Tove Jansson’s “The Island”


Arts & Culture

Tove Jansoon (Photo: Hans Gedda, 1967)

Growing up in Sweden, I read the whole Astrid Lindgren canon from Pippi Longstocking to Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, but my fascination with Tove Jansson, the equally beloved creator of the Moomins series, only began in New York, as an adult, after I discovered her novel The Summer Book. That book remains one of the most beautiful meditations on the beginning and the end of life I have ever read.

During a recent trip to Stockholm, I noticed Bulevarden och Andra Texter, a new collection of stories and essays by Jansson, in the basement of Hedengrens, a venerable bookstore in a posh part of town. The texts, never reprinted before this compilation, span from 1934 to 1997 and cover a wide array of topics and genres, including tableaux of Jansson’s bohemian days in Paris, a humorous account of the indignities of house-hunting, a short story about a botched honeymoon in Fascist Capri, and a gentle manifesto on children’s literature.

“The Island,” which I have translated here for the first time into English, was originally published in 1961 in a travel magazine, Turistliv i Finland. At once a short story, an essay, and a prose poem, the piece reads both like a sketch for The Summer Book (published eleven years later) and a vignette of Klovharu, the island where Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä, her partner, built a summerhouse in the mid-60’s.

This text seems to change following mysterious tides. There are sudden shifts in point of view and tense—from an impersonal voice that can have the impassivity of nature to a profoundly physical first person, from a timeless present to an urgent past. The punctuation is quite peculiar. Several verbless fragments. Many sentences never really coalesce—they form, rather, a syntactical archipelago.

—Hernan Diaz

The island of Klovharu

There is a surprisingly large number of people who go around dreaming about an island.

Sometimes deliberate people look for their island and conquer it, and sometimes the dream of the island can be a passive symbol for what is one step beyond reach. The island—at last, privacy, remoteness, intimacy, a rounded whole without bridges or fences. 

Sheltered and isolated by the water that is at the same time an open possibility.

A possibility one never considers.

Going around the beach on one’s island has something of the circle’s satisfying finality.

The beach—the narrow border between land and sea, fickle and treacherous, shaped with heedless violence and strewn with peculiar objects that the sea has smoothed, giving them their softness and strength.

There’s nothing as red as a bank of seaweed backlit in the afternoon. Soft stones and bristly grass.

Shattered craggy chaos—with unexpectedly smooth sandy floors and the untouched miniature landscapes mirrored in the blackness of basins.

Seen from the sea, the island has a sad protective color; it’s small and indifferent. Stone, for the most part, and a tuft of crooked forest. No tall mountains, no dock.

After sunset it becomes a black silhouette, a sloppy speck in the drama of fine cobalt, Naples yellow, and cerulean blue. The horizon vanishes, and close to the water, sea ducks and teals fly in silent, resolute lines. The gulls have turned in for the night and sit motionless on the surrounding islets with their heads all turned the same way.

One goes around the island. Nobody can come, nobody needs to travel, one is completely calm. The clocks have stopped a long time ago, and it’s been a long time since one wore shoes. The feet find their own way, they are confident and self-sufficient, they have become sensitive like hands and they notice, quickly and joyfully, the sand and the moss, the seaweed, the mountain. One’s clothes are soft and light, long ago faded, like one’s hair—it looks like arrowgrass and never gets in one’s face.

Everything concerning oneself has been evened out, neutralized, deprived of any particular interest. One is one’s own companion, someone who seldom speaks and never asks questions; a person one can live with.

Everything is turned outward in calm contemplation of familiar things whose uninterrupted transformations create a remarkable feeling of comfort and suspense.

The mutating sea, the beach that rises and sinks and changes shape, everything that grows and dies and grows again in a new and surprising place, the way in which trees and shrubs withstand the storm, decay takes its natural course on everything one has built, and the pleasure of recognition and repetition.

After being alone for a long time, one starts to listen differently, to perceive the organic and the unexpected all around, to brush against all the incomprehensible beauty of the material.

Old self-absorbed thoughts rush out on new tracks or shrink and die. Dreams become simpler and one wakes up with a smile.

It’s a rickety structure, one pays for it with fear of darkness and sudden panic—a stirring in the dark, a boat on the horizon.

But during the weekdays, with their calmly repetitive and efficient chores, the protective barrier grows taller and firmer. Pull the boat out of the water before the storm, light the lamp for the night, gather and chop wood.

Problems are simple and can be solved.

Water runs out. The roof leaks. A tree is about to be blown over. A grouse has smashed the window, a net has disappeared.

Early spring is the safest time, a secure margin between the city’s anxiety and the consummated summer, which is green and contented and friendly. There are no boats going between islands, the sand is untouched, and the island has taken a small stealthy step toward wilderness.

Its colors are cold and serious, frail as the ice over the basins. The impassive sky is made of glass. Everything is expectant, attentive, and completely free from summer’s coquetry.

At night, the cries of the long-tailed ducks come from a faraway island. They can be heard when one gets up to light a fire before dawn. Freezing and violently happy, one stands by the door, looking at the meager land and the mountains in the half-light.

