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My Beloved Uncles

However tired of each other they must have grown from time to time, there was always great solidarity among Pastor Fredrik Hammarsten’s children—four boys and two girls. The girls married quite young and moved to other countries, far enough away that the others could think of them without concern or annoyance. But Torsten, Einar, Olov, and Harald continued to live in Stockholm, where Grandfather was the preacher at Jakob’s Church. Maybe they knew one another too well to socialise in the usual way, but they couldn’t help being aware of one another’s various activities and sometimes foolish opinions.

 

Sister Elsa married a priest and moved to Germany, and Mama married a sculptor and went to Finland. She signed her drawings Ham, but Uncle Einar called her Signe.

 

I knew that when they were young and Uncle Einar’s studies were at their most intense, it was Ham who watched over his work and saw to it that none of his strength or confidence went to waste. She was tireless and ambitious on his behalf.

 

And then she went away. What a triumph it must have been when she learned that Uncle Einar had been named Professor of Medical Chemistry at the Karolinska Institute! He must have written to tell her, because we had no telephone.

 

Mama never said a word about being homesick, but as often as she could, she took me out of school and sent me over to her brothers to see what they were up to and to tell them what was happening with us, and the most important part was seeing Uncle Einar and trying to get a sense of how his scientific work was going.

 

‘It’s going all right,’ he said. ‘You can tell Signe that I think it’s moving in the right direction, but very slowly.’

 

‘How so?’ I said, sitting at the ready with pen and paper.

 

Uncle Einar gazed at me for a moment and then said very amiably that cancer was like a string of beads where it’s impossible to remove one of the beads from the others without the whole necklace going to pieces.

 

I was disappointed. Apparently he thought I was still a child. But the next day, Uncle Einar had made a sketch of it, and I made a copy to send home.

 

 

 

The big move came when I was fifteen. I finally got to quit school and leave home and go live with Uncle Einar and Aunt Anna Lisa while I tried to learn my future profession. I took the SS Oihonna to a new life in Sweden. It was only gradually that I developed quite a compact homesickness, but it didn’t keep me from being happy, sort of like a balloon that’s lost its string.

 

Uncle Einar had a nimbus that I called a halo. He could radiate approval or disapproval, shine on you or cast a shadow, and he did it without a word. He was uncompromising about only one thing, and that was giving your job everything you had; giving it all your strength and your total time and attention, and, moreover, all the joy and pleasure you thought was your private possession. Uncle Einar could come home from Karolinska bitterly disappointed because once again someone had behaved badly and shown signs of careerism, had sought attention wherever it might be found, or— worst of all—had stooped to writing articles for the popular press for money. That they were young—the same poor young men who admired Uncle Einar more than anyone—was no excuse. If only they had stopped to consider the way he turned up his nose at the Nobel Prize, despite being one of the men who awarded it.

 

I went on with my own work, and every time I finished something I ran to Uncle Einar and showed it to him.

 

‘Good,’ he’d say. ‘Continue. You know what this is all about.

 

You’re here to work like a dog so you can go back home and help Signe.’

 

And I worked, on and on and on. It seemed endless.

 

Uncle Einar and Aunt Anna Lisa lived on Norr Mälarstrand, which was a very fine address. There were only two or three pieces of furniture in each room. My beautiful new life gave me a fleeting sense of superiority, but I was held down to earth by being constantly reminded that the world expects much of the gifted and that having talent is never an excuse for not using it.

 

 

 

Sometimes I took the train to Vällingby, where Uncle Torsten lived with his large family. You came in and stamped off the snow in the back hall, which was full of skis and boots, and it was warm and the radio was blaring and Uncle Torsten called out, ‘Hello dear niece, how are things in the higher spheres? Come in and try to be ordinary if you can and how’s your mother?’

 

He didn’t think I should worry so much about what I would become, one way or the other. It doesn’t usually work out anyway, because other things come up that you never counted on. In addition, you should avoid a bad conscience like the plague, because it gets hold of you and grows and grows until you no longer remember why you started feeling bad. I wrote down everything he said.

 

Trying to be like the people you admire can be difficult, but no one would ever even dare try to be like Uncle Torsten because he’s inimitable! Even in his early years, it was clear that he was going to be a mining engineer. He loved explosions.

 

He wanted to make people jump, and he was really good at it. One time he drilled holes in a grindstone and filled them with gunpowder and lit it inside Grandfather’s tile stove, and it flew out the window and down into the neighbour’s greenhouse! There are lots more stories I could tell.

 

Aunt Anna Lisa says he’s threatened to write his memoirs, but I don’t think he will.

 

One of his most successful adventures was apparently when they sent him to America because he was the family ne’er-do-well. Over there he was guarding fish in Alaska, among other things, and did business with the Indians and had a really exciting time.

