Tove Jansson: Life Art Words by Boel Westin; book review

Trans. Silvester Mazzarella;

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The Independent Culture

‘All Moomintrolls go to sleep about November. This is a good idea, too, if you don’t like the cold and the winter darkness.’ So the Preface to Finn Family Moomintroll (1948), characteristically both matter-of-fact and imaginatively irresistible, tells us. The Moomins’ emergence from hibernation makes their adventures, once the cuckoo has called, ‘rather hoarsely to be sure’, above Moominhouse’s blue roof, only the more delectably liberating. But now, thanks to Boel Westin’s biography of Tove Jansson, with its detailed analyses of its subject’s distinguished work in several media, we can view the  joyous springtime experiences of these hippopotamus-like creatures in historical and  personal terms. ‘It was the utterly hellish war years that made me, an artist, write fairy-tales,’ Tove Jansson, born 1914, confessed.

It was scarcely surprising Tove Jansson thought of herself an artist first. Her father, ‘Faffan’, Finland-Swede and zealous Finnish nationalist, was a well-regarded sculptor, her mother, a Swedish Swede, was an illustrator and cartoonist. Tove was intimately bound up with both parents, and also with her two brothers, the younger of whom, Lasse, would eventually take on the Moomin strip-cartoons, and other projects threatening to swamp her creativity. We can learn so much from Tove’s marvellous painting ‘The Family’ (1942) - used as back end-papers for this stunningly illustrated book - under Westin’s well-informed guidance. At its centre Tove’s stance speaks of indissoluble familial involvement but reveals her pressurising need, if not exactly for flight, then for some cathartic release.

Such feelings were intensified by endurance of Finland’s terrible ‘Winter’ and ‘Continuation’ Wars. ‘Faffan’ was intensely proud of his daughter, yet, an autocrat by disposition, he became, as time and history advanced, significantly uncongenial to her. As a young man he fought against the Red Army, and detestation of the Soviet Union, indeed of Communism altogether, led him to a pro-German position not excluding anti-Semitism. Tove’s mother, ‘Ham’, however, was in outlook the product of her own enlightened, ‘mainland’ Swedish family. Fuelling tensions further was membership of the often claustrophobic Finland-Swedish minority. Though Tove stands now as Finland’s most successful-ever writer, her relationship to its majority language was for many years diffident. Small wonder then that she, though provocative caricaturist and political activist of Left sympathies, turned to an ineffably peaceful habitat of diverse coexisting beings, to Moominvalley, never as escape, rather as a desirable atavistic reality.   

Increasingly Tove Jansson became troubled by her conviction, confirmed by observing ‘Faffan’, that war was indelibly the doing of males. Her erotic-emotional move from men – despite some intense, rewarding relationships – to women can therefore appear an inevitability, though I doubt ideological explanation is sufficient. ‘Ham’ comes over as the most important person in Tove’s life-story, even remembering the decades-long love she knew with artist, Tuulikki Pietilä (‘Tooti’), whom Westin drew on for this invaluable book. The nuclear family, like the nuclear nation, could never have satisfied this freest-ranging spirit, who was truly at home only on a remote island (in Finland’s south-east archipelago) where the elements were the demanding relatives, as they were for the Moomins.

Since her death in 2001 Tove Jansson’s reputation has arguably rested as strongly on pared, magical prose for adult readers – beginning with the wonderful Summer Book (1972) – as on her children’s stories. But Westin shows that this division is inappropriate; Tove’s unique imagination and art pervade both. Therefore she legitimately regards Snufkin – mysterious, harmonica-playing Moominvalley artist – as the most apt conductor to all Tove achieved, from large-scale murals to Chekhovian short-stories.