Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sophia's Storm

Curious things can happen when you read to your child. You should take this into careful consideration.

When I was a little girl, far too young to fully understand everything about them, my mother began to read the Moomin books to me at bedtime.

In case you've never heard of them before, The Moomins are to us what Pippi Longstocking is to Swedish children's literature, or Dr. Seuss to the Americans, or The Chronicles Of Narnia to the Brits; iconic, essential.

They are the children of an extraordinary artist named Tove Jansson.

Ms. Jansson was, in addition to being a children's writer, a painter, a sculptor, a political satirist, a novelist, a sea-farer and a world traveller, and an all-around extraordinary human being.
Part of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, and a daughter of artists, she decided on her life's work at the tender age of sixteen and set out to become a painter.
(Self-portrait with lynx boa)

All her life Jansson did as she pleased, without much caring for the opinions of others, or the conventions of the surrounding society. For instance, she was the first Finnish artist to bring her same-sex life partner to the annual independence reception at the presidential palace.

Never fazed by contradictions, she lived a great part of her life on a small island in the gulf of Finland, and at the same time, an equally great part, from the Jazz Age to the seventies, in the capital, Helsinki.
But back to my mother and bedtime. Like all truly great children's books, the Moominvalley stories are just as deep and complex as those written for grown-ups. If, for instance, you were to change the names of the characters in her 1962 collection The Invisible Child, from Mumbles and Mys, round-nosed trolls and wandering pixie hobos, to Janes and Jodys, you would have short stories with topics ranging from identity, to materialism, depression, paranoia and desire for self-knowledge.

Jansson's characters also bear a great resemblance to her own self; they are anarchistic, kind and funny, and like to look at things from unexpected angles. Infinitely curious, they stumble upon strange events without prejudice and believe in the redemptive power of adventure. They can be sage or silly. Brave and frightened at the same time. They debate their place in the universe constantly, yet are surprisingly certain of their own essence.

(She and Hayao Miyazaki have much in common)

Everything she could, my mother got for me in continuation of my years with the Moomins. I had the Tove Jansson illustrated versions of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, and The Hobbit. I had the Moomin comics, which were even wilder and more brilliantly, cuttingly mocking of modern life (the Moomins fall into sport frenzies, lifestyle gurus and luxury life, not to mention animal rights activists, silly self-afflicted artists, and even take drugs in these awesome 60s comics) She read only the brightest and bravest of children's fiction to me, and never ever denied any book from me, even when she should have (I got to hear most of Raymond Chandler's harsh hard-boiled fiction on tape before the age of seven, because we ran out of kids books-on-tape at the library).

Being exposed to these stories at the tender age of two, left the bar for subsequent children's literature rather high. As a matter of fact, Jansson's fiction set my tastes permanently, so that even as I moved onto more grow-up books, I was forever drawn to narratives with innocence and awe, where catastrophic events followed one another, and pain and fear lead to great realisations.

I went on to read Truman Capote and J.D. Salinger, swoon over Carson McCullers, and flirt briefly with such writers, as Banana Yoshimoto, and Alice Hoffman. Later there were such wonderful finds as Nicole Krauss, Marilynne Robinson, and the much mentioned Lauren Groff and Karen Russell, in who's stories caught a glimpse of something I was looking for.

I had always been aware that Jansson had also written a number of books for adults, but the few times I sought to read them, I was sorely disappointed by the inelegance of the language, and the lack of magical pull in them. After a few tries, I simply gave up on them, deciding that her ability in fiction for grown-ups, was the one small weakness of my childhood idol.

That is until this fall, when on a lark, I decided to try to read her work translated to English.
And what I read blew me away. The delicate beauty of these stories, their simplicity, and elegance, combined with their penetrating insight, cannot compare to any other work of literature, that I know of.

How was this possible? How could her work be so much better in a language other than my own? Because that was it. I made sure by taking out the same collection in Finnish, and it was very very different, apt, but not mesmerizing.

Jansson wrote all of her work in her native Swedish, which, unlike Finnish, but like English, is a Germanic language. Therefore the English translation's rhythms, word-play and metaphors must be much closer to the original. While her children's fiction found a way to brake that barrier, the clumsiness of the Finnish language must have dampened the finesse of her work for grown-ups, thus rendering the translation less faithful to the original.

The stories were a wonderful discovery, but they also got me thinking about my own work, which exhibits many sure signs of Janssonism, only detectable in the harsh light of hindsight. I love a good catastrophe-story, wise children with a penchant for saying sage things, inexplicable longing, and sudden sadness. Furthermore I have long had an odd love of Islands, so much so I am now moving to one.

Janssons work has been so intrinsic to me, that reading these books, though they were new to me, was like reading stories I have struggled to write myself. Mixed with the pleasure of discovering them, is the sadness of knowing I will never be able to write them, or anything comparable to them. That must be the price one pays for having a truly great writer living in their head.

At the risk of someone finding this eee-endless entry bo-ooring, I urge you to give your utmost attention to what you read to your kid at bedtime, and now leave you with an excerpt from the Summer Book, which Jansson wrote about the relationship between her grand-niece Sophia and Jansson's own aging mother. Here goes:

Grandmother sat in the magic forest and carved outlandish animals. She cut them from branches and driftwood and gave them paws and faces, but she only hinted at what they looked like and never made them too distinct. They retained their wooden souls, and the curve of their back and legs had the enigmatic shape of growth itself and remained a part of the decaying forest. Sometimes she cut them directly out of a stump or the trunk of the tree.