 

Once when I was still a girl, Uncle Torsten gave me a ring with a genuine little diamond. He smuggled it over to Helsingfors (although there wasn’t even a war at the time). He very cleverly bored a hiding place for it in one of the family hymnals.

 

But don’t get the idea that Uncle Torsten is the only adventurous one in the family! Against all his principles, Uncle Einar could knock on my attic door on a perfectly ordinary weekday evening and holler, ‘Stop working! We’re going to the circus. The taxi’s waiting!’

 

Aunt Anna Lisa always came along, but I was never sure if she liked the circus. She applauded very slowly, without taking off her gloves. I tried to do likewise.

 

It’s hard to explain in just what way I loved Aunt Anna Lisa, possibly with something a little less than love but absolutely more than admiration and respect. She used to make fun of her aristocratic maiden name, and Uncle Einar thought these little jokes were funny, but I thought they were dumb.

 

Nevertheless, Aunt Anna Lisa was a lady. Never the slightest exaggeration, either in tone or attire or choice of words. Her pearls were small, but they were real.

 

Sometimes I had the feeling that every time I used the wrong word in the wrong place at the wrong time, it cut through her like a little knife of displeasure. She’d close her eyes and smile, a weary smile, but she never said anything, never once.

 

I think it must be almost impossibly hard to be a lady. You have to be born to it. Whenever I’d behaved especially badly, I’d buy a big azalea, preferably white or pink, and put it on the floor in the middle of the parlour. Once I hid behind the drapes and waited for Uncle Einar to come home. He stopped in mid-stride, grabbed his head with both hands, and whispered, ‘No . . . not again . . . ’

 

That was before he furnished the parlour with a big aquarium for tropical fish, wonderfully beautiful, especially after I painted a dramatic backdrop, but the whole thing broke one day when no one was home. That was no reason for Uncle Torsten to call and ask if we were all on a fish diet. Very corny.

 

Anyway, Uncle Einar redid the parlor in a completely different way. He turned it into a wonderful landscape for electric trains, even with a real waterfall that ran day and night! He did it just before cousin Ulla was born, and when she came into the world he sent an entire flower shop to the hospital—just rushed in and cried, ‘Send everything you’ve got—mostly orchids!’

 

And then it was just Ulla this and Ulla that, from dawn to dusk nothing but Cousinulla. She grew and started looking quite human, but she was an unusually whiny baby and she didn’t like electric trains or circuses either, although she did learn to clap her hands.

 

Before I started to worry about not being fair, I just went along loving everyone as usual, not only my uncles but even to a certain extent their wives. And then, suddenly, something happened that divided the family into ‘for’ and ‘against,’ and of course I had to dislike everyone who didn’t agree with Uncle Einar. It started when he decided to celebrate Christmas in South Africa with his family but without a tree or any of the other traditions.

 

Some of the wives had a thing or two to say about that—that it was un-Swedish and nothing but an affectation—although what could you expect from a man who insisted that the Swedish flag was ugly?

 

‘He wasn’t the one who said that,’ said Uncle Torsten. ‘That was me! But this thing with South Africa sounds terrific. Can’t think of a better way of avoiding all the angelic mewling and the exchanging of goods—you just go to the other end of the earth!’

 

Uncle Olov wasn’t interested and just then Uncle Harald was off skiing somewhere. There wouldn’t have been any serious problem if it hadn’t been for Uncle Einar’s 8-millimetre movies that he brought home from Africa and wanted to show the family. It didn’t turn out well. They weren’t generous. I was really ashamed of them. There’s a big difference between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ (‘contemplating’ is another thing entirely and I haven’t finished thinking it through), and they looked the way you look at a photo album although they had an authentic African moving picture right before their eyes!

 

Uncle Einar gave a running commentary while he cranked the film but it didn’t help them see any better, I mean, they couldn’t see the unseen—for example, the way Uncle Einar was almost eaten by a shark while Aunt Anna Lisa stood helpless on the beach or how delicate little Cousinulla got heat stroke in the desert and practically shrivelled to a piece of popcorn!

 

Otherwise I can only say that, given the equipment available at the time, Uncle Einar’s film was very sophisticated.

 

In any case, Uncle Olov expressed interest in the way the giraffe galloped. After the show, he went out into the front hall with Uncle Einar and they talked for quite a while.

 

For much of his life, Uncle Olov has been searching for an insect which, as I understand it, would confirm important conclusions put forth in his dissertation. He teaches biology and lives in Äppelviken with his family. The house has a large, deep cellar, and that’s his workshop. He goes down there right after school and works at building his boat. Or else he works at his lathe or carves little animals out of wood. One Christmas he carved the holy family even though he’s an atheist (not that that usually stops anyone).

