Impressionists by Antonia Cunningham (2001)

This is a small (4½” x 6″) but dense (256 high-gloss pages), handily pocket-sized little overview of the Impressionist movement.

The ten-page introduction  by Karen Hurrell is marred by some spectacular errors. In the second paragraph she tells us that Paris was ‘in the throes of the belle epoque‘ when the 19-year-old Monet arrived in town in 1859 – whereas the Belle Époque period is generally dated 1871 to 1914. She tells us that Napoleon Bonaparte had commissioned the extensive redesign of the city – when she means Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the great man’s nephew and heir, more commonly known as Napoleon III, who reigned as Emperor of the French from 1852 to 1870.

Thus cautioned to take any other facts in the introduction or the picture captions with a touch of scepticism, nonetheless we learn some basic background facts about the Impressionists:

  • Monet was inspired by the French landscape painter Eugène Boudin (1824-98)
  • Success in the art world was defined as acceptance of your work into the biannual exhibition of the Paris Salon
  • Reputable artists were expected to train at the Académie des Beaux-Arts which was dominated by the classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), who insisted on training in draughtsmanship, copying the Old Masters, using a clear defined line.
  • Edgar Degas (1834-1917) enrolled in the Beaux-Arts as did Pissarro.
  • Monet attended the Académie Suisse where he met Pissarro, then entered the studio of Charles Gleyre: here he met Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Frédéric Bazille (1841-70).
  • Older than the others and really from a different generation was their inspiration, Édouard Manet (1832-83). He sought academic success in the traditional style, attaining Salon success in 1861.
  • In 1863 the Salon refused so many contemporary painters that Napoleon III was asked to create a separate show for them, the Salon des Refusés. Manet stole the show with his The lunch on the grass showing a naked woman in the company of two fully dressed contemporary men.
  • The 1865 Salon show included works by Degas, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Berthe Morisot (1841-95).
  • From 1866 Manet began to frequent the Café Guerbois, and was soon joined by Renoir, Sisley, Caillebotte and Monet, with Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Pissarro also dropping by, when in town. They became known as the Batignolles Group after the area of Paris the cafe was in.
  • Paris life of all kinds was disrupted by the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War and then the disastrous rising of communists during the Paris Commune, which was only put down by the official government with great bloodshed and destruction (July 1870-May 1871). All the artists who could afford to fled the city, many to England and London – an event which was the basis of the Tate Britain exhibition, Impressionists in London.
  • From April to May 1874 this group held an independent art exhibition in the gallery of the photographer Nadar. The critic Louis Leroy took exception to Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise (1872), satirising the group’s focus on capturing fleeting impressions of light instead of painting what was there, but the name was taken up by more sympathetic critics and soon became a catch-phrase the artists found themselves lumbered with.
  • It’s interesting to note that Degas was a driving force behind this and the subsequent Impressionist shows, single-handedly persuading artists to take part. He himself was not really an impressionist, much of his subject matter, for example, being indoors instead of painting out of doors, en plein air, as Impressionist doctrine demanded. Similarly, whereas the other experimented with creating form through colour i.e. using colour alone to suggest shape and form, Degas was to the end of his life a believer in extremely strong, clear, defining lines to create shape and form and texture.
  • In 1876 the group exhibited again, at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel. The role played by Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and financing the Impressionists was chronicled in the national Gallery exhibition, Inventing Impressionism.
  • There were eight Impressionist exhibitions in total: in 1874, 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882, 1886. The eight Impressionist exhibitions

From this point on we begin to follow the differing fortunes and styles of the group. Monet developed his mature style in the first half of the 1870s, letting go of any attempt to document reality, instead developing ‘a new vocabulary of painting’ in blobs and dashes of often unmixed primary colours in order to capture the essence of the scene. In 1880 Monet organised a solo show and submitted two works to the Salon. Degas called him a sell-out, but he was trying to distance himself from the group.

Renoir developed a unique style of portraying the gaiety of contemporary Parisian life in realistic depictions of people dancing and drinking at outdoor cafés, with broad smiles, the whole scene dappled with light. He was to become the most financially successful of the group and you can see why: his uplifting works are popular to this day. In the 1880s he took to nudes and portraits rather than landscapes. He was always interested in people.

Degas resisted being called an Impressionist – he painted mostly indoor scenes and never abandoned his hard outlines – but certainly was influenced by the Impressionist emphasis on the effect of light captured in loose brushstrokes. During the 1870s he began to produce the hundreds of oil paintings and pastels of ballet dancers which were to be a key subject.

The American artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) saw a Degas in a dealer’s window and realised these were her people. She lightened her palette, adopted the modern attitude towards light and exhibited at the successive Impressionist exhibitions.

Sisley became dependent on Durand-Ruel. When the latter fell on hard times, Sisley and his family led a tough, hard-up, peripatetic life. Arguably he is the only one who never developed but carried on working in the same, pure Impressionist way.

Pissarro and Cézanne became firm friends, painting the same scenes side by side.

Even at the time commentators could see the difference with Cézanne applying paint in broad, heavy brushstrokes, and becoming ever more interested, less by light than by the geometric forms buried in nature, increasingly seeing the world as made of blocks and chunks and rectangles and rhomboids of pure colour – paving the way for Cubism and much modern art. His style diverged from the group just as Impressionism was becoming more accepted, by critics and public. He resigned from the group in 1887.

Neo-impressionism is the name given to the post-impressionist work of Georges Seurat (1859-91), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and their followers who used contemporary optical theory to try to take Impressionism to the next level. Seurat developed a theory called Divisionism (which he called chromoluminarism) the notion of creating a painting not from fluid brush strokes but from thousands of individual dots of colour. Seurat used contemporary colour theory and detailed colour wheels to work out how to place dots of contrasting colour next to each other in order to create the maximum clarity and luminosity. The better-known technique of pointillism refers just to the use of dots to build up a picture, without the accompanying theory dictating how the dots should be of carefully contrasting colours.


There follow 120 very small, full colour reproductions of key paintings by the main members of the movement (and some more peripheral figures). Each picture is on the right hand page, with text about the title, date, painter and a one-page analysis on the page opposite. Supremely practical and useful to flick through. Here’s a list of the painters and the one or two most striking things I learned:

  • Eugène Boudin (1) The landscape painter Monet credited with inspiring him to paint landscapes.
  • Manet (15) I love Manet for his striking use of black, for his use of varying shades of white but he is not a totally convincing painter. His two or three masterpieces are exceptions. I struggle with the perspective or placing of figures in Dejeuner sur l’herbe, particularly the woman in the lake who seems bigger and closer than the figures in the foreground and is a giant compared to the rowing boat, and the way the lake water is tilting over to the left. He was awful at painting faces – Inside the cafe, Blonde woman with bare breasts. The body of the Olympia is sensational but her badly modelled head looks stuck on. In 1874 he began experimenting with the Impressionists’ technique i.e. lighter tones and out of doors, not that convincingly (The barge).
  • Frederic Bazille (2) studied with Monet, Renoir and Sisley but on this showing never quit a highly realistic style – Family reunion.
  • Monet (16) without a doubt the god of the movement and the core practitioner of Impressionism, produced hundreds of masterpieces while slowly fascinatingly changing and evolving his technique. The big surprise was an early work, Women in the garden (1867) which shows what a staggeringly good realistic artist he could have been: look at the detail on the dresses! Of all the impressionist works here I was most struck by the modest brilliance of the water and reflections in The bridge at Argenteuil (1874).
  • Alfred Sisley (6) was the English Impressionist. Always hard up, he persisted in the core Impressionist style. I was struck by Misty morning (1874) and Snow at Louveciennes (1878).
  • Camille Pissarro (14) Ten years older than Monet, he quickly took to the Impressionist style (an open-mindedness which led him, in the 1880s, to adopt Seurat’s new invention of pointillism). Pissarro is the only one of the group who exhibited at all 8 Impressionist exhibitions. I was bowled over by Hoar frost (1873). I too have walked muddy country lanes in winter where the ridges of churned up mud are coated with frost and the puddles are iced over, while a weak bright winter sun illuminates the landscape.
  • Renoir (15) Everyone knows the depictions of happy Parisians dancing at outdoor cafés under a dappled summer light. Set next to the landscapes of Monet, Sisley and Pissarro you can see straightaway that Renoir was fascinated by the human figure and was an enthusiastic portrayer of faces. I like Dance in the country (1883) for the extremely strong depiction of the man, an amazing depiction of all the shades of black to be found in a man’s black suit and shoes. I was startled to learn that, in the mid-1880s, dissatisfied with Impressionism, he took trips abroad and returned from Italy determined to paint in a more austere classical style. The plait (1884) anticipates 20th century neo-classicism, and is not at all what you associate with Renoir.
  • Armand Guillaumin (2) from a working class background, he met the others at art school, exhibited in the Salon des Refusés show, but never had a large output.
  • Edgar Degas (17) Having visited and revisited the Degas exhibition at the National Gallery, I am convinced Degas was a god of draughtsmanship. It’s interesting that he lobbied hard for the Impressionists and organised the critical first exhibition, but always denied he was one. Skipping over the obvious masterpieces I was struck by the faces, especially the far left face, of The orchestra at the opera (1868). It shows his characteristic bunching up of objects. And the quite fabulous Blue dancers (1897).
  • Gustave Caillebotte (3) a naval engineer turned artist. The only link with the Impressionist style I can make out is his frank depiction of contemporary life. But the dabs and rough brushwork, leaving blank canvas, obsession with sunlight and creating form out of colour alone – none of that seems on show here. Street in Paris in the rain (1877). Very striking and distinctive but I’m surprised to find him in the same pages as Sisley or Pissarro.
  • Berthe Morisot (6) on the evidence here, painted lots of women in quiet domestic poses. Young girl at the ball (1875)
  • Mary Cassatt (5) More scenes of quiet domestic life, some of which eerily prefigure the same kind of rather bland domestic style of the early 20th century. Young mother sewing (1900)
  • Paul Cézanne (16) Yesterday I visited the exhibition of Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, so those 50 or so portraits are ringing in my memory, along with knowledge of how he painted subjects in series, the style he developed of painting in kinds of blocks or slabs of colours, which bring out the geometric implications of his subjects, and his playing with perspective i.e. the three or four components of even a simple portrait will be depicted as if from different points of view, subtly upsetting the composition – The smoker (1890). Among the brown portraits and orangey still lifes, a dazzling riot of green stood out – Bridge over the pond (1896) though it, too, is made out of his characteristic blocks of (generally) diagonal brushstrokes, clustered into groups which suggest blocks or ‘chunks’, giving all his mature works that odd ‘monumental’ look, almost as if they’ve been sculpted out of colour more than painted smoothly.
  • Seurat (2) 19 years younger than Monet (born in 1859 to Monet’s 1840), Seurat was not an Impressionist, but exhibited with them in 1886. His highly intellectual theory of Divisionism divided the group, causing big arguments. Seurat produced some highly distinctive and classic images before dying tragically young, aged 31.

This is a very handy survey, a useful overview of 120 works which remind the reader a) how varied the Impressionists were b) who were the core flag-wavers (Monet, Sisley, Pissarro) c) who were the outriders (Manet, Degas) and above all, d) what scores and scores of wonderful, enduring masterpieces they created.


Related links

A Closer Look: Colour by David Bomford and Ashok Roy (2009)

This is another superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book in The National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

A Closer Look: Colour explores how painters apply colour, describes different types of pigments, and outlines optical theories and artists’ treatises. The authors explain the effect on colour of the artist’s chosen medium, such as oil, water or egg tempera, and the dramatic impact of new pigments.’

It ranges far and wide across the National Gallery’s vast collection of 2,300 art works, selecting 80 paintings which illustrate key aspects of colour, medium and design. The quality of the colour reproductions is really stunning – it’s worth having the book almost for these alone and for the brief but penetrating insights into a colour-related aspect of each one.

They include works by Seurat, Holbein the Younger, Corot, Duccio, David, Chardin, Ghirlandaio, Monet and Van Dyck in the first ten pages alone!

Aspects of colour

Colour quite obviously has been used by painters to depict the coloured world we see around us. But it has other functions, too. Maybe the two most obvious but easily overlooked are: to represent depth and create the optical illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface; and to reinforce this by indicating sources of light.

Depth A common indication of depth is recreating the common observation that objects at a distance fade into a blue-ish haze. This is often seen in Renaissance paintings depicting increasingly hazy backdrops behind the various virgins and main figures. This is known as aerial perspective.

Light Sources of light need to be carefully calculated in a realistic painting. The book shows how the effect of light sources is achieved by showing glimmers of white paint on metallic objects or even on duller surfaces like wood. There is a particularly wondrous example in Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her Sister by Anthony Van Dyck. The authors give a close-up to show how the colour of the yellow dress worn by the main subject is reflected on the bare skin of of the little angel, and even in the catchlight in his right eye, an indication of the depth of thought which goes into his compositions.

Shadows turn out to be an entire subject in themselves. For centuries painters improved their depiction of shadows, at first using grey colours for the shadows of buildings, but quickly realising that the most shadowed things around us are fabrics. Dresses, cloaks all the paraphernalia of costume from the Middle Ages to the turn of the 20th century, involved reams of material which folded in infinite ways, all of them a challenge to the painters’ skill. At the very least, painting a fabric requires not one but three colours: the core colour of the fabric itself, the fabric in shadow, the fabric in highlight, reflecting the light source.

The human eye is not a mechanical reproducer of the world around us. It has physiological quirks and limitations. The book evidences the way that, dazzled by orange sunsets, the human eye might well see evening shadows as violet. Quirks and oddities like this were known to various painters of the past but it was the Impressionists who, as a group, set out to try and capture not what the rational mind knew to be the colour, but the colours as actually perceived by the imperfect eye and misleadable mind.

Emotion In the later 19th century artists across Europe made the discovery that intensity of colour can be used to reflect intensity of emotion. Probably the most popular painter to do this was van Gogh whose intense colours were intended to convey his own personal anguish. This approach went on to become the central technique of the German Expressionist painters (although they aren’t represented in the book, along with all 20th century art, because the National Gallery’s cut-off point is 1900).

Symbolism In earlier centuries, more than its realistic function, colour had an important role in a painting’s symbolism i.e. certain colours are understood to have certain meanings or to be associated with certain people or qualities. The most obvious period is the Renaissance, when the Virgin Mary’s cloak was blue, Mary Magdalene’s cloak was red, St Peter’s cloak was yellow and blue, and so on. From early on this allowed or encouraged Renaissance painters to create compositions designed not only to show a (religious) subject, but to create harmonious visual ‘rhythms’ and ‘assonances’ based on these traditionally understood colour associations.

Pigments and Media

This is dealt with quite thoroughly in another book in the series, Techniques of Painting. There we learn that paint has two components, the binding medium and the pigment. Over the centuries different pigments have been used, mixed into different binding mediums, including egg, egg yolks, oil, painting directly into wet plaster (fresco) and so on.

