Tove Jansson’s Art of Play

Among English-speaking readers, Tove Jansson is known — to the extent she is known at all — as the author and illustrator of the Moomintroll series of picture books and novels for children. Moomintroll, a small beast of bulbous nose and roly-poly figure, a magnificent swimmer who can’t sing but whistles beautifully, lives in a marvelously ramshackle house in the forest with his Moominmama and Moominpapa (their monikers a brace of Nordic assonances bobbing like well-built boats on a rollicking sea). In books like Finn Family Moomintroll, Moominsummer Madness, and Tales from Moominvalley, Jansson recounts in word and image the adventures of the small, needy brood of dreaming creatures they foster — an accidental family marooned between the state of nature and a vaguely discomfited sociability.

The trolls, singers, and creeps in the Moomin books have about them all of the absurd rigor of Roald Dahl’s characters — only the hatred goes missing. In place of dread, Jansson’s characters struggle with vague longings, forever discovering that their worst enemies are not tempests or monsters or maiden aunts, but themselves. While they’re quite capable of getting up to mischief and putting themselves into dire circumstances, they see their way through troubles not by means of sentimentality but with a kind of philosophically playful savoir-faire. True to their Nordic provenance, when winter comes they swallow a bellyful of pine needles and go to sleep, only to waken with the spring thaw. In the long northern brightness they go to sea, explore the mountains, and put on theatricals.

For all their fey and friendly adventures, however, the Moomins can be a hard sell; the values they convey, while simple and honestly felt, are explicitly bohemian. Alongside her pipe-smoking, memoir-writing husband, Moominmamma blithely encourages risk, rewards idleness, and supports every expressive or sybaritic impulse that strikes her loose-knit brood. She’s no Tiger Mom; when her child and his friends set out to sea alone in small boats or strike off across the land on journeys to faraway mountains, Moominmamma placidly packs a picnic basket. She has plenty of charges to consider — the house is always full of guests of indeterminate age: in addition to her son, there’s Sniff, a fearful, weaselly beast desperate for Moomintroll’s esteem; the Hemulen, a sort of tall, cross-dressing combination of feckless hobbyist and wracked superego, forever courting the completion of stamp collections and flower albums; and Snufkin, a harmonica-playing humanoid with a feather in his cap, an unquenchable wanderlust, and an anarchist’s dismissal of authority. Moominmamma has her own ambitions as well, which she bends to beauty and Springtime profusion in her garden with a patience and devotion Voltaire would have found estimable.

Jansson was Finnish, the daughter of a well-known sculptor and illustrator based in Helsinki. But she wrote in Swedish, the language of a culturally distinguished minority in Finland (other Swedish-speaking Finns include the composer Jean Sibelius and open-source software pioneer Linus Torvalds). Although in Europe, Jansson’s Moomins have loosed their own torrent of merchandise—from plush toys to bathroom tissue to a full-on amusement park in Finland—in the States they’ve avoided the kind of torturous, treacle-dipped domestication undergone by Dahl’s Mr. Fox, Sendak’s Wild Things, and (preeminently) Milne’s Bear of Very Little Brain (the latter currently appearing in his fifty-first animated feature; oh, bother). While Jansson’s creatures share something with the daydreamed denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, they substitute artistic passion and philosophical sangfroid for Pooh’s cloying naiveté. Absent the commercial clout of their better-known cousins, Jansson’s trolls are also free of the Freudian baggage of those authors’ paeans to childhood (read boyhood) lost. In much writing for children, every boy is a lord, even if only of his own flies. Jansson’s trolls, by contrast, aren’t lordly pretenders or demonic sprites. Rather they’re feral, a bohemian tribe at loose ends in the wilderness, dependent on one another for succor and inspiration. As G. K. Chesterton said of penny dreadfuls, these are stories on the side of life—only they treat the flicker of freedom as something to be nurtured, not defended with a wooden sword.

While her little forest creatures were earning her a troll’s hoard, however, Jansson turned to fiction for adults, writing a dozen novels and short story collections, half of which have been translated into English, including three titles put out by the North American champions of her fiction at the New York Review of Books—the most recent of which, Fair Play, a fiction-kissed account of Jansson’s life with her longtime partner, the artist Tuulilkki Pietilä, appeared in April, making a troika of NYRB Jansson titles with The Summer Book, which appeared in 2008, and 2009’s edition of her taut, riveting novel The True Deceiver. All three are short, episodic works of quiet clarity and light; like the novels of the Icelandic author Haldor Laxness, they bring to tales of ordinary lives the kind of dignity and practical magic found in the Norse sagas. Until these new editions appeared—in pellucid translations by Thomas Teal—Jansson’s tales of the grown-up world have languished.

