Dec 14, 2010

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

A Winter Book is a collection of twenty short stories for adults originally scattered over several of Tove Jansson’s books. They were collected in this volume by Sort of Books after the success of the English translation of The Summer Book; however, despite the title, A Winter Book doesn’t take place solely in winter. Readers are taken from snowy landscapes to tiny Finnish islands in the summertime. This might make the collection sound disjointed, but fear not: Tove Jansson’s unique style, and most of all the mood that infuses all her stories with, is more than enough to hold it all together.

Many of these stories, especially the ones in the first half of the book, are told from the point of view of a small child, a girl, who’s trying to make sense of the world around her and thinking about the often small things that matter to her. Jansson seems to favour writing from the point of view of either the very young or the very old, and I wonder if it this because both groups are often somewhat at the margins of what is happening around them. That makes them good observers, and also good interpreters of the surrounding world. Whatever the reason, she excels at both perspectives, and she treats her characters with complete seriousness (by which, mind you, I don’t mean humourlessness) and respect no matter what their age.

A lot of the stories collected in A Winter Book seem to be autobiographical in nature. I recognise the little girl growing up surrounded by artists, or the couple of older women artists who spend their summers on an island, from the talk by Tove’s niece Sophia Jansson I attended earlier this year. I will not say this makes the stories more personal, because I believe that all writing is personal regardless of how close it sticks to the facts of its creator’s life. But it was interesting to get a glimpse into the life of the woman behind the Moomins; to be able to imagine what it must have been like to be her.

What I like the most about Tove Jansson is the fact that she’s one of the subtlest writers I’ve ever come across. Her stories, for children and adults alike, suggest a lot more than they every spell out. I like that – I like feeling trusted with secrets too delicate to be fully named. I imagine that this is something that children, who are talked down to so frequently, also very much appreciate, and as such it’s probably part of why her stories continue to charm generation after generation.

But I digress. A few words on some of the stories in A Winter Book: My favourite was probably “Albert”, about a little girl whose trust in her older brother is restored then they encounter an ailing seagull; “The Squirrel” is a wonderful tale about a woman all alone on an island except for a squirrel, and how the two negotiate the space they share. “Snow” captures the darkness and the potential comfort of winter beautifully; and “Taking Leave” is a very moving story about two woman who realise they are now too old to be able to spend their summers on an isolated island on their own.

As you might have guessed by now, these stories are gentle and introspective rather than action-packed. I suppose that not much of anything happens in any of them, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable – quite the contrary. It all comes down to how you define “something happening”, really – which events are worth noticing, being touched by, writing about? Jansson’s writing constantly expands our notion of what these might be, and that’s exactly why I love it so much. I’ll leave you with a quote about Jansson I really liked, from the afterword by Frank Cottrell Boyce:
Like an angel, she thinks that humans are funny and vulnerable – tiny creatures accumulating grandeur and clutter on the surface of a dangerous and unpredictable planet. In an era when the weather seems to be going haywire, this is an exhilaratingly prescient vision.
But she also has a strong sense that, if we’re kind to each other; and if we take time to learn how to do things properly – if we make sure there’s enough firewood, and that the roof doesn’t leak – then somehow it will all be alright and possibly fun.
Other bits I liked:
When the log-fire is alight, we draw up the big chair. We turn out the lights in the studio and sit in front of the fire and she says: “Once upon a time there was a little girl who was terribly pretty and her mummy liked her so awfully much…” Every story has to begin in the same way, then it’s not so terribly important what happens. A soft, gentle voice in the darkness and one gazes into the fire and nothing is dangerous. Everything else is outside and can’t get in. Not now or at any time.
“The Dark”

She began sweeping, painstaking and calm. She liked sweeping. It was a perfect day, a day without dialogue. There was nothing to defend or accuse anyone of; everything had been cut out, all those words that could have been other words or might simply have been out of place and led to great changes. Now there was nothing but a warm cottage full of morning light, herself sweeping and the friendly sound of coffee beginning to simmer. The room with its four windows simply existed and justified itself; it was safe and had nothing to do with any place where you could shut anything in or leave anything out. She drank her coffee and thought about nothing at all, resting.
“The Squirrel”

They read it too:
Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops
Stuck in a Book
Winstondad’s Blog

(Have I missed yours?)

23 comments:

  1. It is truly a gift (one I am in awe of) when an author can be subtle but still greatly impact their reader. And in a short story, no less! I need to look into this one...

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  2. Very nice insights about the stories. I'm sure it made it more meaningful for you too to have attended a talk by the author's niece. I love having a deeper connection to a book like that!

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  3. This books sounds excellent! Quiet and introspective reads are some of my favorite types and I like that these stories are mostly told from the point of view of wither the very young or the very old. Much different than what I've been reading lately. I also loved the quotes that you posted. This is going on my list because I think it would be a real shame to miss it.

