The cover is grainy in the dim light of my living room. I long for the light of longer days. But this will do, for a book on winter -
I started this story collection on the 30th of December, so it’s a cross-over from last year’s Endless Reads to this, and so occupies disputed territory. Liminal. The book in question is not at all an uncertain book in its prose, in Finnish writer Tove Jansson’s matter-of-fact sentences, her wry peering at the foibles of human nature, but in its form – the way it is frustratingly not enough of one thing or another. And where I would accept this in other, more experimental authors, I felt let down by Jansson who is otherwise so steady.
It is composed of stories taken from Jansson’s childhood experiences, and then with a sudden lurch, those of her late adult life. There are also fragments of fan letters and personal correspondences which Jansson has tinkered with to make the speaker seem more or less needy. This was my least favourite section. It does lead into the letters from a Japanese fan, but that part was so sad, lacking the paired responses from Jansson herself. Later, there is even a purely fictional story about a young man on a ferry to England, forced into a painful, burdensome empathy with every one he meets – people are always showing him photographs of their relatives – I can’t help reading this and feeling a little like it is the literature of an exhausted, famous writer.
However, I’m neglecting to mention the earlier tales of childhood, which are full of wonder. ‘The Iceberg’ is a beautiful story of a night-time encounter with the ice. As Frank Cottrell Boyce says in the afterword, it lingers, is touching, precisely because of its smallness, because ‘She does not go out and conquer the wilderness. She does not return home with trophies of antlers or wild flowers. She gives away something of herself and somehow gains.’
Another favourite was ‘The Dark’ in which the young Tove delights in tormenting her friend Poyu over the darkness that encroaches on a public outdoor skating rink. They play with the snakes in the carpet, the dark lines of the fabric which cannot be stepped on for fear of a writhing mass attacking them. It’s also an insight into Tove’s artist father, who would take her out to see housefires and reveled in their chaos, the chaos of storms. And Tove’s mother, who would paint images of Moses in the reed basket, and with her ‘gentle and grave’ profile, tells Tove stories that charm back the dark. The whole piece illustrates the ferocity with which children see and fight back and latch on to places and people of safety, against the vastness of the world.
In the end, I much prefer Jansson’s The Summer Book, which I read last year. It has more continuity, more stability – something which suits the inherently calm, definitive blocks of her writing. A Winter Book is a companion piece that doesn’t quite match the predecessor. It is not a white crust of it, deep enough to come over the top of your boots and crumble wetly into your socks – its is only a light smattering of flakes, nothing that will lie too long, but lovely nonetheless.