Painting is done onto supports – onto walls, plaster, or onto boards, metal, canvas or other fabrics. All of these need preparing by stretching (canvas) or smoothing (wood), then applying a ground – or background layer of paint – to soak into the support. Painters of the 14th and 15th centuries used a white ground. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, artists experimented with varying the tone of the ground, which significantly alters the colour of the works painted onto them.

Hardening Binding mediums dry out in two ways: watercolours and synthetic resin paints by simple evaporation. Drying oils such as linseed, walnut or poppy oil harden by chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air. Egg tempera, used extensively in the 14th and 15th century, dries by a combination of both.

This may sound fairly academic but it profoundly affects the whole style and look of a painting. Because tempera dries so quickly (especially in hot, dry Italy) shapes and textures are best built up by short hatched strokes.

This is a detail from the Wilton Diptych (1397) where you can see the way the skin of the Virgin and child and angels has been created by multiple short paint strokes of egg tempera.

Whereas, because oils are slow drying, they allow the artist to merge them into smooth, flowing, continuous transitions of colour. Oil paints = more flowing.

In this detail from Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, you can see how the gold chain has been rendered with a really thick layer of gold paint. Laying on very thick layers of oil paint is called impasto.

In general, oil paint looks darker and richer than paint made using water-based media such as egg tempera, glue or fresco, which appear lighter and brighter.

Age and decay Painting was, then, a highly technical undertaking, requiring the painter to have an excellent knowledge of a wide range of materials and chemical substances. Different media dry and set in different ways. Different pigments hold their colour – or fade – over time. And this fading can reveal the ground painted underneath.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the specific examples it gives of how some pigments have faded or disappeared – sometimes quite drastically – in Old Master paintings.

In Duccio’s The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea, the face and hands of the figures show clearly how the lighter pigments painted in tempera have faded or flaked off allowing the green underpaint to come through. The Virgin was not meant to look green!

Bladders to tubes Pigments had to be ground by hand and mixed in with binders in studios for the medieval and Renaissance period. There are numerous prints showing a Renaissance artist’s studio for what it was, the small-scale manufactory of a craftsman employing a number of assistants and making money by taking on a number of students.

In the 18th century ready-mixed pigments could be transported inside pigs’ bladders. The early 19th century developed the use of glass or metal syringes. But it was in 1841 that an American, John Rand, developed the collapsible metal tube. This marked a breakthrough in the portability of oil paints, allowing artists to paint out of doors for the first time. A generation later a new school arose – the Impressionists – who did just this. Jean Renoir quotes his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste, as saying:

Without paints in tubes there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionism.

Biographies of colours

Primo Levi wrote a classic collection of short stories based on The Periodic Table of chemical elements. It crossed my mind, reading this book, that something similar could be attempted with the numerous pigments which artists have used down the ages.

This book gives a potted history of the half a dozen key colours. It explains how they were originally produced, how different sources became available over the centuries, and how the 19th century saw an explosion in the chemical industry which led to the development of modern, industrially-manufactured colours.

Blue

  • Prime source of blue was the ultramarine colour extracted from the mineral lapis lazuli, which was mined in one location in Afghanistan and traded to the Mediterranean.
  • A cheaper alternative was azurite, which was mined in Europe but had to be ground coarsely to keep its colour, and is also prone to fade into green, e.g. the sky in Christ taking Leave of his Mother by Albrecht Altdorfer (1520). Many artists painted a basic wash of azurite and then used the much more expensive ultramarine to create more intense highlights.
  • Indigo is a dye extracted from plants. At high intensity it is an inky black-blue, but at a lesser intensity also risks fading.
  • A cheaper alternative was smalt, manufactured by adding cobalt oxide to molten glass, cooling and grinding it to powder. It holds its colour badly and fades to grey.
  • In the early 1700s German manufacturers stumbled across the intense synthetic pigment which became known as Prussian blue (the book gives examples by Gainsborough and Canaletto).
  • Around 1803 cobalt blue was invented.
  • In 1828 an artificial version of ultramarine was created in France

Thus the painters of the 19th century had a much wider range of ‘blues’ to choose from than all their predecessors.

The book does the same for the other major colours, naming and explaining the origin of their main types or sources:

Green

  • Terre verte was used as an underpaint for flesh tones in early Italian paintings
  • malachite
  • verdigris, a copper-based pigment was prone to fade to brown and explains why so many Italian landscapes have the same orangey-brown appearance
  • emerald green (a pigment developed in the 19th century containing copper and arsenic)
  • viridian (a chromium oxide)

Red

  • Vermilion, obtained by pulverising cinnabar, liable to fade to brown as has happened with the coat of Gainsborough’s Dr Ralph Schomberg (1770), which should be bright red.

Yellow

  • Lead-tin yellow in the Renaissance
  • from the 17th century lead-based yellow containing antimony known as Naples yellow
  • from the 1820s new tints of yellow became available based on compounds of chromium of which chrome yellow is the most famous
  • cadmium yellow

White

  • Lead white was used from the earliest times. It forms as a crust on metallic lead exposed to acetic acid from sour wine – highly poisonous
  • only in the twentieth century was it replaced by non-toxic whites based on zinc and later, titanium. Unlike all the pigments named so far, lead white keeps its colour extremely well, hence the bright white ruffs and dresses in paintings even when a lot of the brighter colour has gone.

Black 

  • A large range of black pigments was always available, most based on carbon as found in charcoal, soot and so on. Carbon is very stable and so blacks have tended to remain black.

Summary of colours

  1. Over the past 500 years there has been a large amount of evolution and change in the source of the pigments artists use.
  2. Colour in art is a surprisingly technical subject, which quite quickly requires a serious knowledge of inorganic chemistry and, from the 19th century, is linked to the development of industrial processes.
  3. Sic transit gloria mundi or, more precisely, Sic transit gloria artis. The net effect of seeing so many beautiful paintings in which the original colour has faded – sometimes completely – can’t help but make you sad. We live among the wrecks or decay of thousands of once-gloriously coloured artworks. Given the super-duper state of digital technology I wonder if anywhere there exists a project to restore all these faded glories to how they should look!

Disegno versus colore

Vasari, author of The Lives of the Great Artists (155) posed the question, ‘Which was more important, design or colour?’ As a devotee of Michelangelo, the godfather of design, he was on the side of disegno and relates a conversation with Michelangelo about some paintings by Titian (1488-1576) they had seen where Michelangelo praises Titian’s use of colour but laments his poor composition.

The art history stereotype has it that Renaissance Florence was the home of design, while Venice (where Titian lived and worked) put the emphasis on gorgeous colours. This was because Venice was a European centre for the production of dyes and pigments for a wide range of manufacturing purposes, not least glass and textiles.

In late-17th-century France the argument was fought out in the French Academy between Rubénistes (for colour) and Poussinistes (for drawing). Personally, I am more moved by drawing than colour, and a little more so after reading this book and realising just how catastrophically colour can fade and disappear – but, still, there’s no reason not to love both.

Optical theories

Isaac Newton published his Optics in 1704, announcing the discovery that when white light is projected through a prism it breaks down into primary colours, which can then be turned back into white light. Among its far-ranging investigations, the book contained the first schematic arrangement of colours and their ‘opposites’. It wasn’t until well into the 19th century, however, that colour charts began to proliferate (partly because they were required by expanding industrial manufacture, and the evermore competitive design and coloration of products).

And these colour charts bore out Newton’s insight that complementary colours – colours opposite each other on the circle – accentuate and bring each other out.

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour circles like this systematised knowledge which had been scattered among various artists and critics over the ages. It can be shown that Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) made systematic use of contrast effects, pairing colour opposites like orange-blue, red-green or yellow-violet, to create stronger visual effects.

On a simplistic level it was the availability of a) new, intense colours, in portable tin tubes, along with b) exciting new theories of colour, which explains the Impressionist movement.

The Impressionists were most interested in trying to capture the changing quality of light, but the corollary of this was a fascination with shadow. Apparently, impressionist painters so regularly (and controversially) paired bright yellow sunlight with the peculiar tinge of violet which is opposite it on the colour charts, that they were accused by contemporary critics of violettomani.

Some examples

The book lists the pigments used to create Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. The intense blue sky is made from ultramarine lapis lazuli, as is Ariadne’s drapery and the flowers at the lower right. The blue-green sea is painted with the cheaper azurite. Vermilion gives Ariadne’s sash its red colour. The Bacchante’s orange drapery was painted with a rare arsenic-containing mineral known as realgar.

Titian was aware of the power of colour contrasts long before the 19th century colour wheels, something he demonstrates by placing Ariadne’s red and blue drapery above the primrose yellow cloth by the knocked-over urn at her feet (painted using lead-tin yellow). The green of the tree leaves and the grassy background are created from malachite over-painted with green resinous glazes. An intense red ‘lake’ is used to give Bacchus’s red cloak its depth.

These coloured ‘lakes’ were an important element in Renaissance painting but I had to supplement the book’s information with other sources.

From this I take it that ‘lakes’ were translucent i.e. you could see the colour beneath, and so were used as glazes, meaning you would lay down a wash of one colour and then paint over potentially numerous ‘lakes’ to add highlights, depths or whatever. This build-up of ‘lake’ glazes allowed the layering of multiple variations of colour and so the intensely sensual depiction of the folds on fabrics, the light and shade of curtains and clothes which is so characteristic of Old Master painting.

The book then applies this detailed analysis of colour pigments to a sequence of other Old Masterpieces by Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Tiepollo, Canaletto, Monet and Seurat.

Conclusion

A Closer Look: Colour makes you appreciate the immense amount of knowledge, science, craft and technique which went into painting each and every one of the National Gallery’s 2,300 artworks (and the depth of scholarship which modern art historians require to analyse and unravel the technical background to each and every painting).

It’s a revelation to read, but also pure joy to be prompted to look, and look again, in closer and closer detail, at so many wonderful paintings.


Related links

Reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

A Closer Look: Techniques of Painting by Jo Kirby (2011)

This is a superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book. It’s one of a series of slender volumes (this one is 93 pages long) in the National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

Techniques of Painting aims to help readers develop a painterly eye by learning to recognize different materials and methods of application and to appreciate how these features contribute to how a painting looks.’

It ranges far and wide to find examples from the National Gallery’s vast collection of over 2,300 paintings. Almost all the 94 illustrations are in good quality colour, with well-chosen close-ups from works both familiar and strange to illustrate precise aspects of the craft of painting. Although there are examples from the gods of later centuries – van Dyck, Rubens, Gainsborough, Lawrence, van Gogh and Monet – the book tends to focus interest on, and encourage a better understanding of, earlier painters, especially of the early Italian Renaissance.

Thus the book’s detailed explanation makes you appreciate the extraordinary skill and craft which went into creating, for example, both the floor carpet and the individual halos – made from gilt which is then elaborately stippled and decorated – in Nardo Di Cione’s Three Saints (1365).

Nardo Di Cione's Three Saints (1365)

Three Saints (1365) by Nardo Di Cione

I learned that:

  • Paint is made of two ingredients, the pigment which gives colour and the binding medium which allows it to be applied with brushes (of various size, shape and density). These latter include egg tempera, oil, flue and gum.
  • Egg tempera was a medium made from eggs or just egg yolk, mixed with pigment. It dries rapidly. It tends to be applied in fine parallel strokes. Most Renaissance painters up till about 1480 used egg tempera.
  • The use of oil as a binding medium was pioneered by painters in northern Europe. It is more versatile. Oil can be built up by repeated layers, creating areas of solid thickly applied colour, or thinned to create sketchy dry strokes.
  • The thing a painting is painted onto is called the support. Until the early sixteenth century, most paintings were painted onto wood panels. For larger panels, multiple planks of wood would be battened together. Canvas began to be used in north Italy, around Venice and Verona, in the early 1500s, and only slowly spread to north Europe. The most popular wood in Italy was poplar, in northern Europe it was oak.
  • Supports are primed for painting. Wood supports were sanded smooth. Sometimes fine canvas or parchment was glued onto it. Then a ‘ground’ for painting was created. A layer of white calcium sulphate, known as gypsum, mixed with animal glue was applied, dried and sanded flat. The Italian for gypsum is ‘gesso’ and this became the generic name for all white grounds. For expensive paintings a coarse gesso was applied and dried before a much finer one, gesso sottile, was applied. A handbook of the time recommends no fewer than eight coats be applied. Part of the reason for this care was that, when gold leaf was applied to earlier Renaissance paintings, any flaw in the surface immediately showed up – hence the need for absolute flatness. As the use of gilt declined, gessos became less perfect. In northern Europe natural chalk was used, in glue solution. On top of the ground a priming layer was applied, to prevent the oil pigment from being absorbed. It was generally oil mixed with light pigments.
  • Canvas, no matter how tightly stretched, is a more coarse surface than prepared board, and also it is springy. These factors encourage a looser handling of the paint. Linen, hemp, silk and wool cloth were all used as supports, as well as canvas. Cotton became available in the nineteenth century. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted a series onto part of a roll of jute cloth which Gauguin bought. To be usable canvas had to be stretched onto a wooden framework called a strainer. Canvas on its own would absorb some of the binding medium, giving the painting a more matt appearance than painting on a wood support. To prevent, this canvas also was primed or prepared, a process called sizing.
  • For both canvas and wood panels, the primer or ground could be any colour – over time, between the Renaissance and the 18th century, the general tendency was for darker grounds to be used. The pre-Raphaelites returned to using bright white grounds and this is one factor in the astonishingly brilliant colouring of their paintings.
  • Copper plate was a fairly popular support for paintings in the 17th century.
  • Paper has always been used for pencil and pen sketches; in the 19th century it became used as the support for watercolours.
  • Fresco is the Italian word for ‘fresh’ and also the name for the technique whereby pigments are mixed with water and applied to lime plaster which has been freshly laid over walls or ceilings. As the plaster dries the pigment binds into it. Some colours reacted badly with lime, namely the blue pigment azurite, which explains why frescos are generally light and creamy in colour. These alkali-resistant pigments could be applied later, after the original fresco work had dried, mixed with egg, in a process called a secco. But they were less bound into the actual plaster and so have tended to flake off and disappear over the centuries. Fresco was popular in hot, dry Italy and not very popular in the damp north of Europe.
The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

Taking the painting above as an example, the book shows a close-up of the hem of the Virgin’s cloak to show the extraordinary care and subtlety with which the realistic patchiness of the sheen on the gold lining was achieved, and then highlights the detail of each individual pearl, complete with its own spot of light and shadow cast on the cloth. The closer you look, the more you marvel at the time, patience and skill involved.