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  4. I found the simplicity of these wonderful ,I ve just read the summer book last weekend and loved it as much as this one ,she was a wonderful story teller gentle tales perfect for a weekend read ,all the best stu thanks for putting my review up ,

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  5. Sandy: I know - it takes a lot of talent to suggest so much with such few words.

    Jill: The event did make me want read more Tove Jansson sooner rather than later :)

    Zibilee: I love those types of books as well. If you enjoyed the quptes then I really do think you'd enjoy the whole book.

    Stu, you're welcome! I also love the gentleness of her writing. And yes, The Summer Book is also excellent!

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  6. I'm drawn to this because I love stories told from the point of view of children.

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  7. Oh I was just going to say "this sounds wonderful" but then you mentioned Frank Cottrell Boyce and I went ahhhh yes!
    See, I was at one of his book readings recently and beside being a delight and a great entertainer he mentioned the Moomins as one of his favourite series!
    I know I will read the Moomins one day thanks to you and Frank Cottrell Boyce, but I will remember about this one too.

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  8. It is the subtlety that makes her books so special. The things that go unsaid but you know they hover in the air. I was hoping to get this from the library as a Christmas/winter read. I hope it is still there when I go later in the week.
    Did you know there is a Moomins Cookbook out? I saw it in Waterstones on Sunday. I saw it and thought of you!

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  9. Lovely review, Ana! I haven't read any of Tove Jansson's books, but I have 'The Summer Book' on my bookshelf and I hope to read it someday soon.

    I liked very much your observation - "I believe that all writing is personal regardless of how close it sticks to the facts of its creator’s life." I agree with you completely :) Sometimes we can see the author's life personally in the book and sometimes we can see the author's experience given different shape and form. I remember reading in one of my alltime favourite books called 'Narcissus and Goldmund' by Herman Hesse, one of the main characters Goldmund says that he has put all his experiences and thoughts and life into sculpting a statue. Your comment reminded me of that :)

    I liked very much your description of one of your favourite stories from the book - "a wonderful tale about a woman all alone on an island except for a squirrel, and how the two negotiate the space they share" :)

    The passage from the story 'The Squirrel' about a character sweeping and being happy with it reminded me of one of my friends (who is closer to my mother's generation), who said that she loved to hang clothes in a clothesline. I have seen her do that and she was happy doing it and was a perfectionist at it - when she had completed it, it was a work of art :)

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  10. One of these days I will have to read something by this author :) Sounds like a fantastic collection.

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  11. Nice to hear you enjoyed Jansson's stories. Another collection of her stories came out this year in English translation, it's called Travelling Light.

    And yes, some of the stories in A Winter Book are in fact autobiographical.

    Greetings,
    Tiina

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  12. "I like feeling trusted with secrets too delicate to be fully named." What a beautiful way of putting it. I would probably enjoy this..I'll have to keep it in mind. :)

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  13. I like the sound of the stories in this collection....sounds like a winning choice.

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  14. I really like the bit from the afterward and it sounds just like a description of how the Moomins live, trying hard and making do, then turning that into invention. And the bit that Amy quoted rang true with me too, it's nice to be trusted as a reader.

    I'll be reading The Summer Book in Jan so very much looking forward to reading this author's adult writings.

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  15. I was always curious about Tove Jansson. She seems like such a great person to be around.

    I know mostlty because of her Moomin books, but should try her fiction.

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  16. Interesting point about the very young and very old being at the margins of what is occurring; I agree, and I think this slight removal, and the tendency for the very old and very young to be portrayed as more innocent and whimsical, to be a wonderful perspective from which to look at the world within the story.

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  17. I have really learned to love short stories and am always on the look out for good ones. Sounds like this collection will fill that bill. I added it to my TBR.

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  18. I've been wanting to read Jansson for a long time now and I think your reviews are going to be the push I need to buy her books.

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  19. Really nice review! I have not read anything by Tov Jansson, and this collection of short stories looks great. Will definitely have to add this to my to-read list. Thanks for the snippets from the stories, too.

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  20. I'd not realised Jansson had written short stories - other than the Moomins of course, which I love to bits. I've seen some of the original Moomin comic strips have been re-published, which I really would like. Your review makes me want to try other stuff by her.

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  21. Lovely review! I especially liked your insights about the young and old as observers and that pieces don't have to be autobiographical to be truly personal.

    I adored The Summer Book and from your review and the quotes, this book seems to be in the same vein. The Summer Book made me want to stay a while on a tiny Finnish island.

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  22. Lovely review of one of my favourite books! I especially love this bit from your review: "I like feeling trusted with secrets too delicate to be fully named." - what a good description of how Jansson makes the reader feel!

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  23. Ooh, what a fitting book to read at this time of year! I still have some Jansson to read- I have her Winter book (the novel, though) on my shelf to read, and hope to get to it at some point...

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