Book review: Sculptor’s Daughter, by Tove Jansson

4 01 2017

Sculptor’s Daughter (Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968, translated by Kingsley Hart) was Tove Jansson’s first post-Moomin book, published two years after Moominpappa at Sea and several years before Moominvalley in November. It’s described as ‘A Childhood Memoir’, which it clearly is; and yet it’s written in a deliberately fictionalised voice, and is set out as stories or episodes rather than attempting to link the whole into a clearly coherent narrative. In this respect it shares common ground with Jansson’s other coldly intimate (yet less self-focussed) family-drawn work, The Summer Book, and indeed with much of the Moomin canon, which taken as a whole all provide a kind of fragmented, kaleidoscopic image of the family life with which Jansson was familiar.

sculptorsdaughter

The original Swedish title Bildhuggarens dotter can indeed be reasonably approximated as Sculptor’s Daughter, since bildhuggeri is indeed one of the Swedish words for ‘sculpture’ (the more obvious term, though, is skulptur), but a more literal translation would be The Picture-Hewer’s Daughter … though that, I suppose, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, even if it does evoke a greater degree of thematic connection between artist and word-painter Tove and her father.

bildhuggarens_dotter

As detailed in Boel Westin’s compendious Jansson-biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, the roots of Sculptor’s Daughter can be traced back to at least 1959, the year after Jansson’s sculptor-father Viktor’s death, when she wrote some short autobiographical pieces. I’ve no idea whether these vignettes ever saw official publication, or were perhaps only entries in her own diary, but the extract presented in Westin’s biography is fascinating and insightful. A further precursor to the book was the publication, in December 1965, of an autobiographical family-customs story ‘Our Magic Christmas’, in Vi magazine; this, again, is information drawn from Westin’s biography.

I think I still have, somewhere, an illegally-photocopied version of Sculptor’s Daughter, dating back to my first encounter with the book back in 1981, when it was already out of print in English (back then, it didn’t have the staying power of The Summer Book, which stayed in print for many more years). My photocopy was a bootleg of the Christchurch Public Library’s copy of the book; I had to wait over three decades (and more than a decade after Jansson’s death in 2001) until Sculptor’s Daughter was back in print and I was able to buy a legitimate English edition.

On the evidence of Sculptor’s Daughter, Jansson must have been a fearsome small child, not so much precocious as fierce, unyielding, imaginative, and resolutely sure of herself. That imaginativity and self-assuredness come across in the crystal-clear confidence of the language employed here, which conveys the child’s mindset (with all the characteristic limitations and strengths of the young mind) with what feels like complete fidelity. The voice is breathtaking, and the best of the episodes (including ‘Parties’, ‘The Iceberg’, and ‘Jeremiah’) rank with anything Jansson has written; one can feel, here, probably more strongly than anywhere else in her writing, the strands that connect her Moomin fiction to her writing for adults. There are several pieces in Sculptor’s Daughter, indeed, that read almost like impressionless, elusive, moominless studies for the more naturalist world of the Moomin books. The landscape in Sculptor’s Daughter is at least as much (and probably more) a landscape of freewheeling and internally-logical imagination as it is a landscape of geography. This can, in a sense, be frustrating: it’s impossible to know how much of the book’s content is truthful narrative and how much is audacious confection. But perhaps it does not really matter.

It is very probably wrong of me, but on re-reading Sculptor’s Daughter, there is a part of me which wishes that it was a different book, that it took a different, and probably more literal, direction. There’s the sense in which it defines itself not so much by what it is, but by what it is not. Not a Moomin book. Not, in truth, a memoir. Not a novel drawn from close observation of family life (as was The Summer Book). Not a straightforward collection of short stories (as was her second book for grown-ups, The Listener). Not entirely fact; not completely fiction. It sits somewhere in the space between all of those shapes, and thereby defies easy definition. There are sections of the book which are utterly fascinating: Jansson, as one might expect, has her child-self down cold, and the almost confessionally personal vantage we’re offered, into the child’s thoughts, is at times dizzying. But it’s nowhere near as straightforward a book as at first blush it appears, and I’m not sure that it always succeeds: there are episodes within it which feel opaque, misplaced, unfinished. It’s probably not the book with which to start an exploration of her adult fiction: for that I’d recommend The Listener, or The Summer Book, or The True Deceiver, or Art in Nature, or …

Jansson once said—in point of fact, she very probably said it more than once, because it is a saying now deeply entwined with her memory—that there should be, in every story, one thing shown which is never explained further, but is left to the reader’s imagination to puzzle out. The difficulty with Sculptor’s Daughter, I think, is that there are so many such things within its pages. So we never truly know, for example, what is the mysterious silver stone which the young child so laboriously rolls home from the shoreline, and then inadvertently destroys, nor why it is, in ‘Snow’, that mother and young daughter have gone to stay in an empty house some distance from their home. It’s possible that the book’s magic would be diminished were these things, and others, explained, but this lack of contextual detail is what, I think, I find a bit distancing about Sculptor’s Daughter, and why it’s never won me over as wholeheartedly as has, say, The Summer Book.

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