the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Tove Jansson’s Weather Vane

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In the current issue of Tin House, I have an essay on Finnish author Tove Jansson. Jansson, probably best known for her children’s book characters The Moomins, also wrote books for adults. I had finally come across them early last year.

After reading Jansson’s novels, I was struck by her strong tone: a dark humor that appears to, at once, both celebrate and mock humanity. As I looked closer, I found that weather played a major role in the stories, determining where the characters lived, how they got on with their day-to-day, and even the personalities they developed.

Below is a short excerpt from the essay in the Winter Reading issue. Also in the issue is fiction from Fiona Maazel and Shirley Jackson; poetry from Meghan O’Rourke, Josh Bell, and Mark Z. Danielewski; an interview with author Robert Stone; and other reviews from Dani Shapiro and Tobias Carroll. Head out to your local bookstore today or order online at Tin House.

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 into 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 her novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical creatures but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting Jansson’s 1972 novel, The Summer Book, on display at a local bookstore–a slim book with a muted, pastel cover, and silhouette of an island in the center–I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot. It was only later, through a Google search, that I learned of her earlier work.

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 dead and the father, inexplicably, 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 to 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.”

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Written by Gabrielle

January 7, 2014 at 7:12 am

4 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Dentro il cerchio.

    luccone

    January 7, 2014 at 7:13 am

  2. Love Tove Jannson & love the Moomintrolls. My son was obsessed with the books when he was small — he ended up collecting them all and reading them over and over. I think there is even a Moomintroll-Land in Finland (or was — haven’t checked it out in a while). He lobbied us for years to take him there. I’ll be interested to see your take on Jannson’s adult fiction. Wasn’t aware that she had written any. Thanks.

    erupprecht

    January 7, 2014 at 8:39 am

  3. The Summer Book is so beautiful. I discovered it a few years ago and it’s stayed with me ever since, even though it’s so simple. I’ve been meaning to read more Jansson ever since, but haven’t yet.

    Jill

    January 7, 2014 at 10:49 am

  4. I just picked this up the other day. I’ve only read one story so far but I am so pleased to hear you have a piece in there. I look forward to it!

    mwgerard

    January 8, 2014 at 11:02 am


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