Scoop Review of Books

Show not tell

Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir translated by Kingsley Hart, introduced by Ali Smith (Sort Of Books)
Review by Ruth Brassington

I haven’t been to Finland, but my grandfather was born there to a Finnish father and a Swedish mother, the same mix as Tove Jansson. I’d heard stories of long dark indoor winters and going to school on skis but I hadn’t heard of Moomintrolls (the little white troll of Jansson’s Moomin books). Not surprising, as my grandfather was born in 1870 whereas Jansson was born in 1914.

A century after Jansson’s birth, this now-translated memoir will bring her life after death by increasing the readership of her adult writings. My joyful introduction to Jansson’s writing was The Summer Book, published in 1972. Sculptor’s Daughter, too, gets across the essence of a child’s day-to-day life with few companions. The child Tove’s naïve voice seems charged with ancient wisdom and understanding, showing an early intrigue with words in the same way as did Janet Frame: “Inexorable. Ornamentation. Profile. Catastrophic. Electrical. District Nurse. They get bigger and bigger if you say them over and over again. You whisper and whisper and let the word grow until nothing exists except the word”.

This book may be a memoir, but not one that lists the writer‘s life events. Rather than telling, her stories show, through childhood eyes, what it was like growing up in a household with a working artist mother and a sculptor father.

Most of the stories show a child’s view of adult behaviour. A grandmother’s misunderstanding destroys the power of a child’s world in “The Golden Calf”; “The Stone” portrays the child’s fantastic inner life as she considers prosaic items and their imaginary powers. And the writing is beautiful – deceptively simple, and so very well constructed, with just enough surprises. The child’s insult to an adult is to tell them they are “nobody’s surprise”, to indicate their lack of value.

Ali Smith’s able introduction to Sculptor’s Daughter tells us that Jansson was “the child, descended from art”; perhaps that child never quite grew up. Parents who did not go out of the home to work, and children who were at home with them a lot of the time, could make for an insulated family life, with the three children left to confined yet independent pursuits. This was Jannson’s creative incubator.

The Finn Family Moomintroll books were her first published works, wherein “smallness, and attention to the smallest detail, most often leads her reader to something epic”. This attention to detail in her writing probably started with her training as a graphic artist and cartoonist – the Moomintrolls were her published comic strip characters well before they met full text.

Sculptor’s Daughter, originally published in Finland in 1968, has taken a long time to emerge in English. Translator Kingsley Hart may have followed what seems to be Tove’s father’s edict that “one mustn’t have a single unecessary thing in a boat”. Hart’s translation owes much to the author’s own finely tuned use of langauge and, with great skill, keeps the essence of the author’s intention. This book, like all her work, held me captive.

Other Tove Jansson adult books, written in the mid-to-late twentieth century and more recently translated into English, include The Summer Book, A Winter Book, Art in Nature, and Fair Play. Jannson has received many awards for her work, including, amongst many others: the Finnish Award for State Literature (1963, 1971 and 1982), the Swedish Culture Foundation Honorary Award (1983), The Finnish Cultural Award (1990), and the Finland Art Prize (1993).