As a new item in the literary presentations series, I’m publishing a short translated extract from Notes from an Island (Anteckningar från en ö, Schildts, Helsinki, 1996), one of the last books by the Finland-Swedish author Tove Jansson (1914-2001) – most famous for her “Moomin” books for children, but also a distinguished writer of adult fiction.
For over twenty years the small island of Klovharun, at the outermost tip of the Pellinge archipelago, about 80 kilometres east of Helsinki, the Finnish capital, and some 30 kilometres south of the town of Porvoo, was the summer home of the writer Tove Jansson and the artist Tuulikki Pietilä. This book is an account, by both women, of those years, in which they built a cottage on the island and then lived and worked there for considerable periods of time, away from “civilization”.
The book is written in the style of a memoir with diary entries, and is illustrated with tinted drawings and watercolours by Tuulikki Pietilä. The early chapters describe the days during the early 1960s when the couple were exploring the Pellinge maritime region and found the small island where they decided to build their home. We are introduced to Brunström, the taciturn and opinionated local fisherman and workman who helps the two women in their search and gives them advice on building permission and other matters. With his colleague Sjöblom, Brunström is portrayed with humour as a character born from the surroundings and traditions of Finland’s small Swedish-speaking community – in some ways he could almost be a character from one of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, which also mirror aspects of Finland-Swedish life, with its sense of a culture within a culture, the expression of a people without a homeland as such, but with a strong sense of ethnic and cultural identity, and a close affinity with nature. Some of the diary entries in the earlier part of the book are presented as being the work of Brunström himself.
Tove Jansson describes the little island in detail, reflecting the way in which it represents all the aspects of Finnish nature in microcosm: the miniature forest, with paths, the exposed rock face, the central lake or lagoon, the seagulls and other birds, which the author portrays as being unhappy about the invasion of their living space by two human individuals. The construction of the house, which involves much blasting and dynamiting of rock, is recounted in detail, with copies of lists and surveyors’ notes, and Tove describes how she and Tuulikki conceived the plan for the building: it was to have windows facing all the points of the compass: “one for the great storms, one for the reflection of the moon in the lake, one for the hill with its moss and polyps, and one facing north ‘so we can see what may come sailing along and so have time to get used to it.’”
One chapter describes the experience of watching the great break-up of the sea ice in springtime, and one receives a sense of the tiny world of the island as part of a huge natural universe of movement. The timelessness of the place is evident – and yet always the two women impress their creative skills on their environment, turning a remote and deserted rock-face into a workshop of artistic endeavour, without ever spoiling the harmony and equilibrium of the landscape and its creatures. We follow their day-to-day life, with its constant struggle with the elements, as when the sea carries away their entire supply of firewood, its trips to nearby communities for the essentials of life, its lists of supplies and tools, its outboard motors and above all the boat Victoria, which suffers shipwreck one stormy night, at the book’s climax.
In addition to being a miniature tour de force of autobiographical “desert island” writing, Notes from an Island is also an important document that gives an insight into some of the existential sources of Tove Jansson’s literary talent. In particular, we begin to understand from within how the world of the Moomins developed, as we follow the author’s deep and intuitive relation to the place and the living creatures that inhabit and frequent it – the gull Pellura, the seabirds, the local people, the postman, the cat, and so on. The illustrations by Tuulikki Pietilä complete the evocation of this world, that is at once very real and concrete and yet also suffused with a strange, muted, almost fairytale-like radiance.
from NOTES FROM AN ISLAND
I love stone: the cliff that falls straight into the sea, the rocky hill too steep to climb, the pebble in my pocket, prising stones from the ground and heaving them up and rolling the biggest ones straight down the hill into the sea! Down they rumble, leaving behind an acrid smell of sulphur.
Searching for stones to build with, or simply stones that are beautiful, in order to make mosaics, bastions, terraces, pillars, smoke ovens, or strange, unusable contraptions made just for the sake of it; building jetties that the sea will take away next autumn; building more wisely next time, though the sea will take it all away again.
My father was a sculptor, but Tooti’s was a carpenter, and that’s why she loves working in wood, whether it’s shifting magnificent, heavy planks about or playing with feather-light balsa. In the forest we searched for juniper wood. On the shore we sometimes found strange, hardy species of trees with unfamiliar names. Tooti used them to make small objects that need time and great patience – why not make the smallest salt-spoon that has ever been made?
‘But,’ says Tooti, ‘it’s quite different when you build on a large scale, you have to be resolute and absolutely sure of your ability to measure and calculate and make it all work out to the last centimetre. Or millimetre.
‘Sometimes building is done in order to hold and make steady, and other times it’s in order to decorate: sometimes it’s both.’
Incidentally, Tooti’s engravings are done in pear-wood or beech, her woodcuts mostly in birch.
She would often discuss materials with Albert Gustafsson in his boatshed on Pellinge; they also chatted about boats. He gave her suitable pieces of teak and mahogany to play around with, and Tooti took them all home with her and thought up ideas that were totally new.
It was Albert who made the boat, in 1962, from mahogany, four metres long and clinker-built. It was the most beautiful boat that had ever been seen on that whole stretch of the coast. She was strong and supple, and positively danced on a heavy sea, her name was Victoria, as both Tooti’s father and mine were called Victor.
Gradually, as the summers went by, Victoria became more and more Tooti’s as she was the one who loved the boat most and looked after it with the utmost care.
There are many names for what we call an island: holm, skerry, haru, islet, atoll. The map of Pellinge shows an arc of uninhabited skerries west of Glosholm; they may be connected with a ridge of random formations on the sea bed. Kummelskär is the largest and most beautiful pearl in the necklace.