"What is it you're doing?" Sophia asked.
"I'm playing." Grandmother said.
Sophia crawled into the magic forest and saw everything her grandmother had done.
"Is it an exhibit?" she asked.
But Grandmother said it had nothing to do with sculpture, sculpture was another thing completely.

Listening to: Explosions In The Sky
Reading: guess


  1. i remember reading some of the moomin-books in my own language, german, as a kid, but somehow i never thought them so extraordinary and after reading the second or third moomin-book i never touched them again. that is, until this summer when i finally bought one of those books in swedish (which i speak fluently since some years back). they are amazing, and i really want to have all of them now.
    i actually didn't know that she wrote books for adults as well, so i will try and find them the next time i'm in sweden and read one of them. i'm really excited about being able to explore her work now in the original version...

    by the way, just a little thing: neither english nor swedish are latin languages (even though we use latin letters for writing). they are, just as german and dutch, germanic languages.. i hope you don't mind me correcting you?

  2. you're so right! I often get this mixed up. it's weird to me that the latin and germanic languages are not closely related, because they seem to be so close to each other, from the Finno-Ugrian language speaker's point of view. I shall correct my fuck up immediately, thanks

  3. My dad used to read the stories to me when I was a little girl but in Polish. There was also a cartoon.

    My favourite character was the traveling one that seemed wonderfully lost.

    Now I want to check out her adult book. Thanks for reminding me of her.

  4. My parents never censored my choices when it came to literature either - a smart move, methinks. Thanks for this very informative and interesting post. I've heard of the moomin books, but never seen/read them. I'm keeping my eyes out for them now.

  5. What a wonderful bedtime alternative! I live in the states and have never heard of the Moomin books. I'm definitely going to look for English versions. The illustrations are wonderful, much more stimulating than most of the children's books I come across.

  6. I found this post fascinating! I have never heard of the moomin books, but I find your description of them and the illustrations so charming. I love love love good childrens' literature, so I am excited to hunt these down. This also reminds me of reading Roald Dahl... I just cherished his stories growing up, but his adult fiction (while entertaining) is so stilted and inferior in comparison.

    Have you read any Hugh Lofting? (just another Childrens author who has wonderful illustrations)

    Oh and I also find the Germanic/Romance connection with English confusing. English seems to me to have much more in common with the Latin languages.

    Oh and one more thing (sorry this comment is so long): Milla, I didn't know you were actually native to Finland! Your English is so utterly flawless down to slang and everyting!

    <3 megan (a.k.a. kittytown from flickr)

  7. I WILL take this into consideration and begin reading Clover her Moomin book before bed immediately! What an amazing post. Tove Jansson sounds like an incredible woman. Not to mention, your mother!

    Her illustrations are SO amazing! The Moomin comics sound really cool and I love Hayao Miyazaki, the Moomin stories seem like they would be really great to see animated as well.

    That’s really interesting how much of a difference the translation language makes, and so great that you discovered this. I know what’s next on my reading list ;) When I first read the Moomin book you sent, I was wondering how in the heck it could be translated such that it all rhymed so perfectly in English and still remained wonderfully written, yet it does!

    Ah, the excerpt you included is so beautiful, and so “Milla” :)

    P.S. “They debate their place in the universe constantly, yet are surprisingly certain of their own essence.” – I like that.

  8. This is such a great post. I love Moomin books! This has reminded me to reread 'Finn Family Moomintroll' and to hunt down more of her books! :)

  9. Moomin are best! My idol is Little My - I am also tiny and readhead. She always cope with everything in life when others are loosing their grip. Janssons work is just so adorable.

  10. Hey! I like you, therefore, I am tagging you. See my blog for details:)

  11. i have got to tell you i LOVE this post. i love your blog. as always.
    i have been wanting to do a post on children's literature for some time now, but i have never been sure how to go about it.
    children's literature has such imagination! imagination that has stuck with me for my whole life thus far. one of my very first memories is reading to my mother. for as long as i can remember books have been a part of my life.
    when i was younger i gobbled up books like they were food or water. i'll have to do a post about them soon.
    i'm going to read some of this author, because i highly trust your opinion! in fact, i thought you would be happy to know that i am now reading the monters of templeton and LOVING IT. i can barely put it down.
    anyway, i just had to tell you i love this post.
    and since i have been at college i have seriously been thinking about translating books for a living. though it is hard work, and scary work, i have a passion for it. truly.

  12. It's so interesting how writing can be so much more or less poignant simply based on the usage of specific words in a language... I've noticed this as well reading some things in Lithuanian and English, some of which were originally English, translated to Lithuanian, some which were originally Lithuanian, translated to English, and some which were originally neither, translated into both. Each version has such a different feeling in some cases, and while they may convey the same (or very similar) literal meaning, they mean something so much different because of how they read and the impression they give.

    Have you ever read the Karlsson stories by Astrid Lindgren? They are also wonderful (though maybe somewhat less serious than moomin) :)

    I need to go find some Moomin books, I would love to have some :)

  13. I still love the moomin books, ever since i was a child!!

  14. Tove Jansson is one of the persons i admire the most in the whole world. I love all her books, they are so wise and calm. I like the feeling I get by reeding them. I'm glad there is someone out there who seem to like Tove as much as I do.

  15. Thanks for this wonderful description of Tove Jansson, she sounds amazing!

  16. This is my first visit to your blog. A wonderful introduction. Very keen reflection on your place as a writer. These stories sound amazing, I will seek them out. Thank you.

  17. Excellent entry about Jansson. She's a feminist artist model for us all. Thanks for including all the wonderful images, too.