Ilove Tove Jansson’s recently reissued 1968 memoir, “Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir,’’ and not just because it gives the reader almost nothing of her autobiography.
But should you feel the need to have it anyway: Jansson was born in 1914 in Helsinki into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority. Many of her childhood summers were spent on an island in the Gulf of Finland, and as an adult she lived on an even more isolated Finnish island. It’s no surprise that islands play large roles in her adult fiction and in the memoir of her childhood.
But before those books were written, Jansson was an illustrator and cartoonist for the anti-Fascist magazine Garm and then created the wildly popular Moomin books for children.
For approximately a half-century, she was romantically and creatively involved with graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä (Jansson died in 2001, Pietilä in 2009) even though homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971.
So, it’s not as though Jansson didn’t have a long, interesting life. But one doesn’t read “Sculptor’s Daughter’’ for details about that life: One reads it for further proof that Jansson was one of the 20th century’s most brilliant, enigmatic prose writers. I’m referring to her adult novels, and in particular 1972’s “The Summer Book,’’ 1974’s “Sun City,’’ and her greatest work, 1982’s “The True Deceiver,’’ which is one of the funniest, tensest books I’ve ever read, even though nothing much happens in it.
Nothing much happens in “Sculptor’s Daughter,’’ either. It’s basically a series of essays loosely organized by theme and subject — “The Golden Calf” (in which Jansson creates a golden calf out of rags and tin cans in reaction to her religious grandfather, only to be infuriated when her grandmother mistakes the calf for a lamb), “The Dark” (in which Jansson discovers that “You whisper and whisper and let the word grow until nothing exists except the word”), and so on.
This makes the book sound meandering, and that is in fact true: The book is far less concerned with story than with atmospherics. And that’s appropriate because if the book is about anything, it’s about unnerving shifts in weather — human and otherwise — and the lengths one should go to not be unnerved by them.
The main weather maker is the author’s father. Viktor Jansson is a rich, compelling character: a sculptor who showers affection on his many exotic pets, drinks, cheers on terrible weather, rummages through the island’s flotsam and jetsam, and dismisses all females except for perhaps his wife (the illustrator Signe Hammarsten-Jansson) and his daughter.
Which is not to say he’s a villain. On the contrary, he helps form his daughter’s remarkable vision in lots of unlikely ways. For instance, she gets from her father an aesthetic appreciation of the weather: “Mummy and Daddy went down to the beach and watched the jetty floating away . . . with all the boats pushing and nudging each other as though they were alive, and the fish-cage had broken adrift and all the pit-props were floating out through the sound. It was marvelous!”
And even more marvelous because not everyone agrees: “And the visitors hauled on the rope and were soaked to the skin and their nightshirts and had no idea what fun the whole thing was, which served them right” Here we get a clear sense of Jansson’s sensibility: What a world that gives us so much disaster to appreciate! And what a shame you’re too scared to appreciate it!
While Jansson does learn much from her father, her identity as a writer was formed partly in opposition to him — especially when it came to the subject of women and art. This is one of the most impressive things about her memoir. Jansson’s love for her father never leads her to gloss over his sexism: “Daddy loves all animals because they don’t contradict him . . . But it’s quite a different matter with Females. If you make statues of them they become women but as long as they remain Females things are difficult. They can’t even pose properly and they talk too much. Mummy isn’t a Female of course, and never has been one.”
This tender, cutting passage suggests how Jansson became the writer she is, and why, and why we should care. In “The Spinster Who Had an Idea,” Jansson examines the titular spinster who asks Viktor to teach her how to work with plaster. What the spinster and Tove learn isn’t exactly what the sculptor wants them to learn: “The plaster pictures were really the most beautiful things I had ever seen, but they weren’t Art. One couldn’t respect them at all. Actually one should really have despised them.”
You can hear Jansson struggling to think about art as she wants to and not only as her father has taught her. Less than a page later, the battle is over: “It couldn’t be helped that the glossy cut-out picture was really very beautiful, and to tell the truth for me it didn’t profane anything.”
What a wonderful, dangerous thing to think, to say, as Jansson very well knows. As she puts it later, “anyone can let Danger out but the really clever thing is finding somewhere for it to go afterwards.” The reader should be thrilled that, in “Sculptor’s Daughter,’’ Jansson found yet another place for danger to go.Brock Clarke, the author most recently of “Exley,” teaches at Bowdoin College. He can be reached at brockwayclarke @yahoo.com.