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A Moomin Winter Wonderland

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Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson

I keep coming back to Tove, don’t I? Those fluffy little creatures the Moomins, with their quiet wisdom, are very appealing, and I guess I’m trying to make up for lost time by reading books I should have read as a child, or at least read to my own children!

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Of course, being an adult reader, I do seem to see subtexts all the time… The life of the Moomins is often strange and unsettling, with little permanence and an ever-changing cast of original little critters; and this volume is no exception.

It is winter time in Moominvalley; the Moomins and all their friends are cosily hibernating when suddenly Moomintroll awakens. The valley is covered with snow, which he’s never seen before, and even though the family stay slumbering, Moomintroll finds it impossible to get back to sleep. Along with the irresponsible and irrepressible Little My, he sets off to explore the winter world, a very different one from his usual one.

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I found that this book had surprising depths; Moomintroll is obviously isolated, separated from his family by their apparent inability to waken, he encounters many strange new peoples and comes across unexpected dangers. And many of his new friends and acquaintances are vulnerable, needing to raid the jam store to survive the winter. Then there is the large-than-life and very hearty Hemulen, who tries to get all the creatures to get involved in his winter sports when all they’re really trying to do is get through the cold days and nights.

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In many ways, Moomintroll seems a little lost, despite his usual practicality; and it’s the new character Too-ticky who appears to be the sensible one, obliquely helping him survive through the cold and deal with threats from The Groke and The Lady of the Cold. And despite the rather threatening environment, Moomintroll has some wonderful new experiences and ends up reunited with old friends and family, as well as plenty of new ones.

“Moominland Midwinter” turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking volumes in the series so far; I’m not sure how I would have reacted to it as a child, but I loved it as an adult!

…in which I am Slightly Flummoxed!

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But very much in a good way!

The reason being that I popped into a charity shop today (what’s new? I hear you cry?) Well, this was one of three which are at the far end of the Big Town and which I don’t usually go to. However, I *was* passing today and stuck my head round the door on the off-chance… And almost missed this:

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This unassuming looking little volume is in fact a Slightly Foxed hardback – a thing of great loveliness and certainly not the kind of thing that you’d expect in a charity shop! It’s “The Past is Myself” by Christabel Bielenberg and it’s most definitely one of the SF editions I would choose to read – so it came home with me at the bargain price of £2.50!

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I’ve resisted the Slightly Foxed books simply because they’re so lovely and I would want to collect the whole lot if I bought one. Oh dear – what have I done…. :s

…. in which I read Tove Jansson’s “A Winter Book” (well – almost!)

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Almost? Yes, almost! The reason being that I hadn’t quite appreciated that “A Winter Book”, one of the earliest TJ adult books to be available in translation, is actually a compilation of pieces from her other collections! And obviously since it came out in 1998, many of the volumes the pieces are drawn from have been translated and published by Sort Of books.

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So when I came to open “A Winter Book”, being very much in a Tove frame of mind, I realised that a great deal of it consisted of pieces from “A Sculptor’s Daughter” (as well as other volumes). I’ve read that particular book too recently to read it all again, so instead I just picked out the titles that were new to me and read them! And very wonderful they were, too….

There were actually five pieces to read:

  • The Boat and Me
  • Messages
  • The Squirrel
  • Letters from Klara
  • Taking Leave

All were very different and all a delight! “The Boat and Me” tells of Tove’s venturing out on a voyage round the coast all on her own; “Messages” is (I presume) a telling collection of messages left on a phone answering machine – some from her partner, some from complete strangers; “The Squirrel” is a compelling tale of an ageing woman living on her own on an island, and her odd relationship with the creature of the title; “Letters from Klara” reveals much about the life and character of a woman through the (not-so) one-sided view of her correspondence; and “Taking Leave” is a poignant piece about Tove and Tooti taking leave of the island for the last time, as they realise that they are physically unable to cope there any more – and Tove unaccountably develops a fear of the sea.

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All of these short fictions are wonderful in their own way, but I think it was “The Squirrel” that made the most impact. It’s strange and rather absorbing; the woman on the island is isolated and dependent on regular tots of madeira wine. She’s drawn to the squirrel yet somehow doesn’t wish to become involved with it. The squirrel itself has floated onto the island on a small piece of wood and the two have to find a kind of co-existence, respecting each other’s space and sorting out what they need to survive without threatening each other. It’s a poignant and moving piece of writing and a stand-out for me.

I keep banging on about what a marvellous short story Jansson is, but all I can do is reiterate it again. She’s a master of the art and I’m so glad that I discovered her work – if you love good short story writing (or just good writing!) she’s definitely for you.

Seven out, two in (well, two and half really….)

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… which is quite apt, given one of the titles of the book!

Yes, the gradual weeding out of unwanted volumes continues and today I took another seven off to donate. I’m actually finding it relatively unpainful so far, although I haven’t yet got onto the books which it will be an emotional wrench to part with. But I figured if I keep taking in a few at a time they will gradually thin out to the ones I *must* keep, and seven fairly large book is all I could carry.