Other terms

  • Maestà (Italian for ‘majesty’) – a type of religious subject for a painting, namely a representation of the Madonna and Child in which the Madonna is enthroned in majesty as Queen of Heaven, surrounded by a court of saints and angels. An example is the Maestà painted by Duccio in the cathedral at Siena (1308-1311).
  • Predella – a separate frame of smaller paintings running along the bottom of an altarpiece. In medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, where the main panel consisted of a scene with large static figures, the predella along the bottom usually contains a set of small-scale narrative paintings depicting events from the life of the dedicatee, whether the Life of Christ, the Life of the Virgin or a saint. Typically, three to five small scenes, in a horizontal format. An example is this Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli. The predella is the name given to the row of four scenes along the bottom, showing episodes from the Passion of Christ.

Related links

Reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

Travelling Light by Tove Jansson (1987)

Solitary people interest me. There are so many ways of being solitary. (The Garden of Eden)

This is a selection of 12 short stories by Tove Jansson. She was 73 when the book was published. It was only when starting the fifth story that I realised they all had the theme of a journey in common.

In An Eightieth Birthday the daughter of a redoubtable 80-year-old bohemian artist takes along her new man, Johnny, to the birthday party. In part one they mingle, embarassedly among the guests, getting stuck with a bunch of critics discussing ‘perception’.

In part two they leave the party with a group of three older men, obviously once known artists themselves, now alcoholics and a bit hard-up, on nodding terms with the derelicts in a big church square in Helsinki. They wander across the city towards May and Jonny’s flat, where the three old artists carry on discussing how important it is to have a ‘passion’, how older artists had to try and copy the new fashionable styles of the 1960s, how her grandmother kept her integrity and carried on painting Finnish trees, about lots of things. They admire the scale model Jonny has built of a boat. They discuss the way sometimes just admiring beautiful things like a tree in blossom is every bit as important as trying to paint or recreate it. And then they leave.

There’s a plot of sorts, a narrative: bohemian party, wander across Helsinki, drinks at Jonny’s flat – but the poetry  is in the calm acceptance – of her grandmother, of her husband, of Helsinki, of tiresome critics and drunken artists – of life and art and words.

A Summer Child is quite a brutal story about a middle-class couple (Hannah and Axel) with three kids (Tom, Oswald and Mia) who decide to take in an inner-city child for the summer which they always spend among the islands in the Gulf of Finland. Now, if they took an inner-city boy from round where I live in South London they would be in for quite a culture shock, but this inner-city boy – Elis – to their slight dismay, turns out to come from quite a well-off family and drives the others nuts because of his unrelenting social conscience.

He nags the family about throwing food away, reminding them that people round the world are starving; for throwing away landfill, reminding them that the seas are filling up with plastic (this was forty years ago; none of this is new); using an outboard motor when the air is full of pollution – and so endlessly on. The father decides to take the kids on a boat trip to drop supplies to a number of lighthouses, drops the city boy and his oldest son on an uninhabited island planning to be back in an hour, but his fuel line ruptures and he ends up being away for a day and a night, with the result that the story turns into a Finish version of Lord of the Flies.

In A Foreign City the elderly male narrator is invited to go and stay with his godson and wife, but is in a fluster from the word go, forgetting his hat on the flight, getting into a muddle at Customs, then at the Lost Property office where, after much confusion, he ends up accepting a hat belonging to someone completely different. By the time he emerges to the airport taxi rank all the other passengers have gone. Then he realises he has completely forgotten the address of the hotel the relatives had booked for him. But he has an inspiration – to ask the taxi driver to take him to the address on the owner’s label inside the wrong hat he was given at the airport. With odd results…

In The Woman who Borrowed Memories, after fifteen years Stella goes back to the old apartment she lived in with her lover, where they had wild bohemian parties and a passionate love affair. But now she discovers it is lived in by a woman, Wanda, who she and her lover thought of as a waif and stray tagging on to their wild artistic circle. They let her stay with them for a while, before Wanda went off to London to study art, sending letters asking her lover to follow.

Now, to her dismay, Wanda treats Stella as the interloper. She claims it was always her flat, that it was she who hosted the famous parties and had all the bohemian friends, who made the bookshelf by hand, who took all the photos on the walls. Stella thinks it must be some kind of joke then realises – with some horror – that Wanda genuinely believes all this. She has effectively taken over Stella’s life and memories.

Stella becomes disorientated and tired, asking to rest on the sofa. Wanda makes her comfortable, tucks her up in a blanket and then, rather as if in a horror story, moves from words of comfort to repeating the words which she obviously used to Stella’s boyfriend when she (Wanda) seduced him: softly saying that Stella is no good for him, Stella is holding her back… and she says all this she slowly moves the blanket up over Stella’s ace as if… she is going to asphyxiate her!

Terrified, Stella leaps to her feet, makes Wanda open the door and stumbles down the stairs. This is tantamount to a horror story.

The title story – Travelling Light – is also very odd. The plot itself is a first-person narrative about a middle-aged man who ups and leaves his apartment and old life with no real explanation and sets off on a luxury cruise. He is hoping to get away from them, from humans, from all the beastly people who keep pestering him with their endless tedious problems. Except that, rather inevitably, on the cruise he meets nothing but the same: first of all the apparently rambunctious man who is sharing his cabin, who soon drinks too much and gets maudlin about his wife and children; then, when the narrator runs away and tries to wrap himself in a blanket on a deckchair on the passenger deck, he finds himself getting involved with an irritable middle-aged woman whose deckchair he’s dossing down in (the deckchairs are numbered and allocated by ticket). After some bad-tempered exchanges, she buys them both drinks, they settle into an uneasy truce and — this wretched woman starts telling the narrator about her family, ‘here would you like to see some photos?’ Precisely everything he spends his life trying to avoid – other people, entanglements.

The real message of this story, though, isn’t in the plot, it’s in the extraordinarily uptight tone of the narrator. He could almost be a Beckett character, describing the endless anxiety and unease other people cause him, and the lengths he will go to to find a place of isolation, aloneness, peace and bloody quiet.

Perhaps you have some idea of the depth of my fatigue, of my exhaustion and nausea in the face of this constant need to feel sorry for people? (p.91)

In The Garden of Eden Professor Viktoria Johansson arrives at a little hilltop village west of Alicante to visit her god-daughter only to discover the latter has had to rush off to see her ill mother. She’s left the keys, basic instructions etc. So Viktoria makes herself at home, tests her Spanish on the local shop-keepers, but then is visited/welcomed to the ex-pat community, by a brusque hysterical woman with four neurotic little dogs who is convinced her next door neighbour is trying to kill her.

Now Viktoria likes a good murder mystery and, being a professor, is systematic, so she opens a notebook and decides to ‘investigate’ the case, starting by paying a visit to the woman she labels X. X turns out to have lived in the village longer than all the other ex-pats and she despises them – their wealth, their lazing around sunbathing, their insistence on gutting the traditional houses and filling them with all the latest mods cons. Yuk!

Around this rather slow, ironic ‘investigation’ Jansson depicts the moods and thoughts of an ageing spinster, Viktoria, as she reminisces about other foreign trips, about old friends who she should get in touch with. There’s a ‘plot’ in the present, but it’s also a pretext for the portrait of a woman’s mind.

She attends the local town’s colourful fiesta where everyone dresses up in ornate and convincing costumes, and there sees the two women dancing with knives in their hands in a way which looks genuinely threatening until Miss X darts forward and in two swift movements, chops off Josephine’s red plaits.

Viktoria organises an unconventional grand meal (choosing the successive dishes solely on the basis of their sound, with no knowledge what they actually are, from the local restaurateur) and invites Josephine and Miss X. She tries to get them to make up, fails, goes and hides in the ladies loo (several times she reminisces about girl arguments at school, and the whole story is intertwined with memories of falling out with a friend when they went travelling when they were 19; it all has a slightly Fifth Formers of St Clare’s kind of feel – ‘Viktoria had a sudden impulse to scold them. Girls, girls! she wanted to say, but she held her tongue.’ p.131).

But when she returns to the dining room at the village cafe the girls have, in fact, sort of made up and they all go out onto the terrace to admire the spectacular view over the hills at sunset.

Shopping is an astonishingly bleak little vignette about two people who have survived a surprise nuclear war and are living in the ruins of a city. Kristian went outside just as the bombs exploded (‘typical male pride’) and half the building fell on him, so he’s laid up on a mattress in the kitchen, the only room which survived. Emily goes scavenging for tinned food in the ruined city. Occasionally she spots ‘others’ but hides or runs away. Finally, Kristian cracks up after spending so long in a darkened room and smashes open the barricade Emily had built over the one window. Daylight reveals their squalid useless shelter. They go out into the light. And the ‘others’ are there, and they start walking towards each other.

In four pages the shortest story – The Jungle – describes how two small boys, in a holiday home looked after by a maid, paid for by their mother in the city, spend the summer pretending to be Tarzan (and his son), until they become genuinely afraid of the jungle creatures roaming outside their (quiet peaceful Finnish holiday) cottage.

The death of the PE Teacher He hangs himself, much to the school’s shock. But the story is about a bourgeois couple (Henri and Flo) who go to dinner at the very swanky house of his business associate who is, in fact, working late at some kind of conference. Flo makes an ass of herself, causing several scenes as she gets drunker. She is obsessed by the suicide and the way the teacher talked, just before his death, the petition he was trying to get signed to prevent the demolition of some woods to make way for modern dwellings (of the kind her husband and business associate build).

The Gulls A schoolteacher, Arne, has had a sort of nervous breakdown. The children have driven him mad and he’s resigned. But the school appreciate his condition and promise to keep the post open while his wife, Else, takes him out to the remote island in the Gulf of Finland where she used to holiday with her parents. Predictably, he gets on the wrong side of the gulls which are nesting and hatching their chicks. Going out one sunny day he blunders into an intensive nestery and is dive-bombed by screaming gulls, runs back to the house face streaming with blood, shaking, and won’t go out of the cottage for three days. This story of high anxiety on a remote island builds up to a typically hard, unsentimental climax.

The Hothouse is the most loveable, charming story in the set. Old Uncle goes to the Botanical Gardens, specifically the hothouse, to sit on a bench in silent contemplation of the lily pond. One day there is an interloper, another man sitting in his spot. A battle of nerves commences. But eventually they break their silence, speak to each other and discover they share a mutual wish to get away from people and sit in silence. So they meet every day, on the same bench, nod, don’t speak and open their books, reading in companionable silence.

But this preamble is just the frame, so to speak, for the telling of two other events. One day the other man (Vesterberg) doesn’t show up. Uncle and the sympathetic caretaker of the hothouse look up the address of the old people’s home where Vesterberg has mentioned he lives, and Uncle goes to visit him. That’s a chastening experience, described rather harrowingly.

But the core of the story is the second event: Uncle’s memory of being taken by his family to a remote island where the family stayed one summer in a cabin. There was a rough bridge over a ravine which led out to a flower meadow. Uncle fell in love with the meadow. The family decide to build a ‘tent sauna’ on the island and want to erect it on the meadow but Uncle insists otherwise. So, reluctantly, they build the sauna in the ravine, beneath the supports of the bridge. To his surprise, when Uncle goes to check it out, he discovers the tent door opens onto a splendid view of the meadow – and decides he wants to sleep there from now on.

One night a big storm blows up and floods the ravine, flooding his tent and mattress, floating belongings away, but also floating his beloved flower meadow. Uncle wades out across the storm-tossed, seawater-flooded flowers and feels their… their essence, their experience. the storm wrecks the bridge and carries its fragments off as driftwood. Later Uncle finds some of it and sets about making a perfect model of the bridge.

This memory burns in Uncle’s mind and he wants to share it with Vesterberg but, of course, both men have sworn to silence. After months, they are sitting in the hothouse when there is a sudden storm. The sky goes black, rain lashes on the glass, the doors blow open in a gust and Uncle, elated, breaks all the rules and steps into the big lily-pond walking through the warm water feeling the big strong plants and their roots brushing against his trousered legs.

Vesterberg eggs him on, two old men behaving badly. And when he finally calms down, Uncle climbs out and at last shows Vesterberg his model of the bridge. This leads to a little argument about whether the model has any purpose or ‘meaning’ or just ‘is’ a thing in itself. They agree to differ, bow to each other as they walk through the shattered greenhouse doors and happily make their ways to their separate homes.

Tiredness and rest

As pointed out in all my previous reviews of Jansson, her fiction oscillates – operates – along a spectrum between tiredness/anxiety and safety/sleep.

  • I tried to shake off my fatigue. When I get tired, everything slips away from me… I was dreadfully tired (A Foreign City)
  • ‘Are you maybe a little tired?’ said Wanda… ‘I’m tired. You talk too much.’… Stella felt a great urge to sleep; the room disappeared… (The Woman who Borrowed Memories)
  • The caretaker’s wife will look after my houseplants; those tired living things – which never look well no matter how much trouble one takes over them – have made me feel very uneasy… Sleeping on my own has become very important to me… One’s opportunities for feeling ill at ease in life are countless… When eventually I stopped, utterly exhausted, I was almost alone… Wonderful! To be able to sleep and sink into silence, oblivious of everything… (Travelling Light)
  • It had been a long tiring journey… That night Viktoria lulled herself to sleep by imagining she was an independent Spanish cat… (The Garden of Eden)
  • Big beautiful Nicole wished passionately that the world of calm and charm she’d created might be left in peace, that her life might as far as possible be left undisturbed by all the ugliness and chaos that crowded the world outside… The phone rang. Henri waited: he was very tired… ‘Let her sleep’… In the car Flo fell asleep…  (The PE Teacher’s Death)
  • She took his hand in hers and fell asleep again at once. The birds went on screeching. He tried to ignore it, but he could feel his old fear creeping closer, his horror of noise, of anything out of control… ‘You’re sitting in the bow and you’ve never been in the islands before. With every new skerry you think we’re there, but no, we’re going all the way out, right out to an island that’s hardly a shadow on the horizon. And when we land, it won’t be Papa’s island any more, it’ll be ours, for weeks and weeks, and the city and everyone in it will fade away, till in the end they won’t even exist or have any hold on us at all. Just pure peace and quiet. And now in the spring the days and nights can be windless, soundless, somehow transparent… (The Gulls)
  • Uncle liked to rest his legs and lose himself in a kind of contemplation and reflection that gradually freed him from all the concerns of the world outside. (The Hothouse)

Lyricism

Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Lyrical descriptions.