What withered and died a year ago lies like a brown tarp over everything that now has decided to begin to grow.

The forgotten possibility of life as a gift suddenly becomes thinkable. The fire burns in the stove. One curls up to sleep and recognizes the silence and makes friends with oneself.

There’s the joy of lifting heavy stones, of getting a tree trunk out of the water with a lever and balancing techniques, of steering the boat around the point in a strong southwesterly.

The water is ice cold and the ground is hard and the light gets brighter each day; one knows paradise is within reach. And each year one forgets that happiness lies in the expectation, not in the fulfillment.

But summer keeps its promise and goes away.

September drifts into October, and the island becomes impassive and indifferent once again. The last fishing boats sail by into the night and vanish in the ocean with their lights.

There is a new birdless silence. Colors get heavy, and the island is overtrodden and tired. It acquires a fascinatingly hostile face.

The fear of darkness drives one out of the cottage with its three black windows, into the small shed for the nets in the back. A safe, solid space that would never turn one over to danger.

Danger comes with the autumn storms. True storms that won’t abate at sundown, that can cut the island off for ten days, that transform the beaches and rattle the cottage.

And the peculiar sound sensations, stronger in the room but also perceptible in the shed during the storm’s fourth day; broken tonal fragments like music from the electrons, laughing voices and howls and faraway clocks, the sound of heavy running feet around the house.

It doesn’t matter as long as all the mirrors are turned towards the walls in time and the blankets are secured on the windows.

When the sun has set and everything that is violet and hateful has overflowed the island, it’s time to convince oneself that nothing could ever look into the shed. There can’t be any crevices there.

But the lamp has to be filled every evening, it mustn’t burn out. One can’t afford to be afraid in October. Fear of being afraid.

Not of people, but of what looks human but isn’t.

The morning is transparent and uninterested.

New mounds of seaweed pile up on the leeward beach. The island dries up and shrinks and tries to shake one off from itself.

Everything is depleted, moldy, spent. What the sea brings won’t remain in the swelling surf, it travels impatiently on, the ground is stripped naked by the winds, and the beach foam travels all the way to the windows, blinding them.

The water rises.

Everything one has built and gathered must be carried farther up. Each day farther up. It’s as if paradise were about to sink into the sea—and one feels a mysterious desire to follow it.

All around, things expose themselves to death and mere survival.

One day before dusk a rain curtain falls on the sea. For a few hours, the colors recover their luster and liveliness, the landscape pulls itself together and becomes voluptuous.

Then it sags, the ground is no longer alive, only bloated, billowing like the sea around the point, doors and windows can’t be opened, and all that was beautifully brown and withered turns into a wet mass; the island is dead but its glorious burial is still far off.

The last birds of the summer and the city folk flee. They flap away in horror.

I fled when the wind stopped, the night when the storm suddenly died down.

I had run out of food and firewood and the wind just blew.

On the last day, I lay on the floor and saw pictures in the knots in the wood ceiling. My packed bags had stood by the door for a week and the room was empty and without curtains.

Then a fast and black swirl shrouded my windows, birds with long pointy wings flew around the cottage, close to the walls. Again and again and again.

In the self-evident madness of solitude, I was convinced that unknown catastrophic animals were drawing their circle of doom around the house.

That night, the wind stopped. The silence woke me up.

Because the house was besieged by catastrophe, I forgot the fear of darkness, flung the door open, and ran out. Ran and tripped—the island at night was a foreign island—threw the suitcases into the boat, up in the cottage the lamp shone, alone in the mountain, so much fainter than the self-confident lighthouses along the horizon. And locked the cottage, turned and turned the key that hadn’t been needed for so long and refused to work, the lamp turned the juniper shrubs into terrifying creatures, out at sea a new wind slowly started to blow.

And ran to the beach, stumbled and ran, felt how the island hated me and wanted to get rid of me, tried to get the overloaded boat out, wept and cursed and pushed on—and then it was off, the oars down, the darkness at sea wasn’t dangerous and one felt ashamed.

You summer wretch, one thought. You think that you love your island but you have never endured a winter together with it. You summer bird, you beachgoer, you parasite of a merely convenient loneliness, you who toy with the primitive and picturesque, you vile city dweller.

Here everything was just black. The new wind grew stronger at sea. I heard it come, it came as if walking on water, before the water was even touched.

I rowed by instinct, someplace in there was dry land, safe, with sleeping houses, and farther away the lit-up city. The city where I lived, where I belonged, where winters were spent.

Suddenly I stopped rowing, in the middle of the journey.

And for the very first time that winter, during my escape, I started, uncontrollably, to miss my island.


First published in Turistliv i Finland (special issue on Eastern Uusimaa, 1961) © Tove Jansson (1961) Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) was the author of the Moomins series for children. She was also the author of six novels and five books of short stories for adults.

Hernan Diaz is the managing editor of RHM. His first novel, In the Distance, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His short storyThe Stay” appears in our Winter 2018 issue