I think bringing back two and a half in return is a reasonable ratio, and these are they:

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I *had* planned to buy the half a book – the Cavafy Little Black Classic – as his name keeps cropping up and then I read this excellent post about his poetry, and figured I could commit 80p to discovering his work! But the other two were charity shop finds.

“The President’s Hat” is by an author I’d never heard of, but it’s from what appears to be a small press (that’s good),  is in a nice edition with French flaps (even better) and sounds funny and intriguing (so just right for me!)

As for the Nigel Williams – again, he’s an author I keep circling, thinking I really should read “The Wimbledon Poisoner”. This, however, is non fiction – an attempt in the 1990s to recreate “Three Men in a Boat” (for which I’m a sucker) and the first page was funny enough to get me snatching the book up (and being quite surprised that it was only 99p).

I feel happy enough buying these as I’m sure they’re books I’ll actually read (in fact, I’ve already finished the Williams one though I have such a backlog it’ll be weeks till I review it…). And the ratio of in to out is still good, no?? :)

The Nature of Terror

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The Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky

The final story in the volume of novellas by Irene Nemirovsky – a book that’s been much absorbing me in recent weeks – is a little different to the other ones I’ve read. “The Courilof Affair” ventures into territory that’s dissimilar to her other works, telling a story of Russian revolutionaries; in particular one Leon M, who we meet initially in the South of France where he’s living out his last days in post-WW1, post-Russian revolution Europe.

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Leon encounters a man who recognises him from the past, and this sets of a train of recollection whereby he writes down the story of the Courilof Affair – an event in which he was pivotal and because of which the stranger recognised him.

Our narrator grew up as the son of a pair of revolutionaries and it was inevitable he would follow in their footsteps. After they died he was brought up in Geneva and when fully grown, it was here that he was given his task – to assassinate the Minister for Schools, Valerian Courilof. Posing as a Swiss doctor, Leon worms his way into the family and confidence of Courilof, preparing all the time for his revolutionary act. However, Leon finds that things are not as black and white as he had been brought up to think, and that the assassination may not be as simple as it seems.

“The Courilof Affair” was a fascinating novella, exploring the nature of terror and the need for revolutionaries to kill; in fact, it’s a remarkably prescient work, showing that the terrorists don’t simply want to kill the target concerned, but want to make a spectacular statement, a kind of dramatic gesture. Leon finds himself questioning this aspect of his chosen path, as he could have easily murdered his target discreetly at any point while acting as his medic. But the revolutionaries want to make a big display of strength and it is this element of terror that occupies much of the book.

“Each of us has his weaknesses. Human nature is incomprehensible. One cannot even say with certainty whether a man is good or evil, stupid or intelligent. There does not exist a good man who has not at some time in his life committed a cruel act, nor an evil man who has not done good, nor an intelligent man who has never been foolish, nor a fool who has never acted intelligently! Still, that’s what gives life its diversity, its surprises.”

Leon comes to find that there are no real absolutes in life and that he doubts all the certainties of his revolutionary parents and colleagues. It’s only by distancing yourself from your target that you can really carry out a successful, dramatic assassination – if you are too close to your object it becomes impossible.

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As we know, the fortunes of those involved in revolutionary actions rise and fall, ebb and flow, and the life of Leon M. is no different. His past is gradually revealed as the novella goes on; from small-time rebel to powerful commissar to ousted official, nothing was certain in the early 20th century. Nemirovsky is clever enough to draw discreet parallels between the rise and fall of Courilof’s career and that of Leon M., as if to say that whatever your creed or belief, the vagaries and shifts of control of power will allow you no rest.

Nemirovsky was a fine writer, and I very much enjoyed this novella which took me outside of the world she normally writers of, and instead into something more like that in Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent”. I’m so glad I decided to pick this volume up in the Samaritan’s Book Cave – my discovery of Irene Nemirovsky’s work has been a joy!

Part memoir, part fiction – always engrossing

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Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson

There are a few authors I seem to be returning to at the moment – the Strugatskys, Irene Nemirovsky and of course the wonderful Tove Jansson. I recently tracked down a reasonably priced copy of this, her first work of fiction for adults, and couldn’t resist picking it up (even though there are plenty of older books on Mount TBR…)

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“Sculptor’s Daughter” came out in 1968, by which time Jansson was a household name because of her creation of the Moomins. The book is a collection of short pieces firmly rooted in the world of a child; growing up in Finland, the girl inhabits her father’s studio, and an island near the sea, and the imaginative land that forms part of every child’s developing mind.

Is this fiction or autobiography? That’s often a hard question to answer as so many novelists use their lives in their work, but it’s particularly difficult in the case of Jansson where the parallels are so striking. The book is subtitled “A Childhood Memoir” and I think it’s best to read it as a fictionalised portrayal of Jansson’s childhood; because the stories here are not simply straightforward recollections. Instead, she gets inside the mind of a child, recreating the wonder and fear of the world around her, and the perceptions of things which are seen quite differently from the way an adult would.