Up in the spring sky the dome of the cathedral rested like a white dream over the empty square. Helsinki was indescribably beautiful, I’d never realised before how beautiful it was. (p.29)

Out of doors all was completely at peace. It was a time of light breezes and soft summer rain; down in the meadow the apple trees were in bloom, and all of nature was at its loveliest. (p.43)

At that exact moment the setting sun broke through a gap in the mountain chain and the twilit landscape was instantly transformed and revealed; the trees and the grazing sheep enveloped in a crimson haze, a sudden, beautiful vision of biblical mystery and power. (p.117)


Credit

Resa med lätt bagage by Tove Jansson was published in 1987. It was translated as Travelling Light by Silvester Mazzarella and first published by Sort of Books in 2010.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (1982)

People sensed that Katri Kling did not trust or care about anyone except herself and the brother she had raised and protected since he was six years old. (p.26)

Generations of English-speaking children were brought up on Jansson’s illustrated Moomin books which are immensely charming to look at and, in their narratives, full of consolations and comforts (generally tea and sandwiches provided by the ever-reliable Moominmamma).

Only in the noughties did Jannson’s ten books for adults start to be published into English and to reveal a completely different aspect of Jansson’s character, an unnerving, adult quality.

Some of Jansson’s short stories were still about children’s lives seen from a child’s perspective (The Summer BookThe Sculptor’s Daughter) but even these combine sweet childish perceptions with other, more disturbing, adult themes, with a dis-enchanted view of the difficulty of human relations, even between people who ‘love’ one another. The characters are quite harsh with each other and on themselves.

The True Deceiver

The True Deceiver is her second real novel (The Summer Book really being a collection of themed stories).

We are in the Finnish fishing port of Västerby. It is the coldest winter anyone can remember, with an immense snowfall blanketing everything in white. Katri Kling is 25. She is the unpopular older sister of Mats, 15, who she has looked after since he was a child. Their father left. Then their mother died. She is Mats’s sole carer. She had a job in the village store until she quit abruptly a few months earlier. It is strongly hinted that the shop keeper tried it on with her and she ridiculed him. He was livid. Life became unbearable. She quit. Since Mats and Katri live in the one-room apartment above this same shop, it is a ticklish situation.

Katri walks their dog, which they have given no name, through the village, and the adults mutter about her and the children shout abuse. She needs to do something for her and Mats’s future.

Up on the hill, in the grand house, lives old Anna Aemelin. Long ago her parents died and left her the big house with the thick pine woods behind it, which – with its two chimneys for ears, two bow windows for eyes, and vertical frames of the central doorway – locals have nicknamed the ‘rabbit house’.

A name which is also relevant because of Anna Aemelin’s profession – she draws cartoon rabbits. Miss Anna is a very successful and world-famous cartoonist and book illustrator (as, of course, was Jansson, and several other characters in her short stories). Miss Anna has the success of monomania, she is extraordinarily brilliant at depicting the traditional Finnish forest floor in immense and scintillating detail, at conveying its ‘deep-forest mystique’ (p.33).

But from an artistic point of view she spoils the effect by then drawing on top a family of bunny rabbits which – for some reason – have flowers growing out of their fur. Every year a new bunny rabbit story comes out (her publishers supply the actual text, Anna does the illustrations) and sells around the world to excited small children, who then write her countless letters wanting to come and visit, to meet the flowery rabbits, to live with her etc.

The novel describes how the extremely blunt and practical Katri inveigles her way into the household of Miss Aemelin. It’s actually pretty simple, this isn’t a hi-tech espionage thriller. Katri offers to deliver groceries up to the old house. Then the post. Then begins to sort out her fridge, throws away the food she doesn’t like, order food which Miss Anna actually likes… and so on.

Slowly she makes herself invaluable. But again, it isn’t a psycho chiller where the protagonist has wicked plans. She just wants a safe place to live and a future for her and her simple-minded brother. The central ‘event’ which tends to get picked up in the blurb and in reviews is that the villagers hear of a burglary in the next village and Katri has the idea to ‘stage’ a burglary at the rabbit house. This consists of her going up one night in a snowstorm, opening the kitchen door (which isn’t locked; none of the doors are locked), walking around in her snowy shoes on the rug, emptying the silver tea service into a sack and walking out again. Out in the woods she throws the sack away, then goes home. The snow covers her tracks.

Next morning Katri arrives to find a dozy policeman at the house and Miss Anna’s friends gossip that she shouldn’t be alone up in the big house etc. With hardly any nudging she wonders whether Katri and her brother would like to move in. And so they do.

The real heart of the story is the emotional or psychological impact the three characters have on each other once they start living together. Katri, in her harsh, tactless, unrestrained way, had almost immediately started telling Miss Anna that the local shopkeepers were swindling her, just a little, but slowly and routinely. Miss Anna is shocked. Once she’s moved in, Katri takes over all aspects of Miss Anna’s household, tidying from top to bottom. She discovers a vast trove of correspondence with publishers, merchandisers and hundreds of children, which Miss Anna has been too timid or too intimidated to answer.

Katri, in her brisk no-nonsense way, goes through these with a fine tooth comb and discovers that Miss Anna has been ripped off by her publishers and anyone else she’s done business with for decades. Katri forces Miss Anna to face facts and make much tougher deals with all her business partners, which leads to a noticeable chilling of tone in the new letters from them. Without any prompting from Katri, Miss Anna decides that Katri ought to share some of the new, improved profits from her writings. Katri very coldly calculates how much she will acquire and how soon. At night she dreams of money.

By the same token she tells Miss Anna she has to be more blunt and honest with the children some of whom, it turns out, she’s been making all sorts of reckless promises, for example that they can come and live in bunny rabbit country with her. No they can’t. Katri suggests sending them all the identical photostated letter, the only unique bit being Miss Anna’s signature. They bicker about this. Miss Anna slowly comes to distrust absolutely everyone, all the tradesmen in the village, everyone who writes her letters.

Meanwhile there is an important relationship between Miss Anna and Mats. Mats is simple. He is allowed to help out at the boat-builders yard belonging to the four Liljeberg brothers. (God, it is all so Scandinavian – everything feels so folkish and elemental and pure.) In fact, Mats is obsessed with boats, and has been making beautiful sketches of the boats the brothers build, in his own time.

When she sees how much money she is going to make from Miss Anna’s new deals, Katri conceives a grand plan: she will commission a boat for Mats, the boat he’s been dreaming of. It will be the focus of all her effort, it will justify a lot of what she is perfectly well aware could be seen as inveigling her way into an old lady’s confidences and money: the purity of her motives will be seen by everyone once it is known that she did it all for her brother.

Meanwhile, Mats forms a typically Janssonesque relationship with Miss Anna. She is (in case it hasn’t come over already) quite a simple soul, brought up in a protected and sheltered environment by well-off parents, and she transmits a lot of that innocence in her wonderful children’s illustrations. So early on we discover that she loves reading children’s adventure stories and – do does Mats! Thus Katri will be slaving away in the kitchen or come back from a snowy shopping trip and find Miss Anna and Mats sitting in complete silence in the drawing room, both utterly absorbed by some teen adventure book. Miss Anna shows Mats round her vast library of children’s books and then she starts ordering new ones, and every time the same pattern: Mats reads them, Miss Anna reads them, they intently discuss the plots and characters. Otherwise they hardly talk at all.

They rarely talked to each other. They owned a silence together that was peaceful and straightforward. (p.45)

Very Janssonesque.

Oh and there’s the dog, the nameless dog. And the dog becomes a symbol of what goes wrong in all these relationships. Because things don’t turn out as any of them intend.

Miss Anna can’t deny that Katri has been scrupulously honest and has gotten her vastly improved deals with publishers and merchandisers and organised things so that she is replying to children’s letters on time and appropriately. But she is also getting harder, more suspicious. Living in close proximity to Katri’s unsentimental harshness brutalises her.

After one particularly bitter row she takes it out on the dumb dog (a German shepherd). She pushes it out of the house into the snow and chucks a stick, shouting at it to fetch. The dog’s never done this before and it takes quite a few sticks, on that occasion and on others, to make it fetch and carry. Slowly, it becomes more like a traditional dog. The eerie complicity that all the villagers noted between tall gaunt Katri and her nameless dog, begins to disintegrate. The dog leaves the house and roams the woods. They – and the villagers – hear it howling at night. It captures rabbits from the postman’s chicken run. It goes wild. In a strange moment it reappears one day, trailing Katri as she walks out to the (locked) lighthouse on the point and, suddenly, savagely, attacks her, before running off.

It is a symbol of how Katri has upset old relationships. For now, as the spring arrives, Miss Anna discovers a disaster – to her horror, when she goes out to look for the first signs of forest floor appearing through the melting winter snow – she no longer feels any magic; the thrill in her soul and the special spectral way she saw all the luminous details of the pine and moss woodland floor has… gone. She is neutered. Katri has made her practical and hard-headed and… it has destroyed her one great talent.

Something a bit more convoluted happens with Mats. Katri has sworn the boat-builders to secrecy about the new boat they’re making being for Mats, although he obviously notices, in fact watches intently, as it takes shape at the boatyard. But Miss Anna, overhearing the builders talking about it, announces to Mats that she has commissioned it as a present for him. He is confused, but Katri is distraught. The one thing justifying all her behaviour was the thought that she would spring this great surprise on him. Later on she does tell Mats the boat is from him, and Miss Anna realises her mistake and backs down. But poor old Mats (and the reader) are left pretty confused.

At a ceremony at the boat-builders all three are present when the brothers reveal the final finished boat and Mats, called on to name it, christens it Katri. It’s certainly the right decision but it’s been a tortuous route getting here. Katri tries to apologise to Miss Anna, telling her it was all lies, everything she said about the shopkeepers diddling her and the publishers giving her bad deals and so on. Miss Anna listens patiently but knows that, now, Katri is lying to try and fix everything. Mats gives Katri an exquisite model of the boat of his dreams which he has been working on all of this time. Miss Anna takes a newly dominant, commanding tone, and tells Katri to be quiet and go and lie down for a rest.

And then, on the final page, Miss Anna goes out to the forest, now clear of snow, elaborately sets up her drawing equipment, and begins one of her inspired and luminous portrayals of the forest undergrowth.

Anna sat and waited for the morning mist to draw off through the woods. The silence she needed was complete. And when every bothersome element had departed, the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow. Cluttering the ground with flowery rabbits would have been unthinkable. (p.201)

So I think what happens, is that Miss Anna has been through a kind of growing experience. At first she was shocked by Katri’s revelation of the brutality and two-facedness of the world around her – the cheating shop-keepers, the gossiping the villagers, the upsetting burglary – into artistic impotence. She had become hard like Katri, too hard to still be open and receptive to the childish vision which allowed her to paint.

But now, here at the very end of the story, after watching Katri abase herself in apology, after watching Mats get his dream boat come true, now… now her gift has returned – but in adult form. I think it means she can draw the forest floor as before, but this time untainted by silly commercial cartoons.

So I think this part, at least, of the novel has turned out to be about artistic growth and rebirth. It’s a happy ending. Sort of…

Simplicity

Paragraph after paragraph opens with clear, simple declarative sentences, building up a sense of tremendous clarity and simplicity.

  • It had been snowing along the coast for a month.
  • The boat builders in Västerby were proud men.
  • Mats came home from the boatyard as dusk came on.
  • A white wrought-ironflower table ran beneath the window in Anna’s bedroom.
  • Katri walked out towards the point.
  • Anna always thought of herself as a painter of the ground.
  • They had come home.

Credit is due to the translator Thomas Teal, since it is his words that we are actually reading. It would be fascinating to get his opinion: did he find Jansson easy or hard to translate. I bet he’d say her vocabulary in the original Swedish is simple, but full of nuances and delicacy which is hard to translate – but that’s a guess.

Jansson’s Nordic appeal

1. Foreign books escape the clutches of the British, or specifically, English class system. English books sooner or later have to categorise, slot, define and contain their characters by their class and location – Northerners are rough, southerners are public school toffs, yummy mummies, London chavs and so, tediously, on.

Foreign books know nothing of all this and so often appear more primal and basic, treating people as people. It has to be pointed out to us that someone is a peasant or poor; the characters come without the infestation of social signifiers we are used to in our own language.

2. Also, Jansson’s books deliberately ignore the modern world. There are hardly any machines, no planes or cars, coaches, buses, noise, air or light pollution in them. The village postman skis into the nearby town to collect the mail and groceries. Instead, her characters live on remote islands close to nature. It’s a shock when they even use the telephone.

3. These qualities of being outside the English class system and the complete absence of 20th century technology, combine with Jansson’s carefully simple style to give her stories the tremendous force of folk or fairy tales. On page two Katri’s father goes off north to buy a load of timber and never comes back. That doesn’t happen in English fiction. That happens in Viking sagas or fantasy fiction.

4. And there’s the snow, the white primal backdrop to all the events in this novel, snow in depth and abundance and permanence unknown to an English audience.

Thus all the characters and situations have this simple, white, primary quality. In the Moomin books she draws cute forest animals onto this backdrop. In the stories about children (The Summer Book) the children’s nightmares, obsessions, fears and safe spaces are all the more vivid for standing out against the (deceptively simple) natural backdrops.

In this book for the first time we encounter a number of adults, each with that terrible adult habit of having their own lives, characters, motivations and feelings. And the primitiveness of their motivations and responses are as starkly drawn as in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman film.

Instability of narrator and time

Several of the short stories in Art in Nature switched narrator in mid-story, or cut between a third-person narrator and the first-person point of view of the main character (The LocomotiveA Sense of Time).

The same happens here (though more in the first half, when we are watching Katri hatch her plan to be taken into Miss Anna’s household). The conventional third person narration will suddenly jump, in the next paragraph, to Katri sharing her thoughts and plans with us. The tense changes too, the third person being in the past tense, the first person in the fraught present tense.

It’s enjoyable. It makes the text modern and dynamic. But it’s also natural. It doesn’t feel forced or show-offy. One moment we’re watching the villagers or Miss Anna from outside, next we’re in Katri’s head, reading her thoughts. Fair enough.

But at my back I always here…

Since noticing it in the final Moomin book, Moominvalley in November, I now see everywhere in Jansson’s fiction the same cluster or ideas and words, namely tiredness and the wish for rest & sleep. The characters are always tired:

  • Somehow the sister was always around, and her brother was behind her. It was unendurable, and it made Edvard Liljeberg very tired. (p.54)
  • ‘You look tired, Lijeberg said, ‘You shouldn’t take life so seriously,’ (p.176)

They long for somewhere calm and peaceful, away from people, away from bother and vexation, somewhere ordered and tranquil: both Miss Anna’s often empty house and the boatyard after work are examples of this divine tranquility.

The wind was making a racket against the metal roof but, but the vast [boatshed] seemed hugely calm and peaceful. The hull of a boat under construction was visible in the half-light, its giant ribcage in silhouette against the far wall of the windows. Broad boards that would soon be planking hung in bundles from the ceiling, and there was a smell of shavings and tar and turpentine. Katri understood why her brother always wanted to come back here to this protected world where everything was correct and clean. (p.145)

The best rest, though, the most perfect peace, is found in sleep, to which the characters resort with great frequency. They are always sleeping or waking. After this or that excitement, the natural reaction is to take a nap, go to bed, curl up in a snug bed and drift off.

