31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 24: “The Squirrel” by Tove Jansson; Thomas Teal, trans.

May 24, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories

Woman_Who_Borrowed_Memories_Tove_JanssonTove Jansson was in her fifties before she began writing stories and novels for adults. A prodigiously talented visual artist, Jansson gained international fame for her cartoon series about the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures that appeared in comics and books for children. The appeal of the Moomins is enduring; in 2014, to celebrate the centenary of Jansson’s birth, the Quebec publisher Drawn + Quarterly brought out a deluxe edition of the collected comics, and a hand-drawn animated film based on the characters, Moomins on the Riviera, was released.

So popular are Jansson’s creations for children, readers often forget that she was equally adept at writing for adults. Jansson turned to novels and short stories after becoming uncomfortable with the fame and attention her cartoon creations brought. As Lauren Groff writes in the introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Jansson’s selected stories, “She began to long for the isolation of her hungry early years, when her art was hers alone and she didn’t have to answer the thousands of letters sent every year from her young fans or live under the pressure of producing a weekly comic strip.”

The longing for isolation was not incidental for the author, who sought out a series of retreats on the Pellinki archipelago, where she had spent much time with her family as a child. According to the Tove Jansson Virtual Museum, the author scouted several locations in the region, eventually building a cottage on the rocky island of Klovharu. Though Jansson harboured “dreams of a hermit’s life,” her fame worked against her, drawing tourists to her island refuge. Though the Tove Jansson Virtual Museum notes that the author eventually found ways to “balance out periods of socializing with time spent working alone,” the tension between a desire for solitude and the pressures of being a public figure never entirely dissipated.

The pangs of interrupted solitude are at the heart of Jansson’s story “The Squirrel,” about (perhaps unsurprisingly) a woman of a certain age living alone on an island who craves both isolation and at least a small amount of human connection. (She flies into a terror when she spies a boat full of people approaching her island redoubt, then admits to crushing disappointment upon realizing they are not coming to visit her, but are merely scouting good fishing spots in the area.) The woman’s daily life is thrown into disarray when she encounters a visitor to the island: a squirrel that has apparently washed up on a piece of driftwood.

Jansson’s story takes up the relationship between the woman and the squirrel, but this is not the kind of human versus nature story that will be immediately familiar to North American readers. Jansson’s story is much quieter and more contemplative than anything one might find in the work of, say, Jack London or Farley Mowat. Nothing much happens in the story – there is no plot to speak of – and the interaction between the squirrel and the woman is based as much in the latter’s psychology as in anything external. Nor is the squirrel anthropomorphized to any degree. Devotees of the Moomins who anticipate a loveable, huggable rodent will be sorely disappointed.

This is central to Jansson’s point in the story, a work one can easily imagine was written in part as a response to the popularity the Moomins had engendered. The woman becomes fascinated with her visitor, but retains a healthy distance, not wanting to disturb it or frighten it away. She becomes distraught when she thinks she has inadvertently destroyed its nest and sets about finding a new home for it. She feeds it each morning, hoping that the animal might decide to remain on the island for the winter. Her interest in the squirrel becomes stronger, bordering on obsessive, but ends badly when the woman forgets the distance that exists in nature between humans and feral animals.

Like the man in the white suit in Diego Marani’s story “The Man Who Missed Trains,” the squirrel represents an interloper, a figure of disturbance throwing the established order out of balance. Prior to the squirrel’s arrival, the woman’s routine was set and rigid, but it becomes increasingly contingent as the story progresses. Only her daily dose of Madeira remains sacrosanct. Jansson uses the word “ritual” to describe the devotion to order and regularity the woman observes; this word is also applied to the relationship (such as it is) that develops between the woman and the squirrel. Importantly, though, this word is evoked following a key encounter between the two, the one time the squirrel ventures inside the woman’s cabin.

The squirrel attacks the woman after breaking her Madeira bottle; following this scene, Jansson tells us that “none of their rituals changed” – the woman continues to feed the squirrel each day, but the squirrel responds with “contempt,” and with “an indifference that didn’t stoop to revenge.” This indifference infuriates the woman, as does the disorder that has resulted from the squirrel’s presence: “The lack of order was because she no longer had the Madeira to divide the day into proper periods and make them clear and easy.”

The squirrel’s departure is as abrupt as its arrival, and tinged with irony: though she has left it several pieces of driftwood to float away on should it choose, it hops on the woman’s own boat which has come unmoored, leaving the woman effectively stranded on the island. The squirrel serves as an instrument of self-recognition for the woman, who becomes cognizant of her own loneliness and dissatisfaction with her self-imposed exile; following the attack in the cabin, the woman decides to rearrange her books, putting the ones she likes on the top shelves and the others at the bottom, but she can’t find any that she likes. Routine, it would appear, has solidified into a grinding sameness that to this point had been wholly internalized by the woman.

After the squirrel departs on the woman’s boat, she feels an “elated relief” because she no longer needs to concern herself with anyone or anything else. “All decisions had been taken from her.” She also recognizes that with the disappearance of the squirrel, “everything was radically altered.” After viewing the squirrel floating away on her boat, she drops her flashlight in the water: “It did not go out, it stayed on as it sank along the side of the rock face, a smaller and smaller vanishing light that illuminated quick glimpses of a ghostly brown landscape with moving shadows, and then there was nothing but darkness.”

The concluding sections of “The Squirrel” tilt in a direction Groff identifies in her introduction: the note of “terror that is the animating spirit for most of these stories.” The woman has been left alone once again – the pressures and antagonisms of the outside world have been banished from her – but she is also stranded without means of escape from the island, incapable even of accessing the mainland to purchase supplies, and without the Madeira that gave her world order. The recognition of her complete isolation seems to perversely energize the woman: she once again takes up the writing she had abandoned, and in the penultimate moment is seen at her kitchen table, writing “rapidly.”

The appearance in the story’s final line of a single human on the island’s boat beach might serve as a spark of hope for some compromise between the woman’s need for solitude and her desire for companionship, but even here Jansson remains ambiguous. The final sentence in the story is a precise replica of its opening sentence, except that the word “person” is substituted for the word “squirrel.” Whether this indicates the beginning of a cycle that will also end in abandonment and disappointment is unclear.

Comments are closed.