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As with all of Tove Jansson’s work, this is a compelling read. She had a unique voice and viewpoint, and whatever she was writing about was very individually hers. There are vivid passages of adventures rowing out to sea, hiding from imagined dangers and the complex relationships between children, all of which will remain with me.

One of the strengths of the book is its portrait of Tove’s parents, the sculptor Viktor Jansson and the graphic designer/illustrator Signe Hammarsten-Jansson – let’s face it, it was inevitable Tove would be creative! Her parents come vividly to life through their daughter’s eyes, with their bohemian lifestyle and uncompromising way of living, and the book acts as a wonderful tribute to them.

Jansson went on to write many more adult works, several of which I’ve read, and with a lot of them there is a sense that again she was using her life in fiction. This is no criticism, because I love her stories; and it’s fascinating to see how she translated the people in her life into her work, even extending this into her Moomin stories (I assume that the Moomin family reflect her own, and certainly Too-Ticky was based on her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä). There’s always a lot more depth in Jansson’s writing that might appear at first, and her characters go through all sorts of vicissitudes, just like all of us in real life.

In some ways, it’s hard to review Tove Jansson’s work – I could just keep throwing out superlatives and saying how wonderful she is, and pinning down her brilliance is not easy. She’s a writer who gets to the essence of things, making you see the world anew which is a real achievement. And very fortunately, there are still works of hers I haven’t yet read!

Capturing the atmosphere of pre-war Russia

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The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Back to Russians, I’m afraid; though not actually a Russian author, but instead a novel set in 1913 Moscow by the acclaimed novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve heard nothing but good about her books, and was very keen to read this one – so it was a bonus when it finally turned up in the Samaritans Book Cave a couple of weeks ago!

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Fitzgerald didn’t start writing until her late fifties and went on to win the Booker Prize and write a series of acclaimed novels. “The Beginning of Spring” was published in 1988 and centres around the family of Frank Reid, a businessman of British descent but who was born in Moscow, returned there when an adult to run the family printing firm and who seems to understand the Russians quite well. The book opens with Frank’s wife Nellie leaving him without warning, taking their three children and throwing his life into confusion.

The children are sent back by train in a basket(!) and Frank, struggling to understand why Nellie has left him, looks back on his life and how they met and married. Meanwhile, the life of the print works continues; Selwyn Crane, Frank’s sidekick and a Tolstoyan, publishes his poetry book; Frank tries to sell a giant white elephant of a printing press and tussles with a rival; and Selwyn finds a young peasant women, Lisa Ivanovna, to look after the children. The whole community, English and Russian, seem to know that Frank’s wife has left and rally around in their different ways. Then there is a break-in at the print works; a young student takes a pot shot at Frank and destroys the print equipment of the head typesetter who is mortified; Frank’s brother-in-law Charlie visits; and Frank becomes entranced by Lisa.

There is resolution of a kind; but in the back of the reader’s mind is the fact that Frank and the works are ready to pack up at a moment’s notice to leave Russia if the unrest in the country develops any further. And we know what happened after 1913…

There was much to love about “The Beginning of Spring”: Fitzgerald’s writing is lovely, very evocative, and her descriptions of old Moscow and the surrounding countryside bring the world to life convincingly. And her portrayal of the Russian way of life, the procrastination and the bribes and the complexities of dealing with another culture is masterly. But…. I’m afraid there is a but. I loved this book a lot less than I had hoped for a number of reasons, one of the strongest of which was the characterisation. Mostly, it just didn’t convince – I found that very few of main protagonists took on a 3-D existence; there was a kind of vagueness or lack of definition about them so that I didn’t really get to know them and the consequence that what should have been surprising revelations didn’t really affect me. And this filtered through to the plot, that in actual fact became quite inconsequential and subsidiary to the effect of the description and atmosphere. It felt thin, in the end – with not really enough made clear or developed. And there was much potential – Selwyn was one of the characters I liked most and he could have flourished into a really strong protagonist, much more memorably than he actually ended up being. Frank’s eldest child Dolly was also one of the better characters, but in many ways wasted.The events could have been more dramatic and more impressive had they been given that chance to grow.

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One thing I did take from the book was that Frank Reid, the main character, was certainly mistaken in thinking that he knew and understood the Russian people (and indeed his own kind) because he certainly didn’t; he moves through most of the book having no real idea of what is happening and why people are behaving as they do. Maybe Fitzgerald was trying to make the point that we can never really understand other cultures or other people’s motives – I’m not sure, if I’m honest.

If this sounds unduly negative, that’s a shame; I did enjoy reading the book, mainly for Fitzgerald’s prose; but in the end I felt it never really went anywhere and that it had potential which wasn’t fulfilled. However, I will try more of Fitzgerald’s work in the future as I’d like to see how she handles other subjects.

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