Down on the road, Katri tossed the potato sack into a snowdrift and went home. For the first time in ages, she slept in a cradle of gentle dreams free of desolation and anxiety. (p.81)

When Anna lived alone, she had not noticed how often she let the daylight hours vanish in sleep. Letting sleep come closer, soft as mist, as snow; reading the same sentence again and again until it disappeared in the mist and no longer had any meaning… (p.99)

This cluster of ideas – ‘tiredness-sleep’ – is at one end of the spectrum, so to speak, the polar opposite of the other main cluster of ideas circling round states of psychological unease, disquiet and anxiety. Katri is anxious about money and Mats and the future and the narrative can be read as recording the way she infects Miss Anna with her anxieties. But many of the minor characters – the shopkeeper, the postman, the boatbuilder – at various points are described as anxious.

So, stepping back, it’s possible to see that although the individual narratives and the numerous characters in Tove Jansson’s adult stories may come and go – this polarity between anxiety and rest underlies nearly all the texts.

Of course, most readers and critics react to the characters, the plot and the settings, which are varied, clever and acutely described.

But I think the enduring sense readers of Tove Jansson have of her books’ calm beauty is due to the way, at a subconscious level, each text repeats this transition, moving the reader from scenes of anxiety to repeated and wonderfully evocative scenes of complete rest, calm and comfort. And it is these wonderfully reassuring spaces which are the abiding emotional memory left by her stories.

I wish the whole village could be covered and erased and finally clean… Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where the dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases into twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual. (p.28)

They went into the parlour. The same soft lighting, the same sense of emptiness and changelessness and dreamlike, compulsory slow motion. (p.58)

Jansson’s recurrent images of a wonderfully safe space have a kind of cleansing effect on the imagination. I’m tempted to say that they have a similarly cleansing, purifying effect as a Finnish sauna.


Credit

Den ärliga bedragaren by Tove Jansson was published in 1982. It was translated as The True Deceiver by Thomas Teal and first published by Sort of Books in 2009.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson (1978)

Eleven short stories:

  1. Art in Nature
  2. The Monkey
  3. The Cartoonist
  4. White Lady
  5. The Doll’s House
  6. A Sense of Time
  7. A Leading Role
  8. The Locomotive
  9. Flower Child
  10. A Memory from the New World
  11. The Great Journey

After reading The Summer Book and The Winter Book, which are mostly stories about, or told from the point of view of, a small girl, stories set in the autobiographical settings of either the Jannson family’s house in Helsinki or on the island in the Gulf of Finland where the Jansson’s owned a cabin – it was a relief to turn to a set of stories about adults, where each of them is set in a different location with different characters. I.e. this is much more like a traditional short story collection, than her first two collections.

The characters argue, fight, swear, get drunk, make fools of themselves, cheer each other up, seethe with resentment. They are, in other words, people like us.

Except that they almost all possess the same central attribute of people in Jansson’s fiction – which is that they are disquieting. It’s not science fiction or violent, they’re tales of very ordinary people. But all the stories have a consistently disquieting and oblique, unexpected slant on human nature.

Part of the effect stems from the prose. It is very simple. Short sentences. Simple vocabulary. Things are described, or reported. But that only makes the sometimes disquieting feelings all the more disturbing. The obsessive-compulsive thinking. The absolute necessity of routine and order. The constant nagging sense of failure or embarrassment, the continual sense that you are making a fool of yourself. These are all the more unnerving for being reported so matter-of-factly, as if everyone was this anxious, as if anxiety is the normal state.

And, on reflection, maybe they haven’t strayed that far away from Jansson’s personal experience.

In Art in Nature the old curator of an art exhibition at a gallery which has outdoor grounds and a jetty onto the sea, first of all chats to an old lady who comes and sits next to him then, on his late night walk round the ground comes across a middle-aged couple arguing about a work of art they’ve bought. The title couldn’t be plainer. It is about art in an outdoors space, art in nature.

The Monkey seems like a straight portrait of Jansson’s father, the frustrated sculptor, and his guanon monkey, which we had met in a story in her first collection, The Sculptor’s Daughter. So many of her stories rotate around characters going through very humdrum routines, permanently looking for mental peace and rest and never finding it. Her father tidies up the studio then takes the monkey bundled in  his coat to the nearby bar where his arty mates are rude and they get into a bitter argument. On the way home the monkey escapes and flees up a tree, even though it’s bitterly cold and the sculptor reflects, bitterly:

You poor little bastard. It’s freezing but you’ve got to climb. (p.27)

The Cartoonist is a long and mesmerising account of the way a seasoned old cartoonist, Allington, who has created the smash hit ‘Blubby’ cartoon, and written it day in day out for twenty years for a Finnish newspaper which syndicates it around the world, suddenly disappears, no one knows where. The story focuses on his replacement, Samuel Stein, who is buttered up by the paper’s management, eased into the new job, and finds himself effectively abandoned in the cartoonist’s old room, drawers full of his old bric-a-brac. At first he’s too busy in a panic sweat trying to replicate the great man’s style and mapping out storylines which will last for months into the future to care. But slowly he rummages through the drawers, gets poignant hints of the cartoonist’s life and… realises he has to set out to find him. — Well, this is Jansson’s own plight, spectacularly successful creator of the Moomin strip cartoon who found herself shackled to her creation.

White Lady is named after the revolting cocktail and describes an outing of three middle-aged ladies, one of whom is a successful artist, Ellinor, (the Jansson figure) who catch a ferry from the island to a bar on the mainland where they chat about the old times, seem to spend a lot of time in the ladies loo, order strong cocktails, reminisce about some Italian count and then get caught up with a group of young people who are polite enough but are, well, young, dance to their incredibly loud blaring music, until the three ladies stumble back into the night, towards the jetty and the ferry home.

In The Doll’s House two gay men retire, Erik an old-fashioned upholsterer and Alexander a banker, but discover they can’t really bear being stuck at home all day in each other’s company. Then the upholsterer has the bright idea to make a large doll’s house, an exact replica of a house and the project becomes an all-consuming passion, at first on the kitchen table, then taking over half the kitchen but emitting so much glue and paint fumes the banker asks him to build a partition across the kitchen, then spreading into the living room and so on. When the upholsterer stumbles across an electrician who can help with the tiny wiring needed to light the house, the two become close collaborators, excluding the gay banker more and more. Eventually the story explodes in an unusually violent climax but with a typically Janssonesque twist or quirk.

In A Leading Role Maria, a so-so actress, is offered her first leading role and worries about how to become the mousy put-upon character required. Until she remembers a cousin, the mousy little Frida. She invited Frida to come and stay in her big house by the sea and we, the readers, know she’s only done it so she can observe every aspect of Frida’s personality and facial expressions and movements in order to steal them for her performance. Except that even the mousy Frida realises something is up, and it dawns on her that she’s being exploited.

Themes

Allington quit drawing cartoons because he was ‘tired’, simple as that, a phrase which recurs throughout these stories like a bell. In the very last page of White lady Ellinor is ‘tired’. When the sculptor wakes up he feels ‘tired’. When the locomotive obsessive tries to explain his passion to a strange woman he is overcome by tiredness. Flora’s husband, in A Flower Child, looks tired at his own wedding! Johanna, who looks after her sisters after they’ve emigrated to America in A Memory from the New World, is tired by the responsibility.

Tiredness is a leitmotif. Jansson was 64 when these stories were published in 1978, though one can assume they were published over a scattered period before that. Tiredness and its opposite sleep. Sleep is escape from not only fatigue but anxiety and unease. Sleep and just a nip of madeira. Or champagne, as it is in The Flower Child. A nip of booze to help kick start the long day which is characterised by anxiety and tiredness until you can slip gratefully back into your bed.

This is the underlying feel of the stories, a longing for peace and quiet, the characters’ quest for a calm, ordered, safe place without any other people and where routine and regularity keep at bay all the bad thoughts, the incipient panic, which constantly threaten.

Identities

Once we’re well into the book there are two genuinely strange stories in which the narrator’s identity becomes radically unstable, in which the conventions of fiction are mixed up before our eyes.

In A sense of time Lennart is very concerned about his grandmother and her senile loss of time, waking him up at nighttime closing the curtains at dawn. But half way through the story the point of view switches to the grandmother and we realise that it may be Lennart who’s the odd one.

In the long text called The locomotive the possibly deranged narrator – a commercial draughtsman working for a train company who has secret fantasies about taking long train journeys all over the world – keeps changing points of view from narrating as ‘I’ to describing ‘him’. The text keeps breaking down as he describes and notates  his fleeting thoughts and uncertainties: Stop here. Start again. I need to revise. Delete this section. With the text sometimes breaking down in mid-sen

When the story reaches its rather gruesome climax that climax comes in three separate versions. In fact in a mini-welter of versions, and we realise we have no idea how much, if anything, of this fabrication is ‘real’.

These stories are in no way comforting or charming. Jansson practices tough love on herself and on her characters. Deceptively simple,fairy-tale prose conveys a gimlet-eyed perceptiveness, a constant anxiety, a completely dis-enchanted view of the world and people.

Disquieting.


Credit

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal, was published by Sort of Books in 2006.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson (1998)

Contents

This book contains 20 short stories from across Jansson’s career chosen by contemporary Scottish novelist Ali Smith.

The first 13 are from Jansson’s first published collection, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) which was translated into English in 1969. Since The Sculptor’s Daughter can be bought as a stand-alone book, possibly it would be better to buy that and possess the entire set of childhood stories, instead of just the 13 here:

  1. The Stone
  2. Parties
  3. The Dark
  4. Snow
  5. German measles
  6. Flying
  7. Annie
  8. The Iceberg
  9. Albert
  10. Flotsam and jetsam
  11. High Water
  12. Jeremiah
  13. The spinster who had an idea

After these 13 stories, this volume continues with a long story from 1971, one from the 1980s, and the remaining five appear to be from the 1990s, these latter all translated into English and published here for the first time.

Sort Of Books

All Jansson’s books for adults appear to be currently published in a uniform edition by Sort Of Books, based in London. A feature of the books is their stylish design, with foldover end-covers, beautiful cover images and a selection of photographs from Jansson’s own life sprinkled among the texts.

This volume features 19 atmospheric and evocative black and white photos – of the author’s mother and father, herself as a child cutting paper with scissors or standing prim in a child’s striped dress, as a stylish young woman, as a mature woman smoking a fag, along with views of the island where she lived.

A child’s eye view

The stories from The Sculptor’s Daughter are told from the point of view of a really small child, I’d say 4 or 5. Through her eyes we see the sights and sounds and smells of her parents’ studio in Helsinki. Tove’s father, Viktor Jansson, was a Finnish sculptor, her Swedish mother, Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, was an illustrator and graphic designer, so it was a very artistic family, which encouraged music, storytelling and the young Tove to make and paint and draw and decorate.

The narrator remembers parties where her father played the balalaika along with his friend Cavvy playing the guitar. She finds a big stone which she’s convinced is made of silver and rolls it all along the pavement and across the road to their apartment. One day when it starts snowing, she has a fantasy vision of so much snow falling that it tips the whole world up on its side and people go tumbling out of their windows. She listens to her father playing with his pet guenon monkey Poppolino, which routinely swings around the room knocking over busts and chewing pieces of furniture before her father placates it with some liquorice and puts it back in its cage.

It is a world riddled with compulsions and necessities and superstitions and rituals. If people say anything about the iceberg it will go away. She needs to play this game with her mother, now. Her little friend Poyu must step just where she tells him, to avoid the snakes in the carpet (there are no snakes, it’s just a game).

All these rituals are to keep at bay the fear, fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of the incomprehensible world of grown-ups, which the small narrator is very prone to.

Every story has to begin in the same way, then it’s not so important what happens. A soft, gentle voice in the warm darkness and one gazes into the fire and nothing is dangerous. Everything else is outside and can’t get in. Not now or at any time. (p.40)

Contrasting with these moments of fear are the childhood safe spaces, very often snuggling down in a nice warm bed, but best of all sitting in a parent’s lap. Where in the world is cosier and warmer and safer?

The prose is written with a kind of wide-eyed childish simplicity, punctuated by outbursts of childish dogmatism, the kind of pedantic insistence characteristic of the small. Everyone who reads it responds to the ‘innocence’ and simplicity of the style, but I think sometimes it can verge on the twee. It’s a fine line.

Actually soda water is dangerous. It gives one bubbles in the tummy and it can make one feel sad. One should never mix things. (p.31)

The narrator’s mind jumps all over the place. She’s thinking about the great dark shadow that comes out of the sea and stretches towards the town every night. Then how to pick stones out of your ice skates. Then how to avoid the ‘snakes’ she has conjured up in her friend Poyu’s patterned carpet.

Is this how children think, jumping from one thing to another. Is it a marvellous recreation of childhood? Or is it how we all think that children think? Is it in fact quite a sophisticated (and slightly troubling) act of ventriloquism?

‘Explosion’ is a beautiful word and a very big one. Later I learned others, the kind you whisper only when you’re alone. ‘Inexorable’. ‘Ornamentation’. ‘Profile’. ‘Catastrophe’. ‘Electrical’. ‘District nurse.’ They get bigger and bigger if you say them over and over again. You whisper and whisper and let the world grow until nothing else exists until the word. (p.39)

As the Sculptor stories progress the narrator becomes noticeably older. Her friend Albert invites her out in a rowing boat (from the island where they spend their summer holidays with her family) but they get caught in a thick fog and then, surreally, take on board a dying seagull. She’s older than 5 or 6 by this time.

Flotsam and Jetsam describes her observation of her Daddy and other men from around the islands rowing out to scavenge canisters of goodies (booze, maybe?) which have been washed into the sea, maybe from a wrecked cargo boat. She observes the dainty codes and rules governing what is, and is not, salvageable.

High Water is a short subtle story, also set on the holiday island (the same one, presumably, which features in her classic The Summer Book). Her Daddy the sculptor brings all his sculpting equipment and clay out to the island and converts Old Charlie’s boat-house into a studio – but then gets blocked and can do no work. He gets cross with everyone. Until one night there’s a really awesome storm which floods the island and carries off the jetty and – floods the studio and ruins all the clay. Daddy comes in to tell relate this terrible blow to his wife and she is beaming with pleasure and he is wreathed in smiles. Then he rushes off back out to help people try to save what they can from the storm.

So it is a story about how hard it is to be an artist, or how hard her father found it, and what a relief simple physical action in the outdoors is, compared to all that agonising about creation.

A spinster stays and becomes obsessed with building steps of cement up to the house, but she makes a right horlicks of it. Later she interrupts Daddy and Mummy making a plaster cast, usually a sacred moment, and natters on, poking about, until she accidentally discovers a way to make a small cast around a picture cut out from a magazine. She gets addicted to making scores of these, perfecting her technique, turning into quite a creator. But that doesn’t stop them being tacky, the narrator thinks. Eventually, the spinster leaves but young Tove treasures the picture cast she made for herself.

