Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sophia's Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(She and Hayao Miyazaki have much in common)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Listening to: Explosions In The Sky
Reading: guess

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I was already having a bad day...

...and now this.

I'm going to go listen to these guys now. And mope. So there.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Moths

originally uploaded by button face.

There’s a kind of white moth, I don’t know
what kind, that glimmers
by mid-May
in the forest, just
as the pink mocassin flowers
are rising.

If you notice anything,
it leads you to notice
and more.

And anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world
can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.

Finally, I noticed enough.
All around me in the forest
the white moths floated.

How long do they live, fluttering
in and out of the shadows?

You aren’t much, I said
one day to my reflection
in a green pond,
and grinned.

The wings of the moths catch the sunlight
and burn
so brightly.

At night, sometimes,
they slip between the pink lobes
of the moccasin flowers and lie there until dawn,
in those dark halls of honey.

(I know, I know, I post way too many Mary Oliver poems. But I care not.)

Listening to: Lewis & Clark