I came to Tove Jansson’s work late in life and in a backward fashion. Most people familiar with the Finnish author and illustrator know her as the creator of the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures first introduced in a children’s book series in 1945 and then adapted for a comic strip. The tales of the Moomins and their fantastical journeys through Moominvalley are something of a cult classic and I’m sad to have missed them in my youth.
Lesser championed are Jansson’s novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical beings but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting her 1972 novel, The Summer Book—a slim volume with a muted, pastel cover with the silhouette of an island in its center—on display at a local bookstore, I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot.
The opening chapters have a flash-fiction feel: they are short, choppy, and do not appear to be linear. But as you continue to read, you realize they’re linked vignettes of life on an isolated island, the story of a cheeky grandmother and her precocious granddaughter, Sophia. (The young girl’s mother is dead and her father is relegated to the background.) The two, each the other’s primary companion, while away the hours amid the fauna and marshes of their seasonal home, moving between simple conversation and that which delves deeper:
The sun had climbed higher. The whole island, and the sea, were glistening. The air seemed very light.
“I can dive,” Sophia said. “Do you know what it feels like when you dive?”
“Of course I do,” her grandmother said. “You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown, and the water’s clear, lighter toward the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”
The funny thing about Jansson’s books is that while they contain a darkness, the prose is light and spacious. Emotionally, philosophically, the words have weight, but they flow through your mind with ease. The same is true for the psychology of the characters. There is a heaviness to their inner workings, but Jansson manages to create levity through her use of dark humor.
It was after picking up her 1982 novel, The True Deceiver, that I noticed the recurring themes of nature and community. Both play central roles in her work—even in the Moomin books, which I then read as well. In her stories, seasonal changes, landscapes, and the surrounding community—or lack thereof—are more important than plot.
Finland is very much an enigma to me. What little I know about its citizens comes from bite-sized facts—some fun, like the Finns’ massive coffee consumption (according to data gathered in 2008, the average Finn consumes roughly twenty-six pounds of coffee a year, much more than his American counterpart, who averages 9.25 pounds), and some tragic, like their suicide rate. But one of the more intriguing qualities of this northern country is what Jansson’s work taps into, its odd patterns of light and darkness and rapid weather changes, with most of the country icebound in winter. Finland’s northernmost territory experiences sixty consecutive days of full sunlight, something called the Polar Day. Conversely, during another part of the year, it has Polar Night: full darkness for fifty-one days.
In The Summer Book and The True Deceiver, weather patterns are integral to the tone of the story and influential in the psychology of the characters. In the latter, winter forces the inhabitants of a small village to remain indoors, so much so that even business slows; the continuous snowfall creates an “imprecise darkness that was neither dusk nor dawn, and it depressed people.” Whereas in the former, the summer climate allows much of the story to be set outside and the characters take full advantage of the opportunity to explore the surrounding nature. Both stories begin by placing the reader in the season:
It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rain forest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. (The Summer Book)
It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light. . . . It had been snowing along the coast for a month. As far back as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been this much snow, this steady snow piling up against doors and windows and weighing down roofs and never stopping even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shoveled out. The cold made work in the boat sheds impossible. People woke up late because there was no longer any morning. (The True Deceiver)
Each novel begins in one season and ends as another encroaches (should Jansson blend winter and summer into one book, her characters’ personalities would have to flip halfway through, since who they are is so bound up in the season):
Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great, warm silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. (The Summer Book)
When reading Jansson’s work, something else will jump out at the reader—something, arguably, precipitated by remote locations and extreme weather. Contradicting what many of those living in large cities believe about small-town life, Jansson is unsentimental about neighborly relations. While one might associate small villages with hominess—a neighbor popping in for a cup of sugar or flour—part of Jansson’s charm, and humor, is her characters’ ambivalence to those around them.
In The Summer Book we learn that “the family had one friend who never came too close, and that was Eriksson. He would drive by in his boat, or he would think about coming but never get around to it. There were even summers when Eriksson came nowhere near the island and didn’t even think about it, either.”
And while The True Deceiver takes place in a village with neighbors and shopkeepers, the characters’ isolation is largely due to the winter weather, which keeps them at home. In Finland, temperatures can dip below -20°F, with a frigid -50°F not entirely unheard of.
In winter, the men in Västerby worked only in mild weather to save on fuel, and the boat shed closed before dark to save electricity. . . . If it got really cold, it didn’t make sense to go on working. The shed wasn’t insulated, and the stove was barely able to warm it enough to keep their hands from stiffening. They locked it up and went home.
As readers work their way through these two novels, observing the dance of nature and human psychology, Jansson offers a study in extremes. While one person cannot speak for an entire nation, Jansson’s Finland resonates, sticks to your bones and rattles them. With her passing in 2001, the world lost a great Nordic storyteller. We should consider ourselves lucky to have the books she’s left behind.
Gabrielle Gantz works in publishing and is the blogger behind The Contextual Life. Her interviews have appeared on The Rumpus.