In The Boat and Me the narrator is 12 and Daddy has become Dad. The prose is quite a lot more mature. She is given a boat and decides to row it round the little archipelago of islets surrounding their island. Her mum helps her set off before her Dad can get up and prevent her going. There follow bucolic details of navigating the boat round little islands in the Gulf of Finland, and of encountering the rich summer tourists who her family despises, in this book as in The Summer Book. But eventually her Dad, having woken and discovered she’s set off, catches up with her in his motorboat, makes her come aboard, ties the rowboat to it and returns to the house. Tut tut.

Sad

The Squirrel represents an alarming, rather shocking break in tone. Now a third-person narrator beadily describes the behaviour of an apparently middle-aged woman living on her own on an island. This woman is consumed with obsessive compulsive disorder. Everything has to be just so: she must get dressed in just the right order; the wood in the fireplace must be arranged just so; each day must start with the same rituals including measuring the height of the sea against rocks.

It is sad to learn that each day also requires a morning tot of madeira, and then a work tot of madeira: ‘It is the only thing that helped’ (p.131).

She began sweeping, painstaking and calm. She liked sweeping. It was a peaceful day, a day without dialogue. There was nothing to defend or accuse anyone of; everything had been cut out, all those words that could have been other words or might simply have been out of place and have led to great change. Now there was nothing but a warm friendly cottage full of morning light, herself sweeping and the friendly sound of coffee beginning to simmer. The room with its four windows simply existed and justified itself; it was safe and had nothing to do with any place where you could shut anything in or leave anything out. (p.131)

Alas, poor Tove, I thought she was an embodiment of carefree happiness, but this story confirms the impression of the final few Moomintroll books that she sadly combated mental illness, an overpowering anxiety and worry that can only be kept at bay with rituals and routines, or else the day becomes ‘soiled with wrong thoughts and pointless actions’ (p.135).

So the story is ostensibly about how Tove feeds and supports the squirrel and it becomes a companion on the island. But the real impact of the text is to quite shock you with the extent of her unhappy, uncontrollable thoughts. She rearranges the log pile to make things easier for the squirrel then is devastated by feelings of guilt that she may have wrecked its home. She panics and goes to fetch lots of things to help a squirrel make a home from the cellar but then chaotically tries to squeeze a box which is too big up through the cellar hole and it bursts and stuff goes flying everywhere.

Next morning she sees a boat heading straight for the island. It is themThey have come to get her. She has a panic attack, first sweeping all her manuscripts into a drawer, then changing her mind and setting them back on her desk, then jumping out the back window and crawling off to hide in an inlet – then realising how silly that will look and sneaking back to spy on the boat. In fact it’s just three blokes on a day trip to any island anywhere who tie up their boat and get their fishing rods out, completely ignorant of the highly strung woman whose utter calm they have shattered.

Sadly, I realise that Jansson is not the great feminine super-mother, the centred, reassuring, calm presence of Moominmamma, as portrayed in the Moomin books. On the basis of this text, she is more like the hysterical Fillyjonk, permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Correspondence

There follow a couple of lovely ‘sections’ based on letters.

Letters from Klara is a selection of letters from the same woman correspondent, but written to all sorts of people, relations, children, officials and so on, so that each one displays a different tone and aspect of the writer’s characters. It’s a clever effective technique.

Messages is a series of brief snippets, the opening phrases, from a very wide range of letters the author has received – fan mail, commercial propositions, letters from school children, parents, lawyers and so on, a cross-section of the non-stop bombardment of mostly rubbish which a writer has to put up with, but also a cross-section of ordinary people who, with greater or lesser subtlety, pour out their hearts to someone they’ve never met but feel they know through her writings.

The last of the three, Correspondence, consists of letters written to her by a Japanese schoolgirl, Tamiko Atsumi, about the Moomins, about her improving English and other schoolgirl concerns. Tamiko sends haikus and wishes Tove good health and a long life.

None of Tove’s replies (if there ever were any) are included here so, again, as with everything Jannson wrote, there is a powerful sense of mystery and absence. Instead, we follow as the Japanese girl gets more proficient at English and her letters more ambitious, and the text encourages us to guess and speculate about the personality behind these brief missives.

What do they mean?

What does anything mean?

Photos


Credit

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson was published by Sort of Books in 2006.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson (1970)

Hardly had Fillyjonk thought of spring-cleaning when a wave of dizziness and nausea overcame her and for one terrifying moment she was hanging over the abyss. She knew: I shall never again be able to clean. How can I go on living if I can neither clean or prepare food? (p.72)

Tove Jansson and the Moomins

Jansson began her career as an illustrator in the late 1930s. The first sketches of the Moomins appeared late in the Second World War while she was producing adult caricatures for a Finnish satirical magazine, Garm. The first Moomin book was barely published (in 1945) before she was commissioned to produce a daily comic strip featuring the characters, in Finland. When this strip was picked up by the London Evening Standard and syndicated to other European newspapers in the early 1950s, it grew to reach a readership of 20 million people a day. The contract to produce these daily comic strips provided Jansson’s main income for nearly thirty years. It was the kind of long-running daily comic strip found in newspapers to put alongside the likes of Peanuts, The Far Side, Hagar the Horrible, B.C. etc.

Fairly quickly there came requests for other spin-offs, first the book-length novels, then large-format picture books, then real-world stuff like dolls & merchandise, plays, TV adaptations, even an opera, and so on.

a) Running the commercial empire while producing an entertaining comic strip every day must have been exhausting. b) It must have used up a lot of plots and stories and gags. Over the years Jansson must, presumably, have separated out the timely topical subjects for the strip, from the much deeper, stranger, humorous or elliptical plots for the books. c) 25 years – from 1945 to 1970 – is a long time in anyone’s artistic output. Much can change and develop.

d) The previous Moomin book, Moominpappa at Sea, seemed to me to have lost almost all the joie de vivre of the earlier books. It contained strange and eerie moments but hardly any real humour and was dominated by the settled depression of the main character, Moominpappa, and the less obvious discontent of Moominmamma and even Moomintroll. Above all, it dropped almost all of the big cast of ancillary characters to concentrate on this rather claustrophobic family triangle. Only the inclusion of Little My with her pert, rude humour stops the book becoming inconsolably gloomy.

e) As any glance at Jansson’s biography shows, during the writing of this, the final Moomin book, her beloved mother died. She struggled to the end of Moominvalley in November, but – for her – the Moomins were over. She could never go back to that happy valley.

Moominvalley in November

There are a lot of chapters, 21 to be precise, in this 157-page book (since the text starts on page 9, that’s 148 pages of actual text: 148/21 = 7 pages per chapter). So they’re more like short anecdotes than chapters in an ongoing narrative. One chapter is as short as two pages. They are quick impressions. Snapshots. Moments which provide insights into the characters.

And the narrative is very character-based, not event-based. Previous stories followed Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin as they, for example, set out for the Lonely Mountains as a team, a gang, a group of children on an adventure. Moominvalley in November concentrates on the individuals as monads, as solitary individuals thrown together by chance and only slowly learning to get on with each other.

The premise is simple: half a dozen disparate characters, in different ways and for different reasons, decide to shake off the winter blues by visiting Moominhouse in the Moomin Valley, to recapture memories of happy summers they’ve spent there.

But it isn’t summer, it is rainy winter. And the Moomins are not there. At the end of Moominpappa at Sea we saw them decide to really settle on the isolated island which Moominpappa had taken them to. This exile seems to be confirmed when Snufkin looks into Moominpappa’s magic crystal ball in the forest and sees an image, far away, in the deep depths of the ball, of a stormy sea and a light flashing with a regular beat. Obviously, the Moomins are still on lighthouse island.

And so the six characters bump into each other and, despite each of them wanting to be left alone with their memories (and fears and anxieties), slowly, one by one, they have to learn to rub along and live with each other.

Six characters in search of the Moomins

We all know Snufkin, the solitary traveller, from Comet in Moominland and its sequels. He heads vaguely towards the house trying to capture a tune which flits in and out of his head.

The Mymble decides to come and visit her kid sister, Little My. She doesn’t know that My is off with the Moomins on their desolate island.

Toft is a small boy who hides in the hemulen’s beached boat, and decides to go to the Moominhouse. No very clear reason is given except that he seems to have detailed dreams and fantasies about such a house, and spends hours longingly painting it in ideal features in his imagination. Once there, Toft discovers a big scientific book about creatures which live on electricity and becomes convinced such a creature is hiding in the house, or nearby woods. Again, he uses his imagination to paint the Creature in ever more vivid detail and almost – it seems – does actually conjure it into existence. He hears it roar in the woods. He sees it gnash its big teeth by the black pool in the forest.

So far, with these three characters, so relatively straightforward. What makes the book decidedly weird is that the other three characters all suffer from what might be termed quite serious mental disorders.

Grandpa-Grumble can’t remember who he is, what he’s doing or why. He quite cheerfully accepts his early Alzheimer’s, in fact he’s very proud of having forgotten almost everything, but occasionally gets very cross. Grandpa-Grumble isn’t his name, but he needs some kind of identity before he can get up and exist. This is one among many that floats through his mind soon after we meet him, so he adopts it. For the time being…

The Fillyjonk is as full of fear and anxiety as when we first encountered her in the short story collection, Tales from Moominvalley. Suburban breakdown neurosis.

As soon as the Fillyjonk touched a broom or a duster she felt dizzy, and a giddy feeling of fear started in her stomach and got stuck in her throat. (p.46)

Within moments of meeting her, as she anxiously goes about her housekeeping, she manages to fall out of window onto a sloped tiled roof and slither down towards the sheer drop, only just managing to cling to the guttering and then pull herself up by the lightning rod and back into the room. For a while she becomes nothing but a tatter of flesh clinging to the side of an enormous empty house.

Now she was nothing at all, just something that was trying to make itself as flat as possible and move on. (p.22)

Once she’s recovered she decides to travel to the Moomin house to seek out others, to be among other people whose bustle will fill her day so that ‘there was no time for terrible thoughts’. But once she’s there, the others automatically recoil, smelling the ‘fear’ which she emanates, fear of life, fear of existence. She reminds me a bit of a Samuel Beckett character.

As does the hemulen, living in the same small seaside town as Toft. (In fact Toft hides in the hemulen’s sailing boat which he proudly owns but never in fact uses.) The very opening words of the hemulen’s introductory chapter describe a person who struggles to find a reason to live.

The hemulen woke up slowly and recognised himself and wished he had been someone that he didn’t know. He felt even tireder than when he went to bed, and here it was – another day which would go on until evening and then there would be another one and another one which would be the same as all days when they are lived by a hemulen. (p.28)

Quite grim, eh? Tired of living. An almost existentialist facing-up to the monotonous emptiness of existence, this could come from Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

The empty house

One by one they bump into each other, misunderstand each other, cautiously enter the cold empty house and commandeer rooms. Snufkin remains outside in his tent. Toft takes Moominpappa’s old room. The hemulen has a typical moment of existential crisis:

and then to undress and confess that yet another day had become yet another night. How did things get like this, he thought, quite dumbfounded. (p.40)

and so forces his way into Snufkin’s tent, boisterously declaring he wants to enjoy ‘the outdoors life’.

Things happen. There is a big rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The Mymble somehow absorbs all this lighting and becomes a ball of crackling energy. Grandpa-Grumble catches a big fish and Snufkin advises him that the Fillyjonk is a great cook. In fact, she finds that preparing a big meal for everyone does something to calm her nerves. Almost. Though when she opens the linen cupboard she has a terrifying vision of zillions of creepie-crawlies escaping everywhere and spends the rest of the book hearing them scuttling behind the wallpaper and the wainscoting in a barely controlled panic.

Grandpa-Grumble finds the Moomin’s little hairy ancestor hibernating in the cold stove. But he soon forgets what it looks like and, when he opens the cupboard door which has a mirror in it, he mistakes his own reflection for the ancestor and (comically) gets to like and respect him. His reflection, too, is old, eccentrically dressed, and knows how to keep quiet.

Towards the end of the book the Fillyjonk organises a big party, with welsh rarebit to eat and cider to drink. The hemulen recites a poem and then the Fillyjonk puts on a lantern show, hanging a white sheet from the ceiling, placing a lamp behind her and moving a cutout of a boat with the three Moomins and Little My in it in a boat-on-the-sea kind of way. Mymble is moved, so are the others.

Toft goes outside to find the Creature which he has created with his imagination in the pitch black night but it moves away, it is nowhere, it is nothing.

After the party, the Fillyjonk sits by herself amid the mess of the dining table, picks up Snufkin’s mouth organ and turns out to be brilliant at making music on it. Mymble had said she was ‘artistic’ earlier in the day. Maybe she is. Maybe things will be alright. Maybe she can put her fears and anxieties behind her.

Next day the Fillyjonk organises a massive clear-up of the house, dusting the surfaces, cleaning the windows, sweeping all the corners, and the others join in and make the place spic and span. Something has been achieved, something has been finished and the Fillyjonk and Mymble shake hands by the bridge and head off home. Grandpa-Grumble confronts his own reflection in the clothes-cupboard mirror and, when it doesn’t reply, pokes it with his stick. The mirror shatters, the fragments falling to the floor. There’s only one thing for it – to hibernate – he tucks himself up on the living room sofa and goes to sleep.

Snufkin invites the hemulen to come out in the sailing boat. The hemulen – who owns a dinghy back in the seaside town which, as we know, he never actually uses – is absolutely terrified, and thinks he’s going to throw up, but is forced to take the tiller when Snufkin simply moves forward into the bow leaving the tiller unmanned.

Back at the house the hemulen embarrassedly admits to Toft that he was terrified and that he will now never have to use the dinghy back home. He too has found some kind of resolution and sets off home the next day.

That leaves just Snufkin and Toft. The latter walks out to look at Moominpappa’s crystal ball deep in the forest. The first snow has come and the forest is white and frosty. The crystal ball is completely empty.

Next morning Snufkin strikes camp and walks down to the sea where the song at the edge of his mind finally comes into it, fully formed, simple and beautiful. He heaves his pack on his back and walks straight into the forest.

Next morning Toft goes to the crystal ball in the snow and sees a tiny lamp in it, the lamp attached to the Moomins’ sailing boat mast. He wanders into the forest, getting quite lost, and slowly his imaginings about the Moomins – and especially the mother that he never had and fantasises about – Moominmamma – fade out, his mind becomes completely blank, like the landscape.

Emerging from the forest at the foot of the hills.Toft climbs the biggest one and far, far out at sea, sees the Moomin sailing boat heading towards the land. If he walks straight back down, he calculates that he’ll get to the bathing house just in time to greet them, catch the line and tie the boat to the jetty.

And that is the last line and last thought in the complete set of Moomin novels.


