2014 is the centennial of the birth of Finnish writer and artist Tove Jansson.
Jansson wrote the Moomin books, which are in some important sense for children, and after retiring from them wrote novels and short stories for adults. As a child I read The Exploits of Moominpapa (1950) many times, but never any of the other books, presumably because I never came across them. Last year, preparing for the centennial, I read several more Moomin books as well as the three later novels published in the U.S. as NYRB Classics, The Summer Book (1972), The True Deceiver (1982), and Fair Play (1989), the latter all translated from the original Swedish by Thomas Teal.
I thought they were all terrific, Moomin and non-Moomin, in their own ways. What caught my attention – what fit in with some of my other reading – was Jansson’s attention to art and creativity, a central subject The True Deceiver and Fair Play, a running theme of The Summer Book, and a surprisingly important part of several of the Moomin books, as when Moominsummer Madness (1954) ends with an impromptu amateur theatrical performance strangely resembling A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or when the free spirit Snufkin has trouble capturing a song in his head because of his irritating fans (“The Spring Tune” in Tales from Moominvalley, 1962). But of course everything works out all right:
He stretched out on his back and looked up into the spring sky. It was a clear dark blue straight above him and sea green over the treetops. Somewhere under his hat the tune began to move, one part expectation, and two parts spring sadness, and for the rest just a colossal delight at being alone. (16)
The end of this story returns at the end of the adult novel The True Deceiver, which features an artist who creates highly specialized books for children. It is again spring, early this time:
Anna sat and waited for the morning mist to draw off through the woods. The silence she needed was complete. And when every bothersome element had departed, the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow. Cluttering the ground with flowery rabbits would have been unthinkable. (181)
Rabbits covered with flowers here rather than big-snouted Moomintrolls. Fair Play is about a mature lesbian couple, one a writer, one a painter. Given the emphasis on silence, it is hardly surprising that the women keep separate, adjacent apartments, or that the book ends with this:
Mari was hardly listening. A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love. (100)
The Summer Book does not end with an artist treasuring silence, so Jansson does not always end this way.
A number of other books, mostly collections of short stories, are available in England. A lot of them are also about art and artists. Jansson was the daughter of two artists; her brothers both became artists. One of them helped her create a Moomin comic strip (which is, no surprise, pretty good).
Someone should do a proper book blog event for Jansson this year, perhaps in August around her birthday, with graphics and giveaways of books supplied by her publisher and whatever else it is people like, all of the things that I refuse to do under any circumstances. The event would be popular and widely celebrated.
I do plan to host an event, possibly the least popular event in the history of book blogs. Tomorrow for that.
The wonderful photo is borrowed from the Moomin wiki. That is Moominpapa in the top hat. Jansson is the one with a watch.