Book reviews: Tove Jansson, Paul Auster memoirs

US writer Paul Auster, pictured in 2006. Picture: Getty
US writer Paul Auster, pictured in 2006. Picture: Getty
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CAN a memoir ever be rigorously true? Even if one has the gift of copious contemporary notes, are we not susceptible to misrepresentations – painting ourselves as better or worse than we really are and mis-remembering or misunderstanding events?

Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir

Tove Jansson, translated by Kingsley Hart

Sort of Books, £9.99

Report From The Interior

Paul Auster

Bloomsbury, £18.99

These are questions raised by the Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, Sculptor’s Daughter. Originally published in 1968, this translation from Kingsley Hart is reissued on the eve of Jansson’s centenary in 2014 and billed as “memoir/fiction”. There is an illuminating preface from Ali Smith.

As an artefact, it’s a jewel, with hardboard covers and evocative black and white photographs throughout of Jansson, her family, and their surroundings, notably the landscape they inhabited during summers spent on an island in the Gulf of Finland.

Jansson’s father, Viktor Jansson is the sculptor of the book’s title. Her mother Signe “Ham” Hammarsten-Jansson was an illustrator, graphic designer and caricaturist who worked on projects ranging from books to banknotes. Smith explains, “For Ham, art was work and work was money, especially since there wasn’t much sure money in sculpture.”

With the debut of her Moomintroll family during the Second World War, Jansson won world renown, though she’d been a jobbing artist since her teens. But this book focuses on early childhood, recreating in spare, stylish prose, the depths and dangers looming large in a small person’s life. Equally, it recalls the thrill of escaping danger, the questions thrown up by adult behaviour, and the bliss of everyday life if you know how to appreciate it.

It is a book about stillness and tenacity. In one story, the girl painstakingly rolls a silver-rich rock across a vast expanse and up four flights of stairs to her home. In another, she waits for “her” iceberg to pay a house call. Both end with transformations. The rock falls and shatters, coating the neighbourhood in silver flecks; the iceberg sails off, its grotto newly illuminated by her father’s torch. These are metaphors for life and artistry. If you wish to capture something valuable you need dedication. Things might not work out, but other magic may occur.

Jansson’s narrator is wise but not precocious and has an authentic way of parroting adult observations. The author puts these words in her younger self’s mouth to reveal, Smith notes, “what’s routinely said, what’s acceptable and what’s expected, as well as what’s not being said, what can’t be said and what’s undercurrent in everything that’s said.”

This is also about the importance of art and the art of storytelling. The girl captures a scary image on paper “so that it couldn’t get at me”. She curls into her mother’s lap for a story: “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.”

Jansson’s prose does precisely this. The stories grow increasingly mystical and their incantatory voice is guaranteed to infiltrate your dreams. Reading Sculptor’s Daughter, it’s easy to see how this child, full of love and wonder, became the woman who gave us the philosophical Moomintrolls.

Report From The Interior, novelist Paul Auster’s psychological memoir – he published one tracking his physical experiences a few years ago – offers a stark contrast. To the objection that I’m comparing chalk and cheese, I argue that both books chronicle the progression from child into author. But if Jansson saw wonders everywhere she looked, Auster’s memoir records a psyche so banal and devoid of unique insight that I wonder, how the heck did this guy become Paul Auster?

Sections of Report are recaps, the longest recording two films, The Incredible Shrinking Man – frame by frame for 26 pages – and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, over 38 pages. Diverting as the movies are – Chain Gang is not to be missed – the effect is mind-numbing, akin to being trapped next to the family bore at a wedding.

The third section contains letters Auster wrote to his then girlfriend Lydia Davis (the translator and author) when they were students spending a year apart on different courses. After pages of wearying self-absorption (which even he has the sense to notice), you may be amused to learn that she married him.

Much worse is the second person narration, which rarely fails to jangle the nerves. The final section is entirely pictorial, recapping everything that’s gone before. I can find no reason to segregate these images unless, I suppose, you have the good sense to flick through them in the bookshop, realise you’ve got the gist of the thing, and go buy Jansson’s book instead.