Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

If you need to know why much of our corporate publishing stands in danger of total meltdown over the next decade, enter any bookshop just now. The snowdrifts of Christmas drivel have never looked deeper - or thicker. Dinosaur brains have bred the print equivalent of dinosaur dung. The tide of celebrity cack we know (too much) about. Almost as noxious is the joyless slurry of "humour": insulting non-books designed for folk who hate books, and commissioned (it seems) by mirthless drudges who hate them even more. An enterprising scribbler could patent the sort of facetious, leaden, pudding-heavy sludge that swells these toilet titles. Call it Stockingfilla.

So let's cut the crap. If anyone you genuinely liked or loved craved an inexpensive seasonal gift in the shape of a book, what might that work be like? It might, for a start, offer what proper books so peerlessly still can, despite the formula-driven madness of the giant firms - the sense of a unique and authentic voice that speaks to the reader across time and culture, heart to heart.

It might, since we're talking about the West's secularised Christmas, honour the experiences and insights of children, without sentiment or condescension. As we near a midwinter festival, it might also salute the changing seasons with a toughly tender eye on wild nature. In doing so, it might even register the passage of time, and the ageing of body and mind, while steering clear of self-pity. And it might (like an unfeasibly flawless companion) contrive to sound charming, funny, sympathetic, wise - and a bit mysterious as well.

What price would such a paragon command? £6.99, to be exact. Ideal presents never quite take on a tangible form, but Tove Jansson's A Winter Book (Sort of Books) comes fairly close. A couple of years back, the same imprint scored a merited success with its edition of The Summer Book. That introduced British readers to the beguiling works for adults written by the Finnish, but Swedish-speaking, creator of the Moomin Valley children's books. A forgiveable sleight of hand presents A Winter Book (translated by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart) as an integral work of the same kind. In fact, it blends tales from Jansson's 1968 collection, The Sculptor's Daughter, with several later pieces.

The earlier stories appeared when Jansson, who lived until 2001, was already 54. They marry a child's-eye but quite unchildish view of life in her artistic Helsinki family with flesh-prickling moments of excitement or dread, in a briskly matter-of-fact tone that hovers on the near side of fairy tale. Human feelings come gloriously framed by the natural forces that dwarf them all, from the "rolling, slithering and falling" world after a snowstorm to the "fright and ecstasy" of illicitly gathering spring cherry-blossom in the park. The later pieces unfold in deeper, muted colours, most memorably in "The Squirrel": a haunting fable of autonomy and creativity, set on Jansson's beloved summer island in the Baltic.

Ali Smith's warm and shrewd preface rightly celebrates the "endless, unstoppable, good-natured force of the imagination" that drives this work. Last summer I visited Jansson's airy studio-cum-flat in Helsinki in the company of her niece Sophia, who manages her aunt's estate and tries to prevent the Disneyfication of the Moomin legacy. Much of what gets written about the aura of an artist's home strikes me as pseudo-mystical flim-flam. Yet, as the August light slanted in through big arched windows and lit up a space pretty much unchanged since Jansson left in 2001, you might have cut the mood of creative cheerfulness with a palette knife. A Winter Book bottles that spirit as winningly as any gift recipient could wish. At the season of literary cynicism and cowardice, here is true goodwill.

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