Tove Jansson, Magician

Republication of Sculptor’s Daughter reminds us of the magic in memories.

Tove Jansson’s 1968 autobiography, Sculptor’s Daughter, has just been republished in a handsome edition by Sort Of Books here in London, and I gather it has made a reappearance elsewhere as well. Like Jansson’s other books for adults, it’s actually a collection of short stories—in some cases, very short. Here, they are linked, as is the case in The Summer Book or Art in Nature, for example, by a specific theme—in this case, Jansson’s childhood memories. There’s nothing particularly chronological about the events in the book—each story has a real event at its core, but there’s no order to the stories themselves. And in many of the stories, the point is not the event, but what Jansson’s childhood imagination has made of it.

Jansson was no stranger to the imagined world, of course—the entire series of the Moomintroll books for children that Jansson created displays an imaginative gift that has allowed those books to stay in print for decades. They’ll probably remain in print forever, as all great children’s literature should.  It wasn’t until Jansson grew exhausted maintaining the franchise that she began writing for adults, with Sculptor’s Daughter being the first such attempt. And several—particularly The Summer Book—followed, and maintained a dedicated readership for years. Over the past ten years, though, Jansson’s adult works have become increasingly popular, and for good reason.

Jansson’s books aren’t novels, by any stretch. Even The True Deceiver, which most closely approaches being a novel, remains more a thematic collective than an actual novel. What Jansson brings to these stories, though, is something that a broad range of readers have responded to—a sort of wisdom about living your life, about the importance of small things in giving meaning to the day. Therein lies the magic of living—the little things that allow us to accommodate each other, and to tell each other stories.

If anything, The True Deceiver is probably the more autobiographical work. It’s a series of stories about two older women living together, their occasional conflicts and how these get resolved, and their small victories through the day. Jansson in fact lived this life with her partner. It’s a world where art and life tend to come together is surprising ways, where living is an art. And in Sculptor’s Daughter, now back in print after 40 years, we see this approach to storytelling reaching its first great explication.

Each of these stories is a little gem, in which Jansson takes a childhood memory, and extends it with the perspective of an adult without losing the childhood wonder of the memory. The final story, Christmas, is the apotheosis of this approach—Christmas from under the tree becomes a mix of familial memories and a meditation on the meaning of Christmas that becomes so dreamlike that what’s real and what isn’t blurs completely—and it doesn’t matter. Jansson’s memory of Christmas is one we should all be able to have. And the memories come from anywhere—digging a tunnel, dressing up, even an iceberg that approaches the island retreat the family used during summers.

Jansson’s world is one that we want to engage with, to participate in. In contrast to some other great short story writers, she lacks the cynicism of Katherine Mansfield, or the quiet despair of Flannery O’Connor. Actually, in some respects the stories most resemble those of another O’Connor, Frank, in their generosity of spirit, their portrayal of individuals making their way through the day, every day. Of course, in O’Connor’s stories, the people involved aren’t always successful, and sometimes make the wrong choices—consider The Mad Lomasneys. Could Jansson have written such a story? No—but she felt no need to. Her characters find the magic of everyday living, and that’s enough. And we want to feel that that should be enough, as readers, even though we know it isn’t. But Jansson gives us hope that it might be.

There are real people in Sculptor’s Daughter. Her father was a sculptor; her mother was an artist (including as a designer of postage stamps for the Finnish post office.) And if the stories only hint at some of the harder times the family experienced in early 20th century Helsinki, these are, after all, stories that rely on childhood memories. What transforms the stories into something above and beyond just memories is the magic that Jansson finds in the memories, and her ability to convey this to us. We leave this book, as with Jansson’s others, content in the knowledge that the sources of the magic of living can come from anywhere—and, indeed, in Jansson’s hands, they do.

Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday

4 replies »

  1. Great essay, Wufnik. I don’t think I actually knew (or paid any attention to at any rate) her work for adults. I love that term you came up with: “thematic collection” – hell, that’s mostly what I do. Now I have to read her work so I can learn from her. And then you compare her to Frank O’Connor – a criminally under-appreciated writer – at least here in the US – whose work I love – yup, going on Amazon right after this comment.

    She’s going on the reading list immediately. Thanks for this wonderful overview….

    PS – How do you see her in relation to, say, Isak Dinesen? Just trying to get a feel stylistically.

  2. Enjoy! And, you know, I’ve never read any Dinesen, so I can’t compare. She’s been on the list for a while, but have never quite gotten around to her. I will now!