building the raft that she had begun (badly), and says:
‘Let’s take it out straight away, I said. Now. We’ll find a roller and get it into the sea at once.’
Once in the water, they begin paddling.
‘It was slow work paddling but we got going. We reached deep water but that was all right because we had both nearly learnt to swim.’
The adult reader will be palpitating with horror: these children are footling about in the open sea on a few rotten planks, and can’t swim! The real horror of the story arrives shortly, with the diseased gull and the fog, and the child’s arrogant insouciance disappears because she’s crying, and she’s freezing cold. We can feel her loss of face, she’s not as brave as Albert yet.
Tove Jansson, Sculptor’s Daughter (1968), trans. Kingsley Hart (Sort Of Books 2013), ISBN 978-1-908745-33-0, £9.99
Kate borrowed this book from her cousin Alison, with whom she read about the Moomins when they were very small. There’s also a Moomin podcast on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com