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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ by Tove Jansson

“Tove Jansson’s first book for adults drew on her childhood memories to capture afresh the enchantments and fears of growing up in Helsinki in the nineteen tens and twenties. Described as both a memoir and ‘a book of superb stories’ by Ali Smith, her startlingly evocative prose offers a glimpse of the mysteries of winter ice, the bonhomie of balalaika parties, and the vastness of Christmas viewed from beneath the tree.”

I have wanted to read Sculptor’s Daughter ever since I first learnt of its existence around eight years ago.  Despite fruitless Internet searches, I could never locate a copy of the book which fell beneath £300.  When I found out that the marvellous people at Sort Of Books, who are responsible for publishing a lot of Jansson’s fiction, were reissuing it in a gorgeous hardback edition, I was incredibly excited.  I never preorder books, but this was the one exception to my rule.

Jansson, as many of the readers of this blog probably already know, is one of the authors whom I adore the most.  Her fiction never fails to astonish me with both its beauty and clarity, and it goes without saying that I absolutely love the creation which she is most famous for – the Moomins.

Author Ali Smith’s introduction to Sculptor’s Daughter is wonderful.  It is clear that she very much admires Jansson’s work.  Sculptor’s Daughter is essentially a childhood memoir of sorts, told through a series of short stories.  When opening the book, a lot of the titles seemed familiar to me, and that is because thirteen of the nineteen tales published within its pages can be found within Jansson’s A Winter Book.  If I had known this beforehand, I still would have preordered the volume, as it does contain six stories which were new to me.  Each of these is exquisite, like a tiny treasure in itself.

Sculptor’s Daughter has been beautifully produced, and the photographs throughout are lovely.  My only qualm is that a couple of these were printed more than once, which was a little bit of a shame.  It will come as no surprise, however, to say that I absolutely loved this book, and will be reading it many more times in years to come.

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And Other Stories: ‘Art in Nature and Other Stories’ by Tove Jansson *****

First published in July 2013.

Sort Of Books, who have already published five of Tove Jansson’s adult novels and story collections, as well as several of her Moomin books, have just released this new volume of her short stories, all of which are printed in English for the first time. The entire book has been translated by Thomas Teal, who won the Rochester Best Translated Book Award in 2011. This prize sets him in wonderful stead to translate one of Finland’s finest authors and to introduce more of her stories to a wider readership.

Art in Nature and Other Stories
 comprises eleven short stories, all of which are mesmerising from the outset. The title story, ‘Art in Nature’, tells of a ‘very old’ caretaker who has been put in charge of looking after a large art exhibition when it closes each night. He works alone through ‘the long, lonely evenings’, finding solace in the peace around him. One night he comes across a man and woman who have made their way into the exhibition past closing time. Rather than throw them out as protocol dictates, an impassioned and rather surprising discussion about art ensues.

The stories themselves are all rather varied, but there are many which feature protagonists who are artists or are involved with art in some way – a sculptor, a cartoonist, an actress and a writer of children’s books, amongst others. A story entitled ‘The Doll’s House’ follows an upholsterer with a love of classic novels ‘which enchanted him with their heavy patience’, who constructs an elaborate wooden house, assembling it bit by bit: it ‘would be allowed to grow however it wished, organically, room by room’. The characters in every story are beautifully portrayed. All are well-developed and feel like real, fully fleshed out people, and not a single one feels as though their construction has been rushed. Many touches of autobiography can be found throughout.

Jansson’s prose is absolutely and often startlingly beautiful. She describes everyday scenes with such deftness and skill that it feels as though we are viewing the scenes afresh. The reader is essentially given a new perspective through Jansson’s words, in which the wonders of the world are evident. In ‘Art in Nature’, she describes how the sculptures in the exhibition ‘grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing’. The ideas woven throughout the majority of the stories are just lovely. A group of young people in ‘White Lady’ are described as being ‘like a flock of birds… that settle for a moment, for as long as it suits them’.

Ali Smith, author of novels including The Accidental and There But For The, states ‘that there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by [Tove] Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure’ – a sentiment which could not be more true. To build up such rich, detailed stories within just a few pages as Jansson does here is masterful, and Teal’s translation of her work is faultless. Art in Nature and Other Stories is a pure delight from beginning to end. It is an absolute joy to read and certainly reaffirms Jansson’s position as a wonderful storyteller and a master of her craft.

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‘The Listener’ by Tove Jansson *****

Sort Of Books’ newest publication is the first English translation of Tove Jansson’s first short story collection, The Listener, which was first published in Finland in 1971.  2014 marks the author’s centenary, and what better way to celebrate than in picking up one of her stunning books?

‘The Listener’ (Sort Of Books)

As with several other works of Jansson’s upon the Sort Of Books list – The Summer Book, Fair Play and The True Deceiver, to be precise – Thomas Teal was responsible for the flawless translation of the collection.  The book’s blurb states that in The Listener, Jansson ‘revealed the clarity of vision and light philosophical touch that were to become her hallmark’.  It goes on to herald the collection as ‘a tour de force of scalpel-sharp narration that takes us from a disquieting homage to the artist Edward Gorey, to perfect evocations of childhood innocence and recklessness’.

The Listener is comprised of eighteen tales in all, and as ever, the difference between each and every one is striking.  The stories are of varying lengths, and beautiful vignettes which run to just three or four pages sit alongside longer character studies.  In the title story, the ‘listener’ is Aunt Gerda, who was ‘fifty-five when it began, and the first sign of change was in her letters.  They grew impersonal.’  The narrator goes on to say: ‘When a person loses what might be called her essence – the expression of her most beautiful quality – it sometimes happens that the alteration widens and deepens and with frightening speed overwhelms her entire personality.  This is what happened to Aunt Gerda’.  Later stories focus upon such things as freak weather conditions, growing up, and sharing one’s private island with a wayward squirrel.

Throughout, Jansson’s turns of phrase are beautiful, and each has been translated with such care: ‘In essence, Aunt Gerda was not much more than silence’, ‘The nights were luminous – the transparent, lingering blue that comes with spring’, and the description of a man’s cap as being ‘little more than a leaf that had floated down onto his hair’, for example.  The author finds beautiy in absolutely everything, from the most simple of everyday tasks, to the nature which surrounded her.  She makes even the mundane and commonplace endlessly fascinating, and is shrewd, profound and articulate in each and every story.

Jansson’s work is always incredibly perceptive, particularly with regard to her younger characters.  The portrait of the young girl in ‘Unloading Sand’, for instance, is utterly sublime, and Jansson marvellously captures her vivacity: ‘With each step she moved further from the cottage, running and chewing, down to the shore and over the stones, jumping and skipping, precise, eating the whole way’.  Nature is prevalent throughout The Listener, as is the exploration into intricacies of relationships, and the attention given to art and those who make it.  The Listener is a stunning collection which is just as strong as Jansson’s later work, and it is sure to be adored by all of those who encounter it.

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