The dialectic of fear and cosiness

By emphasising the mental problems of some of the characters I’m at risk of giving a misleading impression of the book. It contains plenty of very calm, semi-mystical passages about nature and the seasons, painted in Jansson’s beautifully crisp, descriptive prose. Here Snufkin and the hemulen wander down to the empty, disconsolate bathing house the morning after the big storm.

A dark bank of everything that storm and high water had thrown up, discarded things, forgotten things, all jumbled up under seaweed and reeds, heavy and blackened with water, covered the beach as far as the eye could see. The splintered timbers were full of old nails and bent cramp-irons. The sea had devoured the beach right up to the first trees, and there was seaweed hanging in the branches. (p.69)

But for every purely descriptive passage like that, there are many others which move from the outer world of nature to the troubled realm of the psyche within. For example:

The quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can. It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth and your thoughts and to burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own. Then the cold and the storms and the darkness can do their worst. They can grope their way up the walls looking for a way in, but they won’t find one, everything is shut, and you sit inside, laughing in your warmth and your solitude… (p.10)

Many of the descriptions do this – they tend to become psychologised, to switch from the outer world to dramatise internal feelings – often of a rather troubled kind.

Because the same overall feeling emerges again and again. Repeatedly, whatever the situation, each of the characters, or the narrator in her generalisations, seeks for peace and solitude and escape from others.

All the creatures want to be by themselves, repeating what is very obviously their author’s mantra, that peace and quiet and solitude are best.

[Toft] wished that the whole valley had been empty with plenty of room for dreams, you need space and silence to be able to fashion things sufficiently carefully. (p.88)

[Toft] wanted to be alone to try and work out why he had been so terribly angry at the Sunday dinner. It frightened him to realise that there was a completely different toft in him, a toft which he didn’t know and which might come back and disgrace him in front of all the others. (p.116)

Snufkin overcomes his longing for the Moomin family by realising that maybe they, too, just want to be left alone in peace (p.92).

Hemulen likes Moominpappa’s old room because it is ‘a place where one could be by oneself’ (p.94).

Because I happen to have recently read the famous play by Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis Clos, I couldn’t help finding echoes of it in the plight of six characters who have all converged on one place, seeking solitude and summer only to find the exact reverse, bleak winter and irritating company. The text is alive with the idea of places of refuge and sanctuary, of just being left alone:

  • The big pool was a gloomy place in the autumn, a place to hide oneself and wait. (p.117)
  • ‘[The Moomins] went to the back garden when they were fed up and angry and wanted a bit of peace and quiet.’ (p.119)
  • Of course, when you hibernate you’re much younger when you wake up, and you don’t need anything but to be left in peace. (p.144)
  • [The dark forest] is where Moominmamma had walked when she was tired and cross and disappointed and wanted to be on her own… (p.156)

There is one way out, one way to escape other people or your own alienated or anxious thoughts – and that is to cease being conscious altogether.

This, maybe, explains why there are so many scenes where one or other of the characters makes themselves a cosy little snug and goes to sleep. (Obviously, children’s stories are more often than not designed to be read to children at bed-time, so this partly explains why the little creatures fall asleep at the end of almost every chapter.)

But still – falling asleep in the dark Nordic nights is a recurring leitmotif. Despite the ‘optimistic’ ending, the text tells us that the creatures (before they all leave) are sleeping longer and longer as the nights draw in.

And we know that even though the Moomin family are (supposedly) heading home, they will barely have arrived before they, too, have their last meal of pine needles and bed down for the long winter hibernation. One day, perhaps, they’ll go to sleep and never wake up.

As we all do.


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson (1965)

Moominpappa went and sat on the lighthouse-keeper’s little ledge and thought: ‘I must do something different, something new. Something tremendous.’ But he didn’t know what it was he wanted to do. He was quite bewitched and confused. (p.114)

This is a sad and troubling book. Moominpappa mopes about the house because everything in Moomin Valley is fixed and everything is taken care of.  Little My says he needs to get angry and let off steam, and indeed he bickers with Moominmamma in a way unimaginable in the earlier, innocent books. A little fire starts in the wood and he is irritated because his family puts it out before he even gets there. The Groke slides up to the house and Moominpappa likes to think of himself as the manly protector of his family, even though he joins the others in locking and bolting the door and hiding under the table.

He needs to ‘get away’, and decides to take his family to a remote island to start again. There’s a tiny dot on the map in the middle of sea. An island, reputedly with a lighthouse. Yes, they’ll go there.

A reduced Moomin family

Apart from the prevalent sad, middle-aged storyline, another way in which this book is very different from the earlier ones is that the family is massively reduced. The only people who sail with him to the new island are Moominmamma, Moomintroll and Little My. My has to be in the book to provide her own brand of malicious mischief, otherwise it really would just be the story of a man having a sad, mid-life crisis. Luckily she’s there to burst everyone’s balloon with the most cynical, quick, heartless attitude imaginable. Always bracing, sometimes really funny.

Little My was sitting on the steps, singing one of her monotonous wet-weather songs.
‘Hallo,’ said Moominpappa. ‘I’m angry.’
‘Good!’ said little My with approval. ‘You look as though you’d made a proper enemy of someone. It always helps.’ (p.102)

But whatever happened to Sniff, Moomintroll’s babysh companion? Or Snufkin? Or the Muskrat or the Mymble, the Whomper, Gaffsie, Too-ticky and all the other friends they’ve acquired in the previous books? They have all disappeared, are not mentioned – everything is subsumed to Moominpappa’s unhappiness.

The Groke

I was particularly struck by the way that the Groke – the big sad lonely figure which radiates deathly cold wherever she goes – previously a strange and ominous and fleeting figure – is handled in this book. Previously she appeared and disappeared for no reason, adding to the eerily wonderful sense of magic about Moomin Valley. But now Jansson dwells on her character and her immense loneliness at some length. She is attracted to the lamp back in Moomin Valley and when she sees the family sailing away with the lamp tied to the mast she determines to follow it and she does, by placing one foot in front of another on the restless sea, making it freeze solid at her touch. Thus she creates an ice bridge all the way to the island, following the little Moomin family like some kind of avenging angel or bad conscience.

The laughing children of the earlier books have all been swept away. Sad middle-aged characters are centre stage.

Compare and contrast the small, human-scale, comedy Moominhouse which Moominpappa builds back in The Exploits of Moominpappa.

with the way the tiny Moomin figures are intimidated and overwhelmed by the enormous, bare, bleak lighthouse they find when they arrive at the barren island in this book –

And what was often left powerfully unstated in the previous books is now made brutally explicit. Previously we were told that grass or flowers where the Groke passed were instantly frozen, in a rather wonderful fairy-tale way. Now Jannson makes it brutally clear that wherever the Groke sits for any length of time is killed stone dead and nothing will ever grow there again. This is a small but significant example of the way the tone has shifted from things withheld and, so, magical – and things stated explicitly and so become much more human and upsetting.

Moominpappa’s desperate enthusiasms

Again and again Moominpappa finds a project – lighting the lighthouse lamp, setting nets at sea, fishing in the black pool, building a breakwater out of big rocks – which fire and invigorate him but which, somehow, in the event, fizzle out in failure and disappointment.

Again and again he tries to assert his authority over his tiny family, declaring there is a fixed order to unpack the boat, to decorate the lighthouse, that only he knows about the sea or fishing or nets, or anything. And the others listen politely, then go about their business regardless, and on more than one occasion a frustrated Moominpappa is driven to declaring that he hates family life.

One such failure is the great effort to take out the old lighthouse-keeper’s nets and set them in just the right place off the coast. A huge storm blows up. Next day Moomintroll rows Moominpappa out and they both feel how heavy the nets are – boy, they’re going to be full of fish!

But as they struggle to drag the nets aboard their little dinghy it becomes clear the nets are full of nothing but seaweed; there isn’t a single fish. Fail.

Moominpappa felt quite deflated. This seaweed had come right after that wretched business of the lamp, it wasn’t fair. One toiled and toiled and nothing worked. Things just seemed to slip through one’s fingers. (p.91)

Moominmamma is endlessly supportive with her ‘Yes dear’, with her stoic agreement to leave her whole household and life behind her and settle in the unfriendly, damp surroundings of the half-ruined lighthouse, and Moomintroll is puzzled and confused. Neither of them can help the unhappy middle-aged man at the centre of the story.

Keeping bad thoughts at bay

What comes over from the text is the sense of someone deeply troubled by life and constantly looking to find a safe haven, a home, a secure place where the ‘black thoughts’ won’t start up and take over.

They come across a deep black pool among the rocks, which Moominpappa ends up being attracted to and fishing in for hours at a time, in quiet desperation.

Moominpappa was convinced with a kind of desperate certainty that at the bottom of [the pool] secrets were waiting for him. And there might be just anything down there. He thought that if he could only get everything up he would understand the sea, everything would fall into place. He felt he would fit in, too. (p.122)

This desperate search to ‘fit in’.

When Moominmamma decides to collect all the driftwood and timber she can find on the island and uses it to build a snug in the lee of the lighthouse and then starts sawing it all to the same length – this activity sort of has the reassuring feel of her quiet domestic tasks back in Moomin Valley – but it also feels slightly mad, a kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour designed to keep things at bay, the ‘things’ being doubts and worries about the future. She does it to fill the long empty days. She does it to avoid feeling ‘so much alone.’ (p.118)

They are both stricken.

Island mysticism

With most of the childish comedy stripped away, and putting on one side the middle-aged depression, the other strain which emerges most strongly is the strange and eerie, the almost mystical strain, in Jansson’s writing. The island they sail to is said to be ‘watching’ the little boat. The abandoned lighthouse is looking at them.

Moomintroll wanders off and discovered a secret dell amid the stunted little trees of the island. He also discovers a silver horseshoe on the beach and waits and waits until one magical evening he sees the sea horses dancing on the sand, kicking up rainbows from their hooves.

But more than these rather obviously magic moments, there are lots of quiet paragraphs where one or other character really communes with the strange, alien, intractable but deeply magnetic island.

Now that he was alone Moomintroll could begin to look at the island and smell it in the right way. He could feel it with his paws, prick up his ears and listen to it. Away from the roar of the sea the island was quieter than the valley at home, completely silent and terribly, terribly old. (p38)

It isn’t a pleasant place. It isn’t a friendly environment. It isn’t a sunny Greek island. It’s a hard, barren, stony, inhospitable place with a few patches of stunted wind-battered trees, with hardly any soil to grow anything in, and a derelict lighthouse with mud floors and dripping ceilings and a lamp which won’t light.

But this makes the moments when the rain stops and the sun comes out, or the sudden quiet when the wind drops, all the more impermanent, fragile and important.

The lighthouse-keeper

… isn’t there. That’s the point. No one knows who he was or where he went or why. His absence drips from the rainy eaves of the abandoned lighthouse. Moominpappa discovers poems the lighthouse-keeper had scribbled in charcoal on the walls of the lamp room. Still others he’d written and then feverishly scribbled over. Why? What drove this lonely man in his high house overlooking the never-still grey sea? Moominpappa discovers the lighthouse-keeper’s old notebook and skips though it looking for clues, but it only has records of wind speeds and directions. Moominpappa starts keeping his own diary.

Moominmamma starts painting on the lighthouse wall all the flowers and shrubs she left at home in Moomin Valley. In one hallucinatory moment, as the others are coming into the room, she steps smartly into her painting, hiding behind a painted tree and watching her family from inside the wall. In fact, she curls up and goes to sleep inside her mural and the others get so concerned they set off on a search party for her round the island.

By the time they get back Moominmamma has stepped out of the mural and is calmly making a towel. From then on she starts painting copies of herself into the mural of an increasingly large and brightly coloured garden.

‘Well, that really is the last word in madness,’ says Little My, and it’s hard not to agree that madness, a really genuine insane paranoia, fear and anxiety – stalk all through these pages.

The old fisherman

There is one inhabitant of the island, though – an old fisherman who lives in a concrete hut right out on a point at the extreme other end of the island. His boat goes past while Moominpappa is fishing and he tries to engage him in conversation but the old boy just mutters and won’t reply. Towards the end of the novel, a really massive storm blows up and the sea sweeps away the old man’s hut leaving him quivering under his upturned boat. Moomintroll and Moominpappa rope themselves together and one swims out to the point, once he’s safe the other swims out too. It gives both the Moomins a reassuring sense that they have somehow overcome the sea, which Moominpappa generally finds so troubling and incomprehensible.

They fetch the old man to safety, give him a tot of whiskey and some hot coffee but he refuses to stay in the lighthouse. Then they find out his birthday is coming up and Moominmama sets about making a cake and presents.

In the end

I haven’t yet mentioned a slightly nightmareish element of the story which is that Moomintroll wakes one night in his secret glade to find that it is moving. The entire glade, the woods, the trees, have pulled up their roots and are slowly moving up away from the sea. In a freakish moment Moomintroll thinks he sees the very sand of the beach moving upwards. They are all scared of the Groke. Every living thing is moving up closer to the lighthouse, for safety. The others notice it, too.

A juniper was moving slowly through the heather like an undulating green carpet. Moominpappa scrambled out of its way, and stood stock-still, frozen to the spot. He could see the island moving, a living thing crouching on the bottom of the sea, helpless with fear. ‘Fear is a terrible thing, Moominpappa thought. ‘It can come suddenly and take hold of everything…’ (p.192)

When Moominpappa puts his ear to the ground, he believes he can hear the beating heart of the island palpitating with fear.

Fear.

In the last ten pages several things happen. Moominpappa goes to the steepest cliff and tells the sea off for terrifying the poor little island. Doesn’t it give the sea pleasure to break and crash over its rocks? Well, stop being such a bully! Almost as if in apology, out of the chastened sea come some rather lovely planks, good for making shelves out of. He and the family quickly rescue them from the waves.

Moomintroll has been going down to the beach to confront the motionless, unspeaking Groke, not in aggression but in eerie silence, taking with him the lit lamp which she so worships. Now the family have run out of paraffin to light it. One nightfall Moomintroll goes down to the beach anyway and an odd thing happens: the Groke dances with delight. It wasn’t the lamp, she is just happy that someone wants to see her. After she has drifted away in the usual spooky manner, Moomintroll goes stands where she was and discovers the sand isn’t frozen as it usually is. Has she… has the Groke… stopped killing things with her coldness? Was all that was needed a little love?

Lastly, they find the old fisherman hiding and – much against his will – persuade him to come up to the lighthouse for a party. He has to close his eyes and take Moominmamma’s hand to enter the lighthouse, which he clearly has a great aversion to. He doesn’t want to go up the stairs to the main room.