 

It’s very hard to tell if Uncle Olov really dislikes being admired—maybe he secretly enjoys it. He avoids strong words. If something has been fantastically wonderful he says it was nice, and if it was ghastly he says it was not very nice.

 

That used to make me mad, but sometimes I tried to do the same thing myself. I wasn’t any good at it.

 

Sometimes on a Sunday we’d go out to a marsh near Äppelviken if he could get his inboard motor started. Then we’d search for his important insect. I never heard if he ever found it. Sometimes I think maybe I met Uncle Olov too soon and that was really a shame.

 

The only thing that actually worried me about him was that he couldn’t believe in God. Of all Grandfather’s sons, he was the only one who simply didn’t care about any of it. The others could have violent discussions for and against. Uncle Einar was ironic and Uncle Torsten blasphemous, or vice versa, but Uncle Olov was just embarrassed and walked away.

 

I was reading the Bible for the second time just then—in order to be really sure, once and for all—and I was doing worse at school and I didn’t know what to believe. Then Uncle Einar discovered my Bible under the mattress and told me to wait for a while. ‘This is dangerous stuff,’ he said. It was a huge relief, but I locked myself in the bathroom anyway and cried. Aunt Anna Lisa stood outside and promised me a new winter coat with leather, so after a while I came out again.

 

It was a lovely coat with a rabbit collar.

 

I wonder if my uncles talked about God in the summers at Ängsmarn. Not likely. They probably talked mostly about the things that concerned them all—the dock, the well, the blackcurrant bushes, the garbage dump, stuff like that.

 

It was Grandfather who found Ängsmarn sometime in the 1800s, a long green meadow that went right down to the water and the bay for swimming, all of it protected by cliffs and forest. There he built the big family house, and that’s where the Hammarstens spent their summers as they were growing up. Then they reproduced rapidly and went on building for their descendants wherever they could find space, beside every bay and on every point and rocky hill. Each of them built differently, obstinately, and as far from the big family house as possible. I’m sorry to say that none of them even had seashells around their flower beds.

 

Uncle Torsten built his himself. It turned out a bit ungainly somehow, because he kept making changes and adding on and letting his children help as best they could.

 

But it was Anderson who built Uncle Olov’s house, a well-planned log cottage along traditional Swedish lines. The discreet furnishings were all from Better Things for Everyday Living and Svenskt Tenn, with hardly any of the bowls and boxes he’d made in his cellar himself.

 

Uncle Harald didn’t want to build at all. He liked spending the night in the old washhouse, which had space for a sleeping bag in the front room, ‘almost at the edge of the blue Atlantic’ etcetera. Harald knew all of Evert Taube’s songs and had a good voice. When he bathed in the washhouse, I’d sit outside and listen and write down the words.

 

Uncle Einar’s house needs explanation. I mean, it was never meant to be the way it turned out. They say it’s no one’s fault when things go badly, but that doesn’t make it any better. It was Anderson did the building, and Uncle Einar had complete confidence in him. He built and built, but Uncle Einar never took any interest or went out to look, and so the windows were too narrow and the stairs too steep and in general the whole thing was too big and too ramshackle up there on its granite hilltop.

 

I don’t think Uncle Einar noticed that anything was wrong. Just at that time he was interested in getting all the roads and paths at Ängsmarn covered with marble chips, all the way to the cow meadow. Anderson did the work very capably, although the chips immediately sank into the ground and vanished. The white marble roads must have been wonderful and astonishing. It was a shame that Uncle Einar never had time to go out and see them before they disappeared.

 

As a rule, he went out to Ängsmarn so early in the spring that no one was there yet, or else so late in the autumn that everything was closed up. He called it a safari. First he bought lobster and pheasant and put them in his pathologist’s ice chest. He brought home all the other necessities for a stay in the wilderness, and then came the great packing—systematic and very rapid. No one was allowed to help. Uncle Einar loaded everything into the car and then said, ‘Come and get in. Safari!’

 

He wrapped Aunt Anna Lisa in her mink, Cousinulla squawked to high heaven, and off we went. I got to sit in the front seat beside him. He drove wisely and lightheartedly and quite fast.

 

We didn’t talk until we got to the cow meadow when Uncle Einar asked me how I planned to spend this special day, and I said, ‘Studying for my perspective exam.’ And he asked if it was important for my career or just for the grade and I said just the grade and so that was the end of that.

 

But now things got very difficult. Uncle Einar’s house was completely frozen, cold as ice. Anderson hadn’t split firewood and built fires the way he’d promised.

 

‘Just stay in the car,’ Uncle Einar said. He went to the woodpile and after a while I heard him chopping. And I knew that he loved to chop wood.

 

It was an excellent safari.

 

Uncle Einar laid a fire in the fireplace and got it started. He gave us hot rum with ginger and butter (Cousinulla got warm juice) and then he went out to the kitchen to prepare the pheasant.

 

But the whole time I couldn’t stop worrying about Anderson, who hadn’t done his job. Did Anderson understand what he’d done and that now and forever, irretrievably, Uncle Einar would despise him? On the other hand, if Uncle Einar understood that Anderson’s treachery had produced a more convincing safari—might that help him set aside his contempt without sacrificing his self-respect? I try to believe that a person should never deviate an inch from his principles even if it’s impractical. Nevertheless, if you look at the thing morally, I mean naturally, didn’t Anderson’s treachery stop being treachery when it turned out that Uncle Einar liked chopping wood?

 

I did a lot of thinking.

 

It was a beautiful spring evening, utterly quiet, only the longtailed ducks yodeling far out to sea. I decided to sleep outdoors. Near the woodpile there is a large pine tree that spreads out nicely. Uncle Einar thought it was a fine idea. ‘You do that,’ he said. ‘Most people come back inside about 4 a.m.’

 

When I came back in where it was warm, no one had made a bed for me so I had to sleep wherever I could find, and they didn’t say anything in the morning either. There was sunshine all night and icy cold. I went for a swim among floating ice in the swimming bay and I’m pretty sure Uncle Einar saw me do it, but he pretended not to.

 

Otherwise it was a pretty bad time for me. School was not going well and I started brooding about silly things and getting all sad for no reason.

 

That spring, Uncle Harald lived in the room next to mine up in the attic. We’d meet on the stairs and he’d say, ‘Hi, adored niece, how are things?’ And I’d say, ‘Shit and ginger!’ quoting Uncle Torsten.

 

And Harald, quoting Evert Taube, would say, ‘A meeting in the monsoon,’ and go whistling on down the stairs to the street.

 

In some ways, he was the most famous of all my uncles, maybe not as a lecturer in mathematics but as a great sailor, downhill skier, and mountain climber—all in all, a daredevil. Harald was Grandmother’s last child. He arrived long after his brothers had begun to go their own ways and so of course he felt little and scared, and on top of it all they made fun of him!

 

He let me illustrate his logbooks. I’ve designed his monogram, in colour, with a sail and a mountain. S.A. stands for Sea-Alpinism.

 

Harald’s crews loved him and were as young as he was, but one way and another they grew older and got married and all that stuff, and they no longer had time. Once that melancholy spring Uncle Harald came and asked casually what my position was on Sea-Alpinism—in principle.

 

He wanted me to come along. Even though he knew I was really bad at sailing and skiing and scared to death of mountains, he still wanted me to go with him! I said no. And my heart was about to break from pride and despair.

 

 

 

The last spring there I got a scholarship. I ran to Uncle Einar and cried, ‘Look what I’ve got!’

 

‘Very good,’ he said. That was all, just ‘very good’.

 

I took my scholarship in the smallest bills the bank had and went home and tossed them up to the ceiling and let them rain down over me like Danaë’s golden rain, but it just felt silly so I ran to Uncle Einar again and shouted, ‘So what did you do? What did you do the first time you had your own money?’

 

He said, ‘It was burning a hole in my pocket. I had to get rid of it, as quickly as possible. I had to buy the most important thing I could think of.’

 

And he went out and bought a dreadfully tiny bottle of attar of roses.

 

I think he did exactly the right thing.

 

Some people say Uncle Einar is a snob, and I sincerely hope I can develop along the same lines.

 

 

*

 

 

This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2015 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


(1914–2001) was born in Helsinki into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority. A painter and muralist, Jansson also drew humorous illustrations and political cartoons for the left-leaning anti-Fascist magazine Garm, and it was there that what was to become Jansson’s most famous creation, Moomintroll, made his first appearance. Jansson went on to write about the adventures of Moomintroll, the Moomin family, and their curious friends in a long-running comic strip and in a series of books for children that have been translated throughout the world, inspiring films, several television series, an opera, and theme parks in Finland and Japan. Jansson also wrote eleven novels and short-story collections for adults, including The Summer Book, The True Deceiver, and Fair Play (NYRB Classics). In 1994 she was awarded the Prize of the Swedish Academy. 'My Beloved Uncles' was translated by Thomas Teal for The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories, published 21 October 2014 by NYRB Classics.

Thomas Teal has translated many of Tove Jansson’s works into English, beginning in the 1970s with The Summer Book and Sun City and more recently, The True Deceiver (2009, winner of the Best Translated Book Award) and Fair Play (2011, winner of the Bernard Shaw Prize for translation from the Swedish). He lives in Massachusetts.


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