His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Joyce’s last line of his novella ‘The Dead’ (the final bit of Dubliners) is a really good one. In fact, Andrew O’Hagan says it’s his favourite line in literature.
Well it’s the soft, sibilant line that came into my head on Saturday night, as we emerged from the pub to a London blanketed in soft white snow. Albeit less soft when rolled into a ball and pelted.
I love snow. I love the way it very quickly, very easily, very quietly changes the way everything looks. I love the way it muffles everything. I love the way it turns everywhere into a giant playground. I love the way it makes everyone slow down.
Of course, the thing one most wants to do in snow is run out and play in it. But – when one has had one’s fill of snowmen and snowball fights, when one’s gloves are soggy, hands frozen, scarf glistening with tiny pretty water droplets – then there’s nothing better than coming inside to the warmth, drinking hot chocolate, having a scaldingly hot shower and reading a snowy book.
Snow is something that books can do particularly well. Last year, in the bookshop, we made a display of wintry, snowy books. It was amazing how many have the words ‘snow’ or ‘winter’ in the title. Here are just a few:
- Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg
- Snow by Orhan Pamuk
- If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
- Winter in Madrid by C.J. Samson
- The Winter Book by Tove Jansson
- Snowdrops by A.J. Miller
- The Snow Geese by Wiliam Fiennes
- Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
- The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse
And then there are all those Arctic exploration ones too.
But perhaps these titles are false sirens, for neither ‘The Dead’ nor ‘Dubliners’ would necessarily make one think of snow, and yet Joyce describes the effect of snow so brilliantly. The same goes for The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson. It is an impossibly cold book, which one simply cannot read without feeling freezing. I’d say it is the perfect thing to read in the snow. And even in the post-snow slush.
The True Deceiver is set in a small Scandinavian village. It begins on ‘an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling’. And it ends just as the snow has thawed enough so that ‘the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow’. Tove Jansson charts the course of a winter, and what happens in an isolated village during that winter.
Now for all of you who have grown addicted to Scandinavian crime, be it in books or on telly, I’m afraid it will come as a disappointment to learn that this book isn’t about gruesome murders. There is, however, something deeply chilling in it, as though it is poised on the verge of being a crime novel. Instead, it settles on an intense psychological battle between two women – strange, wolfish Katri Kling and old, gentle Anna Aemelin.
It’s a brilliant, enthralling, beautifully written book, in a style that has the cold sharp clarity of ice. One thing that I think Tove Jansson does particularly well is write about snow.
In London, we get a tiny isolated moment of snow and everyone goes beserk. Quite rightly! But we don’t get to experience it in the way a Scandinavian village does. We live with snow for a day or two, perhaps a week at most. It’s not part of our lives for months of the year, so we don’t pay attention to its subtleties. There’s that urban legend that Inuits have 400 words for snow. Well it might not be true, but the point still holds: when one lives surrounded by something, one will appreciate it in an infinitely more detailed and complex way.
I’m not sure how many words Tove Jansson used in the original Swedish for snow, but Thomas Teal, her translator, has made excellent use of just the one.
We immediately learn that the ‘dark winter morning’ that opens The True Deceiver is ‘ordinary’, precisely because the snow is ‘still falling’:
It had been snowing along the coast for a month. As far back as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been this much snow, this steady snow piling up against doors and windows and weighing down roofs and never stopping even for an hour. Paths filled with snow as quickly as they were shovelled out.
The snow is so endless, so ‘steady’ that it has become quite simply normal, ‘ordinary’. Therein lies the claustrophobia, the helplessness, the futility of battling against it.
Throughout the book, Tove Jansson gently reminds us of the presence of snow, of how it changes, and, towards the end, how it melts. The first few chapters portray snow at different times of day, so after that ‘ordinary morning’ we learn that ‘the snow was very blue in the early twilight’ and, a little later, at night:
The roofs had heavy overhangs of snow, the paths tramped into the snow during the day went white again, and the hard-packed banks on either side grew higher.
But the book does not all take place at such painstakingly small intervals. The momentum gathers and it’s not so long before:
The first spring storm swept in from the sea, a strong warm wind. The snow was already heavy and fragile, and in the stormy forest great clumps of snow fell from the branches, and many branches broke in the moment of their liberation.
This snow is different from the ‘hard-packed’ snow of earlier. This snow is ‘fragile’, ready to drop in clumps, a promise that one day it will break up into the ‘rivulets’ that will trace the ‘muddy’ ground in spring.
Jansson shows us how the characters live with the snow, how they interact with it. Paths are shovelled, the boat yard closes when it’s too cold, evenings are spent at home. One of my favourite moments is when Katri takes all Anna’s old junk out and leaves it on the ice, so that when it melts, ‘everything will sink, just go straight down and disappear’.
I wonder what London would be like if snow and ice became part of our lives like that. Would we turn the frozen Thames into a place to get rid of all our junk, gathering to wait and watch it just disappear? There did used to be Frost Fairs on the Thames, back when the river was wider, before the Victorians built the Embankment, which narrowed and hastened the flow of water. But I somehow doubt that furniture sinking was one of the activities.
Perhaps snow would become less magical if we were used to getting it all the time. Indeed, what seems magical in The True Deceiver isn’t the snow, it’s the coming of Spring:
During the day, the soil under the trees steamed in the warm sun; the nights were ice cold and deep blue. It was a brilliantly beautiful time.
I can’t imagine London pavements ever steaming as thick snow melts in the Spring sun. Indeed London snow has already skipped this stage in favour of turning to pigeon-coloured sludge.
But perhaps that’s why this book is particularly good to read in the snow. One feels all cold and wintry and amazed at the power and intricacies of snow, but there’s also the knowledge that once it passes something equally special will come. And how exciting to think of lengthening, warmer days, and the coming of Spring.