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Sunday 17 August 2014

The Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir by Tove Jansson (translated by Kingsley Hart)

Over the course of the past year or so, I’ve found my reading choices have changed. I used to be largely a reader of novels, with a little poetry on the side. Short fiction I have always struggled with, and non-fiction books occupy only a tiny space in my library. In fact non-fiction was something I read when I had a problem I needed to solve, and then only in parts and extracts. Then something happened, I’m not sure what. Suddenly I discovered an interest in nature writing, diaries and memoirs. Those of you who have followed my blog even a little will already know my obsession with Jansson, one of the great but under-rated writers of the last century. So you can imagine my joy when I discovered her memoir, which wraps up nature, Jansson and memoirs all in one. 

The Sculptor’s Daughter follows a very Jansson-esque style. The book comprises a series of short stories, each one self contained yet linked in some manner or other to the others so that the whole feels like a…well…a whole! In it Jansson takes her childhood self and casts her as the protagonist of each episode, using biographical elements to draw out some aspect of her childhood upbringing or some observation of childhood or human nature. Her parents figure heavily in the stories, as does nature and her island and her early relationship with ‘Art’ which had a heavy influence on everything that followed. Yet each story is magical in its own way, honest, wise and unflinching in its gaze. Jansson does not try, in any way, to cast herself as the perfect child. Instead she is wilful, jealous, sometimes nasty, opinionated and suspicious. In other words, like most children though blessed, perhaps, with a somewhat less orthodox upbringing.  She covers a range of interesting stories on subjects from the dark to dressing up, Christmas, females and pets, flotsam and jetsam, the discovery of a shiny stone that almost makes the family fortune (but ruins the stairs instead).

What is special about Jansson’s writing is how she can create so much from seemingly so little, and is able to present her memoirs in a fresh and authentically child-like voice whilst maintaining a piercing vision. Despite, or perhaps because of, this childlikeness, the stories contain Jansson’s customary wisdom and insight into human nature. And they are charming, so so charming. Like here in her chapter about Albert, a childhood friend. The two have just finished building a raft and are sailing out to sea:

“It was slow work paddling but we got going. We reached deep water, but that we all right because we had both nearly learned to swim. After a while we entered the sound near Red Rock.”   

Jansson, as always shows herself to be a master of the short form. She displays a disturbing ability to set tone in a few short sentences. Like here, from the chapter ‘Snow’ that describes a short period in which she and her mother spend some time in a strange house which Jansson clearly didn’t like.

“When we got to the strange house it began to snow in quite a different way. A mass of tired old clouds opened and flung snow at us, all of a sudden, and just anyhow. They weren’t ordinary snowflakes, they fell straight down in large sticky lumps, they clung to each other and sank quickly and they weren’t white, but grey. The whole world was as heavy as lead.”

or here, in the chapter ‘The Dark’

“At the waxworks you can see how easy it is to smash people to pieces. They can be crushed, torn in half or sawn into little bit. Nobody is safe and therefore it is terribly important to find a hiding-place in time.”

Everything that is great about Jansson’s writing, her world view, can be found in The Sculptor’s Daughter. There are elements which show, perhaps, the early origin of her womderful Moomins stories, as well as her keen observation skills and unflinching honesty. It is more special because it gives a small insight into the life of this wonderful writer, how it all began and offers a roadmap to where her artistic talents took her, and us her privileged readers. There are times when it’s not clear whether this is a work of fact or fiction, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. They are wonderful stories, instructive, funny, disturbing and very, very true. Just go read it, okay? Then you’ll see what I mean.

The Sculptor’s Daughter receives a wide-eyed with awe 10 out of 10 Biis. 

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