The Moomin canon, by contrast, has been well-tended in America with not only the children’s novels but picture books published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and with Drawn & Quarterly’s series of splendid editions of Jansson’s comic strips, which originally appeared in the Swedish-language newspaper Ny Tid and the London Evening News through the 1950s. But to split Jansson’s oeuvre into the serious and the commercial, the mature work versus children’s caprices, would be to miss the subtle, encompassing marvel of her project in fiction. For picture book and novella speak to one another, engage in a quiet but impassioned discussion of making and singing, lying and living. Whether a small troll living in a forest valley or a superannuated auntie summering on a Baltic skerry, Tove Jannson’s characters are artists every one. In love and resentment, ambition and rejection, the problems they address are artist’s problems: problems of noticing, representing oneself to others, and the power of names. Her tales have much to offer in this time of networked culture, when everyone is a kind of artist engaged in a perpetual exhibition of the self. And when hasn’t this been the case?

Fair Play consists of a succession of vignettes from the life of Mari and Jonna, a writer and an artist sharing their lives in late middle age, splitting their time between two studios joined by an attic in Helsinki and a small island in the Baltic, where they summer—based on Klovarhu, a tiny skerry in the tangled skein of islands that raggedly hems the Baltic coast of Finland, where Jansson and Pietilä built a cabin and spent many summers. Given Jansson’s penchant for the unnamed, it’s striking that an island so tiny—a granite mound smaller than a soccer pitch, treeless but for a solitary, wind-blasted Rowan rooted next to the cabin—would carry such a rich, clotted name; Jansson and Pietilä had a cellar larger than their cabin blasted into the living rock.

But no couple is an island, and Mari and Jonna don’t spend all of their time ensconced in studio and seaside cabin. Even when they travel, however, visiting Mexico and the American Southwest, they’re still working, still making. In Mexico they shoot a Super 8 film at a melancholy carnival, where the visitors are too poor to pay for rides:

The Konica came closer and you could see that all the little pleasure boats were empty. The picture moved over to a carousel that was also revolving and just as empty. Everything was sparkling and tempting and ready for fun, but the people strolling through the carnival took no part in the amusements; they just observed.

Unwilling bystanders, the carnival goers can only watch and fantasize. Likewise, Jonna and Mari also are forced to bear witness to each other’s shortcomings and confusions, to seek like patient poets, to prompt one another to make a better ending.

Rarely have fiction’s ubiquitous and essential challenges been more forcibly evoked than in Jansson’s short novel The True Deceiver. The novel opens in a coastal village besieged by 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… People woke up late because there was no longer any morning.” Katri Kling, the novel’s fierce, embittered, and sharply intelligent anti-heroine, is fixated on the sumptuously empty house of local celebrity Anna Aemelin, an illustrator of children’s books whose art consists of mesmerizingly detailed paintings of forest underbrush populated by plump, downy bunnies. The yellow-eyed Katri lives above the shop where keeps the books—and whose shopkeeper torments her with his presumptuous longing—and takes care of her slow brother Mats and a large, nameless dog. “It’s unnatural not giving your dog a name,” the villagers mutter; “all dogs should have names.” But Katri refuses to name the dog out of a kind of wild and scrupulous honesty: “Dogs are mute and obedient,” she reflects, “but they have watched us and know us and can smell how pitiful we are.

People idealise their animals, and at the same time they patronisingly overlook a dog’s natural life—biting fleas, burying bones, rolling in garbage, barking up an empty tree all night… But what do they do themselves? Bury stuff that will rot in secret and then dig it up and bury it again and rant and rave under empty trees! No. My dog and I despise them.

All but allergic to the kind of white lies most people use to get through their days, Katri has become a midwife of hard truths, both relied upon and reviled by her neighbors. Children chant “witch” when they see her, but late at night their parents call upon her cruel insight. (“Why do you go to her?” one villager asks a neighbor. “Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back. You’re different.” Katri sets about winning her way into Anna Aemelin’s life by showing her how people take advantage of her and one another through the never-ending succession of tiny, self-deceiving frauds. But as Anna falls under the spell of veracity, Katri begins to learn that even her scruples can add up to untruth. In their encounter with love, art, and lying, both the artist and the truth-teller undergo a kind of quietly cataclysmic domestication. Even the dog gets a name.

Such nameless creatures—and the strange, civilizing toll naming takes on denominator and denominated alike—figure repeatedly in Jansson’s work. In one of the Moomintroll stories, the wandering Snufkin bestows a name upon an anonymous forest creature. When he visits him just a few hours later, the once-fawning animal has no time for him. “Before I had a name I just used to hop around,” he tells Snufkin; “and perhaps feel this or that, and everything was simply happening around me, sometimes nice things and sometimes not nice, but nothing was real, don’t you see?” Snufkin offers to sing a tune or tell a few stories, but the anonymous beastie waves him off. “Cheerio, and give my greetings to Moomintroll! I’ll have to live as fast as I can, because I’ve lost a lot of time already!” leaving a bemused Snufkin to scratch his head and wonder at the power of names. “So,” he said to himself. “Yes, I see.” In her children’s tales and her spare and haunting works for adults, Jansson’s characters learn that love is already a kind of naming—its pleasures, and its burdens, ours to assume.