But once there, he begins to thaw. He sips and then drinks a whole cup of coffee. He accepts the presents they’ve wrapped for him. He notices the bird’s nest they’ve taken out of the chimney. He spots the jigsaw puzzle they’ve been struggling with for months on a table, goes over and completes it in a few swift moves. He asks for the lighthouse-keeper’s hat – which Moominpappa has been wearing – back. In fact in the last few pages we watch him metamorphose back into the lighthouse-keeper because… that is who he is!

Somehow things have clicked back into place. The sea, if not tamed, has been understood. The lighthouse-keeper has, somehow, been cured and restored. The Groke, of all creatures, somehow seems happy. Moominpappa walks down to the sea feeling wonderfully alive. And as he stares at the ever-restless sea, communing with it, the lighthouse lamp suddenly comes on.

Thoughts

This is very clearly intended as a Happy Ending and maybe it ties up enough loose ends to please children readers. But I think it is forced.

Towards the end of his life my father developed dementia. You and I may be puzzled and unhappy and blocked and frustrated by something, but we have the mental wherewithal to think it through, discuss it with others, and find solutions or just move on. What I saw in my father – and in some other people I’ve known who’ve developed mental illness – is they lose that ability to work things through. They become stuck or trapped by even simple things, and then terrified because they think they’ll never get out.

In my experience, even seriously depressed people can be shown a way out by modern medication and once they’re out you can develop techniques to make that roadway out of unhappiness as wide and easy as possible. Just knowing there is a way out immediately reduces the level of stress they experience when they next go into a black depression.

But the really ill, or demented, can’t find a way out and are caught in a bewildering and terrifying series of traps with no hope of escape. Hence the wailing, the panic attacks, the desperate need to share their burden, even though they can’t put it into words any more.

Maybe I’m overdoing it, but on every other page of this 200-page book there are words like fear, terror, anxiety, small, worry, helpless, and prolonged descriptions of the characters – especially Moominpappa – trying to grasp the situation, trying to act the hero or strong family man or expert on the sea, in order to properly, fully become himself – and failing, failing, failing. And the more Moominmamma and Moomintroll indulge him and say ‘Yes, dear’ the worse it gets. Nobody understands!

Taken along with the disturbing story in the previous book, The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters, this novel goes a long way to eclipse the happy, carefree impression given by the earlier, genuinely happy Moomin stories.

Illustrations

None of the illustrations are as clean and crisp as those in the earlier books; but then they aren’t as sketchy and half-finished as those in Tales of Moominvalley. Somewhere in-between. And some – if you identify with the rather tortured, anxious mood of much of the writing, as I certainly did – have an unprecedented intensity.


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson (1962)

The most obvious thing about this book is the quality of the illustrations: in contrast to the crystal clear, crisply drawn illustrations of all the previous books, the pictures in Tales from Moominvalley are rough and sketchy i.e. where one precise line did the job in earlier books, here they take multiple lines to sketch out a character’s outline or other objects, giving a far rougher, hastier, smudgier appearance to the pictures and to the entire page.

Why? Are they early works saved up for this relatively late publication (1962)? Is this her late style? Or did she make a conscious decision to explore a rougher, more sketchy style? In some of the illustrations the familiar Moomin characters barely look themselves. Compare early and late:

Here’s a gallery of illustrations from the book. Judge for yourself how rough-hewn, primitive and unfinished they look, compared with the earlier style.

Nine stories

The book consists of nine short stories. They are all more elliptical and serious than in the previous books. Instead of carefree childhood adventures – as the previous books – they investigate what are essentially adult psychological states.

Thus in the first story Snufkin is happy walking alone through the woods on the verge of creating a new song. He stops to camp by a stream but a little woodland creature plucks up the courage to speak to him, then comes over and starts a nattery conversation and, when he finally leaves, Snufkin discovers to his frustration that the idea for the new song has been completely driven out of his head.

But that’s not all, the little creature had heard of the famous traveller Snufkin, and before he left asked if he could give him a name. A bit irritated, Snufkin names him Teety-woo after birds he can hear singing in the treetops. Next morning Snufkin, still irritated at this intrusion into his solitude, sets off north but can’t get the little creature’s babbling chatter out of his head and eventually turns round and walks back to the woods to find him.

Here he finds Teety-woo and discovers that, now he’s got a name, he is making up for lost time and running round experiencing everything for the first time as Teety-woo! In fact, he’s far too busy living to listen to Snufkin who, only yesterday, he sought out all timid and shy: now he is the brave confident Teety-woo.

He runs off and Snufkin sits, pondering, as does the reader, this parable about identity and existence. Then gets up and sets back off towards the north, whistling. Soon a tune begins to form in his mind. A lesson learned.

See? Not a kiddy adventure, is it? More a life lesson. I wonder what on earth my 8-year-old self made of it.

The stories

All the others are all like this. In one a very nervous fillyjonk, always worrying and fretting about the worst, actually does experience the worst when a terrific tornado blows in from the sea and lays waste her home and, in the end – you know what – it turns out not to matter.

The fillyjonk drew a deep breath. Now I’ll never be afraid again, she said to herself. Now I’m free. Now I can do anything. (p.58)

So far so sort of Moominish. But I haven’t mentioned that the main part of the story consists of a tea party the fillyjonk gives for her ‘friend’, Gaffsie, who is depicted as an empty-headed housewife. The fillyjonk gets more and more frustrated with gossip about the best way to clean carpets and so on and, suddenly – out of nowhere – erupts into a great speech about how disaster is going to strike the world, everything is going to be destroyed, ‘they’ are coming to get us all! Gaffsie looks into her teacup, deeply embarrassed. It is the story of a suburban nervous breakdown.

Maybe this is why the pictures are so different, so much rougher, in this book. Jansson wanted to indicate this was a different, more teenage (at least) type of book.

Other stories are about:

A Tale of Horror A little whomper who tells such lies his parents send him to bed without tea, so he runs away and, after a scary spell in the dark, stumbles into a house where Little My is hiding on top of the wardrobe and she proceeds to tell such outrageous lies (about a man-eating fungus) that the little whomper is relieved when his daddy knocks on the door and comes to take him home, a chastened little boy.

The Last Dragon in the World Moomintroll catches a teeny, tiny dragon which fits into a jam jar but, when he shows it to the others, it immediately flies to Snufkin and refuses to leave. This makes Moomintroll sad and sulky. Realising this, Snufkin who’s fishing down by the river, eases the sleeping dragon into his kettle and gives it to a hemulen skippering a passing boat, asking him to slip flies down the spout to feed it, and then, after a few days, to release the dragon somewhere miles downstream. When Moomintroll moodily comes down to the river, Snufkin says he hasn’t seen the dragon, they’re notoriously flighty and go their own way, it’s probably flown off. And Moomintroll, reconciled, sits down to fish with him. It has a baby dragon at its centre, but this is quite obviously a story about friendship and understanding.

The Hemulen who loved silence The old hemulen works at a pleasure ground punching the visitors’ tickets and has got sick of the endless people and the blaring noise and can’t wait to retire. One day it starts raining and doesn’t stop for eight weeks. Bit by bit the pleasure ground attractions are washed away and he is glad. All the children are stuck inside their homes with their noses pressed to the windows. The hemulen uncles who owned the park decide they’ll abandon it and build an ice rink. When they offer him a job there, the hemulen says, ‘No, he wants to retire’. The hemulen uncles fall about laughing and give him the key to his grandmother’s old park.

Slowly, at length, the hemulen explores the overgrown gardens – described with typically Jansson-like wondrous spookiness – and settles into his new life of silence. But — the children have followed him and bang at the gates. They tell him they’ve recovered lots of bits of the pleasure ground from the rain and flood and can he put them together again. So, very reluctantly, the hemulen opens the locked gates and drags some of the wreckage inside. Long story short: the parts are too damaged and random to rebuild any of the rides but it does occur to him that he can create a sort of theme park with magic bits and painted faces and so on scattered through the underbrush, and so he does. He lets all the children in on condition they play very quietly. And they do, for that is part of the game in the marvellous jungle playground the hemulen who loved silence has built.

The Invisible Child Too-tickey comes home to the Moomin house one day with a completely invisible friend, Ninny. (Note, this strange new addition to the household, as so many, is a girl. It’s reassuring, the way so many of the characters are female.) Moominmamma makes up a traditional medicine handed down from her grandmother (note the importance of the matriarchy, as in Moominland Midwinter) and it helps start to make some of Ninny visible, but she also requires quite a bit of coaxing and reassurance from the others.

Little My diagnoses the real problem – Ninny has never been really angry and never laughed. They try to teach her games but she doesn’t get them. She doesn’t know how to have fun. Until one day they take her down to the seaside where they’re fixing up the old boat. First of all Ninny is terrified and appalled by the sea, which she’s never seen before – it’s just too big! And then she spies Moominpappa creeping up behind Moominmamma to give her a friendly fright, and Ninny leaps to mamma’s defence, giving Moominpappa a hard bite in the tail. She starts to laugh as Moominpappa curses and, reaching for his top hat which has fallen into the sea, tips over and falls headfirst into the waves. At which Ninny roars with delight and becomes fully visible.

So maybe the story could be retitled ‘the girl who learned how to laugh’. It seems pregnant with significance and meaning, like a fable.

The Secret of the Hattifatteners We’ve met the hattifatteners in numerous previous books. This tale describes how Moominpappa came to feel asphyxiated by happy Moomin family life and just had to get away. Moominmamma encouraged him. So he went to explore a secret bay he had once glimpsed from their boat and is surprised when a little boat with hattifatteners in it floats out. He hops in and spends the next few weeks journeying with the hattifatteners. He discovers they go to remote islands (of which there are thousands on the coast of Finland) and leave rolled-up birch bark scrolls. Not with any hidden messages or treasure maps. Just rolled-up birch bark scrolls.

Slowly Moominpappa feels his own mind becoming flattened and emptied. Sometimes he finds himself staring out over the sea as empty-mindedly as a hattifattener. Eventually they congregate with other boats of hattifatteners at a particular island and there is a big thunderstorm with plenty of lightning.

Moominpappa is knocked flat by a gust of wind and woken from his daze. Looking round at the hattifatteners yearning up into the sky, he realises they seek the lightning in order to come alive.

Only in the presence of electricity were they able to live at last, strongly and with great and intense feelings. (p.141)

Chastened by his adventure, Moominpappa realises that he not only misses home and wants to be back on the Moomin veranda – but that it is only there that he can feel free and adventurous.

Running through this story is a disconcerting anxiety about the act of thinking itself and the kinds of thoughts people have. Right at the start, Moominmamma rationalises her husband’s decision to go by saying that he’d been acting oddly for a while. But is that right? Or was it:

… just one of those things one thinks up afterwards when one’s bewildered and sad and wants the comfort of an explanation. (p.120)

This is a bit more unhappy and psychologically searching than any of the previous books. Later Moominpappa wishes he could communicate with the hattifatteners because talking:

‘is such a good way to keep one from thinking. And it was no use to leave the big and dangerous thoughts aside and concentrate on the small and friendly sort… (p.126)

Suddenly these are characters who have to keep from thinking.

As Moominpappa slowly falls in with the hattifattener way of life he finds his thoughts becoming white and empty. It is only the gust of wind which blows him over during the storm which makes him realise the whole situation and leads to his ‘happy’ realisation that home is where the heart is.

But to the adult reader, this all sounds like a fable working through real mental unhappiness and distress. ‘Fear of the big thoughts’ which make you so unhappy? A wish for an end to thinking, to the hattifatteners’ mindlessness? This is not the clever, warm humour of the earlier books, but something much darker.

Cedric Cedric is the name of Sniff’s toy dog. Moomintroll persuaded him to give it away to Gaffsie’s daughter because he said giving gifts makes you feel good – but in fact it’s made Sniff feel miserable.

‘When Sniff’s thoughts became too black’ he jumped out of bed and went to see Snufkin. Snufkin tells him a fable, the story of an aunt of his who had no husband or children or friends but a house stuffed full of belongings. One day she swallowed the bone in a lamb cutlet and went to see the doctor who told her she had only a few weeks to live. She’d always had an ambition to see the Amazonas and go deep sea diving so she decided to give away all her things and set off. But giving away everything turned into quite a project, especially since she wanted to give some thought to giving the correct things to the right people.

The more she gave away, the lighter and brighter the house became, and friends popped round to thank her. She laughed more, people enjoyed her company, came round for the evening and told funny stories and one day she was laughing so hard at one of these stories that the stuck bone popped up out of her mouth.

Sniff thinks it’s a foolish story and goes back to bed.

The adult reader gets the point – stop being a lonely miser, give away your belongings and become a happy person with lots of friends.

But the acute reader also notices the little trills and grace notes in the prose. In all the previous books these notes and details pointed upwards, they delighted you with sweet and touching details. But in every one of the stories in this volume the details point downwards. Moominpappa can’t bear to be at home any more. Sniff doesn’t just get restless; he gets out of his bed when his thoughts become too ‘black’.

(Compared to the masterpieces of her earlier illustrations, this picture feels roughly done and poor.)

The Fir Tree In which the Moomins are woken from their winter hibernation by a thoughtless hemulen who warns them about Christmas. On the surface the story is meant to be a joke, because the hemulen unwittingly gives the panic-stricken impression that ‘Christmas’ is a monster who has to be placated with a cut fir tree and presents, so the Moomins chop down a fir tree and each chooses a gift to give to the awful god ‘Christmas’.

And the joke is maintained by the way the hemulen is so stressed with all the gifts he has to give, and also by the hemulen’s aunt rushing to and fro in a sledge packed with presents, loudly fretting about what she’s going to cook because, oh dear, Christmas it always requires such a massive meal, and so on.

All round, this ‘Christmas’ thing is presented as an awful, stressful time which makes everyone unhappy and miserable.

The joke ends fairly humorously as a shy timid woody and his family come out, awe-struck, to look at the decorated tree and all the presents in the Moominhouse. ‘Is Christmas coming?’ ask the Moomintrolls, full of anxiety. ‘Why this is it!’ smile the woody and his family. Still scared, the Moomins declare the woody and his family are welcome to it all and sneak off to the veranda to await the disaster.

But there is no disaster. They peek through the window and see the woody and his family merrily eating and drinking and opening presents. Maybe the hemulen and his aunt got it wrong all along. Maybe Christmas isn’t about stress and lists and social obligations and worrying about food. Maybe it is about eating what you like and simply giving something meaningful to others.

Hopelessly confused, the Moomin family sneaks back to their bedrooms to carry on sleeping through till the spring.

The illustrations

I can’t get over how different the illustrations are. Here is Moomintroll from an earlier book, depicted with great clarity and precision, in perfect outlines set against a background created by incredibly detailed shading.

And here is Moomintroll as he appears in this book, looking at the baby dragon in its jam jar. There’s no comparison in the level of artistry. It looks like the roughest or preparatory sketches. Was she ill? Had she lost interest?

Moomintroll

Moomintroll and the last dragon in the world


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

%d bloggers like this: