“The weather is like the government, always in the wrong.” (Jerome K. Jerome)

What, in the name of Tomasz Schafernaker, is going on with the weather? (For those of you in countries where this legend doesn’t broadcast, he became my favourite –and I didn’t even know I needed one – when he ended a forecast with: “So, in summary…” then blew a raspberry and gave the thumbs-down. Succinct and accurate, Tomasz.)


Image from here

Here in the UK we’ve had a weirdly mild winter, with the exception of 3 days this week which were the seasonal norm, and now we’re back to disconcertingly warm.  Meanwhile the east coast of the US has had the worst snow storm in 100 years. This has now passed and apparently skies have brightened, but please stay safe if you are there, reader. To give myself the sense of winter which is lacking here, I thought I would look at 2 snowbound novels. Inevitably, these will not be set in Britain, and so they also represent two more stops on the Around the World in 80 books reading challenge – hoorah! Coincidentally, they are also both collected short stories which do form a sort of narrative, so don’t be put off, short-story-phobes.


Image from here

Firstly, A Winter Book by Tove Jansson, who I’ve written about before, a Finnish writer who wrote in Swedish, best known for the Moomins but a wonderful writer for adults too.  If you’re a fan of Jansson and have read her semi-autobiographical The Sculptor’s Daughter, then you might find this repetitive as the vast number of stories are taken from there. However, if you want to dip a toe into Jansson to see how you get on with her, this is as good a place to start as any.

Much is written from a child’s perspective and Jansson’s independent, stubborn and wonderfully inventive nature shines through. In the story Snow (I’m being resolutely obvious in my choices) she finds herself snowbound with her mother in an unfamiliar house.

“But I said nothing because I didn’t like this strange house. I stood in the window and watched snow falling, and it was all wrong. It wasn’t the same as in town. There it blows black and white over the roof or falls gently as if from heaven, and forms beautiful arches over the sitting-room window. The landscape looked dangerous too. It was bare and open and swallowed up the snow, and the trees stood in black rows that ended in nothing. At the edge of the world there was a narrow fringe of forest. Everything was wrong.”

Jansson’s world is small, yet enormous.  Much is set on her beloved island of Klovharu, and in Snow this is narrowed down to a single house, yet with her child’s imagination, it becomes a fairytale, in the Grimm sense, with a feeling of unreality and menace.

“Next morning the daylight was green, underwater lighting throughout the room. Mummy was asleep. I got up and opened the door and saw that the lamps were on in all the rooms although it was morning and the green light came through the snow which covered the windows all the way up. Now it had happened. The house was single enormous snowdrift, and the surface of the ground was somewhere high up above the roof.”

Jansson’s style is simple and pared back, which I think makes it all the more wonderful. It captures a child’s voice without artifice and is dramatic in its directness.

There is a similar sense of surreal wonder in The Iceberg, a delightful story where the young girl spots an iceberg floating nearby with a grotto hollowed out of it:

“My hands and my tummy began to feel icy-cold and I sat up. The grotto was the same size as me, but I didn’t dare to jump. And if one doesn’t dare to do something immediately, then one never does it.

I switched on the torch and threw it into the grotto. It fell on its side and lit up the whole grotto, making it just as beautiful as I had imagined it would be. …it was so unbearably beautiful that I had to get away from the whole thing as quickly as possible, send it away, do something! So I sat down firmly and placed both feet on the iceberg and pushed it as hard as I could It didn’t move.

‘Go away!’ I shouted. ‘Clear off!’”

This magical, humorous tale is pure Jansson: a truly memorable delight.

Secondly, A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov, a collection of his stories about being a newly-qualified doctor in an isolated practice, serving poverty-stricken rural Russian workers.

“The nearest street lamps are thirty-two miles away in the district town. Life there is sweet: it has a cinema, shops. While the snow is whirling and howling out here in the open country, there on the screen no doubt, the cane-brake is bending to the breeze and palm trees sway as a tropical island comes into view….”

He is the only doctor in the practice and finds himself woefully underprepared, his distinction in exams teaching him nothing about how to do his job.

“I tried to talk evenly and gravely, and to repress impulsive movements as far as possible, to walk and not run as twenty-four-year-olds do who have just left university. Looking back, I now realise that the attempt did not come off at all…I had been shown round the hospital and was left in no doubt whatever that it was generously equipped. With equal certainty I was forced to admit (inwardly of course) that I had no idea what many of these shiny, unsullied instruments were for.”

Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 TV adaptation

Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 TV adaptation

Image from here

Living in fear of a patient presenting with a strangulated hernia, Bulgakov somehow manages to muddle through, and actually seems to make a fairly decent doctor despite his own fear and misgivings: “I thought to myself: ‘What am I doing? I shall only kill the child.’ But I said: ‘Come on, come on – you’ve got to agree! You must! Look, her nails are already turning blue.”

Bulgakov’s writing throughout these stories might surprise fans of his surrealist masterpiece The Master and Margarita, as it is a determinedly realistic and linear narrative. However, it is bleak, funny, highly readable, and there are a few hints of what was to come once Bulgkov gave up his medical practice and turned all his attention to writing…

“Outside was a sight I had never seen before. There was no sky and no earth – only twisting, swirling whiteness, sideways and aslant, up and down, as though the devil had gone mad with a packet of tooth powder.”

To end, unapologetically cute footage of Japanese snow monkeys warming up in hot springs:

32 thoughts on ““The weather is like the government, always in the wrong.” (Jerome K. Jerome)

  1. My go-to snow book has oddly enough always been “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s the only book by her I’ve ever read, and I picked up a copy from a jumble sale when I was young. It always reassures me during extreme weather, as whatever happens to me isn’t going to be quite as bad as what she and her family were facing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 1. I am a bit of a short-story-phobe….

    2. I am allergic to snow (well, that’s what I tell my kids to avoid taking them to the snow). I detest cold weather – give me a hot summer any day. Although mind-boggling to many, I had only seen snow once before I went on exchange to Germany when I was 16 (and the time I did see it when I was little I cried the whole time because it was so horrid and cold). It wasn’t until I was in Germany that I saw snow falling (that’s the only time I’ve seen snow falling) and I admit, it was lovely… but not lovely enough to want to repeat the experience!
    My host family thought it was so funny that I’d never seen snow falling and that I was studying each snowflake (I had expected them to fall in bunches and be indistinguishable) but I got my own back when they visited Australia and I took them to the beach for a swim. They’d only seen the ocean once before and had never been swimming in it. They came out of the water shouting “It’s REALLY salty!” – made me laugh because I was thinking, well yes, what did they expect?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • OK, so these choices are probably not for you then 😀

      I don’t mind the cold (I’m rubbish at any temperature over 30C) but I only like snow when its falling. Once it lands everything grinds to a halt (because we Brits are incapable of coping with any weather type that deviates beyond vaguely grey) and it drives me mad. It’s never occurred to me before that if you’ve never seen the ocean you may well assume it was freshwater!

      How many more years do you think you’ve got before your kids work out you’re not allergic to frozen water & ask to go skiing 😀

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      • My German friends were so funny after their swim – kept licking their arms to taste the salt 😀

        My older kids know now that I am not literally allergic to snow… But they also know not to ask for a skiing holiday! In Australia, skiing is outrageously expensive (and snow not always good so booking a holiday can be risky). Most Australians who love skiing find it cheaper to go to New Zealand or Japan to get their fix. Have explained to my kids that a week’s skiing is equivalent to cost of three weeks on the beach – no contest!

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  3. This! I had a complete rant earlier about the pitiful lack of snow this winter (sorry to any US-based folks who are currently experiencing a decade’s worth) but we’ve not had a proper school-cancelling flump of the white stuff for nearly three years here in West Wales. We did have a couple of days of frosty clear skies and icy chill, but now we’re back to grey rain. What better way to experience a proper winter by proxy than by book. Thank you for reminding me, and Tove Jansson is just utterly perfect for the job. 🙂

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  4. I’ve been putting off ‘The Winter Book’ (even though I know I’ll love it) because once I’ve read that there’ll only be one or max two short story collections left to read! It’s silly, I know. Anyways, ‘Snow’ was one of my favourites in the Sculptor’s daughter, and I’m glad to hear it’s includes in this one as well 🙂

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  5. In this part of Scotland we’ve had snow, there’s is skiing going on, but it’s not been as wide-spread. What freaks me out was it was -9 with me last week and the pipes at work froze, but then driving home last night it was +10!

    I love Jansson, and liked the look of A Country Doctor’s Notebook so much in between reading the post and commenting I have found a cheap copy and it’s on its way to me! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We had a mild winter here too in Canada, I was pleasantly surprised but everyone (except me) misses the snow! I love Tove Jansson, have read The Summer Book but not The Winter Book.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: #AW80Books: Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Snow Blind’ – Why this Mum’s gone to Iceland | Hard Book Habit

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