Wednesday, August 13, 2014

It’s the mystery that’s important, somehow very important - creative Tove Jannson

To finish what I charitably call my thought, the second thing I have found to be uniquely enjoyable in the fiction of Tove Jansson is her complex understanding of creativity.  It is perhaps her great subject.

Jansson was painter, her parents were both visual artists, her brothers were artists – the subject is lifelong.

Daddy’s women are sacred.  He doesn’t care about them after they are cast in plaster, but for everybody else they are sacred.  (Sculptor’s Daughter, “Christmas,” 184)

The word “sacred” is meant ironically, which does not mean it is not true.

As soon as the Christmas tree was in the studio everything took on a fresh significance, and was charged with a holiness that had nothing to do with Art.  Christmas began in earnest.  (“Christmas,” 185)

So art is not the only source of sacredness.  Just one.

Thus the snow horse in Moominland Midwinter:

Moomintroll now saw that it was made of snow.  Its tail was the broom from the woodshed, and its eyes were small mirrors.  He could see his own picture in the mirror eyes, and this frightened him a little…

“If there only were a single soul here that I knew of old,” Moomintroll thought.  “Somebody who wouldn’t be mysterious, just quite ordinary.”  (32)

One might detect here a link with the theme of sublimity I described yesterday.  In the title story of Jansson’s 1978 collection Art in Nature, a couple has bought an abstract painting at an outdoor art fair that they insist is actually representational (and perhaps it is).  They argue about exactly what is represented.  A guard, who understands art like Jansson does, has a solution:

“Since a piece of art can be just about anything, and since we only see what we want to see, you could just not unwrap it and hang the package on the wall.  Then you won’t need to argue.”  (19)

The guard sounds like Andy Warhol, but the emphasis is actually different: he, and Jansson, are urging the viewer to match the artist in creativity.  The results don’t matter that much.

But what I said was completely right, he thought.  It’s the mystery that’s important, somehow very important.  He went and lay down in the sauna with its four bare walls.  It was nice to look at them and fall asleep without all the humdrum thoughts he was used to.

Or perhaps the couple has been bamboozled by a lunatic who likes to stare at blank walls.  But I think, rather, that he is not contradicting but reassuring Moomintroll.

It is a utopia that Jansson recommends, in which everyone is perpetually creating mystery, but it was the world she lived in, or at least created for herself.

Thomas Teal translated Art in Nature; Thomas Warburton did Moominland Midwinter.


  1. I should really read this, I read most of the Moomin series as a child and had forgotten how much I loved them. They're so surreal and melancholy. I read The Summer Book a couple of months ago and loved it, and I still have The True Deceiver on my TBR shelf. I can't decide if I should save it for the winter, since that's when it's set, or start it now when it's in the triple digits here in Texas -- I do love to read wintery books to try and escape the heat, even if it's just in a book.

  2. The True Deceiver is an especially wintry book, as wintry as Moominland Midwinter.

    Fair Play is excellent, too. It seems possible that all of Jansson's books are good.