I was very small when I decided to be the lighthouse keeper on Kummelskär. While it is true that there’s only one lighthouse there, I planned to build a much larger one, an enormous lighthouse that would be able to survey and supervise the whole of the eastern Gulf of Finland – when I was grown-up and rich, of course.
Gradually, my dream of the unattainable changed, and turned into a game with the possible; eventually it was just a cussed obstinacy that refused to give up, until the Fishermen’s Guild made no bones about the matter and said quite simply that it would disturb the salmon, and that was that.
But about two and a half nautical miles from Kummelskär, in towards the coast, there were small islands that no one really knew anything about, and there it was possible to rent land.
Remarkable that such a major and long drawn out disappointment could so quickly be forgotten for a new infatuation, but so it was – almost as soon as we moved in, we felt that we’d discovered paradise. We prettified and ruined with the same high spirits; we had everything, if only in miniature: a little forest with a forest path and moss, a little sandy shore with safety for the boat, even a little marsh with some tufts of cotton grass – we were proud of the island!
And we wanted to be admired, to show off, we lured people there and they came, and came back, summer after summer, more and more of them. Sometimes they would bring a friend with them, or sometimes the loss of a friend, and they would talk and talk about their yearning for the simple, the primitive; and above all, their yearning for solitude.
Gradually the island became filled with people. Tooti and I began to think about moving further out to sea.
We made a half-hearted attempt with Kummelskär, but they said we would disturb the cod.
After Kummelskär come Musblötan, Käringskrevan and Bisaball, small inaccessible skerries where only fishermen and hunters can think of landing, and last in the series Klovharun, i.e. a haru (rocky island) that has split (cloven) in two. That was where we wanted to live.
The island has an area of about six or seven thousand square metres, is shaped like an atoll with a lagoon in the middle, and is surrounded by rocks; at low tide the lagoon becomes a lake.
It is said that at one time seals used the lagoon as a playground; that was before they thought the better of it and moved further out to sea.
On the map, these smaller, almost outcast islands are marked as state property, but that is not true at all.
The fact is that according to certain records, at some time in the eighteenth century, there was once a stormy committee meeting connected with the Land Reform; perhaps the conflict was put on hold because the secretary was prevented from attending the meeting by the icy conditions on the roads, but whatever the truth of the matter the islands were hastily registered as part of the community of Pellinge; ‘an indeterminate population, with no precise details.’
As time passed, the community had grown considerably, and now it seemed it was no longer possible for us to apply for permission to lease land on Haru.
However, like so many other islands with a will of their own, Pellinge had its own prophet whom one could ask for advice on difficult matters concerning the internal affairs of the group of islands. He advised us not to raise our hopes too high and above all not to depend on legal documents that sooner or later might only cause problems – no lease, therefore, but perhaps a small donation to the Fishermen’s Guild. Take it as it comes, he said, put up a list in Söderby for people to enter ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – if I put ‘yes’ everyone else will probably do likewise.
We put up the ‘yes or no’ list on the veranda door of the village shop and everyone put ‘yes’.
We sent the list to Porvoo Council and applied for building permission.
While we waited, we lived on Klovharun in a tent. It rained all the time, Tooti was reading part six of The Vicomte de Bragelonne, by Alexandre Dumas.
‘There’s nothing like the classics,’ she said. ‘Read Les Misérables, unabridged, and then you’ll understand the meaning of loyalty.’
I know that Tooti is loyal to what she trusts, even afterwards.
We had pitched our tent too close to the Great Stone, which is so great that it has become a landmark, at least for people who are finding their way more or less from hearsay. The Stone was estimated to weigh approximately fifty tons. It lies in an enormous frog pond in the only place where one could think of building beyond the reach of the sea.
It rained all week, and the frog pond overflowed and trickled past down the hill past our tent and stank horribly. We dreamt of what the cottage would look like. It would have four windows, one in each wall. In the south east we made room for the great storms that rage in across the island, in the east the moon would be able to reflect itself in the lagoon, and in the west there would be a rocky wall with moss and polyps. To the north one had to be able to keep a lookout for anything that might come along, and have time to get used to it.
We thought that if we built a cottage it ought to be quite high up the hill, but not right at the top, as that was the place for the beacon – perhaps just below the brow of the hill, so that the chimney would be visible from the sea. Against the light, in other words, and to those boats that stray past for no reason.
Late one night we heard an engine being turned off down on the shore, and someone with a flashlight came slowly up the hill. He introduced himself. Brunström from Kråkö.
Brunström was out salmon fishing and had been planning to sleep the night in his boat when he saw lights on the island. We made tea on the primus stove.
Brunström is quite small. He has a taut, weather-bitten face and blue eyes, his movements are swift but measured, and he never uses adjectives in his everyday talk. His boat has no name.
We trusted him, immediately.
Brunström had heard about the ‘yes or no’ list. ‘It will never get through, he said, not even in Porvoo where they take life rather easy, take things as they come, as it were. You’ll never get permission to build. The only thing you can do is start building immediately. It’ll take the authorities ages to agree about what they want, and that’s where you have to watch out. The law says that nothing can be demolished if the builder’s got the frame up to the roof-tree. Believe me, said Brunström, I know about these things. I’ve built cabins in next to no time here and there, just in order to annoy people in the neighbourhood – folk from Pernå and Pellinge, for example.’
Brunström went on to explain that he didn’t need very much time, though one never knows with the autumn weather. He’d take Sjöblom with him and perhaps Charlie and Helmer, and before anything else, the Great Stone must be blasted with dynamite.
Brunström says that blasting and basements don’t count as proper building, the house has to have a frame and the frame won’t last the winter without a roof. So there is not much time. ‘Before the snow,’ he says.
Тranslated by David McDuff