Tove Jansson’s Genius

The radical imagination that built the visionary world of the Moomins

Evan James
Tove Jansson at her desk. ©Eva Konikoff/Moomin Characteers™
Tove Jansson. © Eva Konikoff/Moomin Characteers™

Tove Jansson, the Finnish writer and artist who created and illustrated the Moomintroll children’s books, wrote a letter in 1978 to her Swedish publisher about her new collection of comparatively “hard-­boiled” short stories, The Doll’s House. “You know, I sometimes think the nursery chamber and the chamber of horrors are not as far apart as people might think,” she muses. This observation pops up near the end of the five hundred pages of correspondence collected in Letters from Tove, which charts in intimate detail fifty years of Jansson’s day-­to-­day life, romances, apprenticeships, family relationships, business dealings, and artistic triumphs—and opens an enticing window onto the imagination of a visionary. Jansson’s work consistently disturbed manufactured boundaries, dubious segregations, and artificial clefts rent in the flux of experience. This tricksterish border hopping between play and serious philosophical inquiry, between the heroic individual and the raucous collective suffused her art with adventure and rebellion.

Take, for instance, the Moomintroll books, for which Jansson became known around the world. Though one would find them in the children’s section of most bookstores, the nine volumes in this series frequently combine whimsical, enchanting storybook scenarios with the most dreadful existential threats. They feature a charming ensemble of characters, the Moomins: “kind, philosophical creatures with velvety fur and smooth round snouts,” accompanied by an expanding cast of associates like the mischievous Thingumy and Bob, the stamp-­collecting Hemulen, and the winningly contradictory Little My, “the family’s small, disrespectful, yet extremely positive friend.” In one of the first books, Comet in Moominland, the Moomins enjoy numerous adventures with eccentric acquaintances but also have to reckon with a comet headed for earth. Ultimately, it roars through Moominvalley and disappears over the edge of the world, a near miss; the narrator breezily declares that “if it had come a tiny bit nearer to the earth I am quite sure that none of us would be here now.” In the final installment, Moominvalley in November, the Moomins are actually absent from the story; the other characters—including a young orphan, Toft, searching for a mother—live with uncertainty about whether the family will return. (Jansson wrote the book while her own mother was nearing death.) One of Jansson’s biographers, Tuula Karjalainen, remarks of the book, “Loss and the finiteness of life are the main themes,” and Jansson herself wrote that “it seems to play in a minor key, I couldn’t make it play any other way”; and yet the droll, spirited world of the Moomins furnishes the instrument for this song of loss.

She infuses the awesome mystery of existence, its mix of joy, sorrow, wonder, and pain, into even her most buoyant writing and illustrations.

In her novels for adults, such as The Summer Book and Fair Play, a similar impulse prevails to investigate the boundaries where categories break down and extremes meet. The former, replete with Jansson’s wisdom, humor, and lightness of touch, tells the story of a six-­year-­old girl and her elderly grandmother passing the summer on a small island, building play boats, losing and finding false teeth, studying insects, and discussing life, death, and the divine. (The girl asks her grandmother, in passing, when she’s going to die and whether they’ll “dig a hole” for her.) The girl’s mother has died, a fact mentioned just once, but that loss adds depth and gravity to the sense of life captured through the vignettes. On the island (where, the grandmother thinks, “Everything is complete”), life and death intermingle and coexist, coming into being and passing away from one moment to the next through arguments about a neighbor’s bloodhound or building a miniature Venice from sticks and stones. In Fair Play, the interplay between life and art (another artificial separation) is depicted through a pair of characters based on Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä, the woman who ultimately became her lover and partner in life, work, and travel. Here as in The Summer Book, two souls mirror each other, reinforcing yet also questioning their distinctness. Such paradoxes—explored through day-­to-­day existence, the texture of life, the sensual and the social world—ground Jansson’s worldview. She infuses the awesome mystery of existence, its mix of joy, sorrow, wonder, and pain, into even her most buoyant writing and illustrations.

Paradoxes and boundary-­troubling aside
, Jansson’s work is also remarkable for its volume, which reflects her pragmatic side: she worked with both passion and rigor, with both a curiosity for exploration and a practical, grounded sense of art as a profession.

This is evident from the beginning. Jansson sent the first letters collected in this volume to her family in the 1930s, a decade that began when she left Helsinki at sixteen to attend the Technical School in Stockholm for a three-­year course in commercial drawing. Jansson was born in 1914 into a family that was part of the Swedish-­speaking minority in Finland. Her parents, Viktor Jansson (“Faffan”) and Signe Hammarsten (“Ham”), were both professional artists (her mother’s drawings, caricatures, and designs for postage stamps became well known in Finland in her own lifetime), and a responsible streak runs through Jansson’s correspondence about her education, apprenticeship, and artistic growth. Jansson remained intensely centered on her family throughout life, and her early experiences living in a home where artistic projects were always and everywhere under way taught her that making art could be a normal part of daily existence; she also absorbed at an early age a need to help provide for her family. In a 1931 diary, she wrote, “I have to become an artist for the family’s sake.” In her letters home at the end of that decade, she writes from Paris, where she has traveled on scholarship to study painting, with delight about the bohemian atmosphere among her fellow students at the académies, écoles, and ateliers; then from Italy, where she takes in as much ancient and Renaissance art as she can before the threat of war makes travel—a considerable source of inspiration all her life—impossible.

Her preoccupations and inner tensions were already emerging, as well as insights that later shaped her worldview and her artistic sensibility, among them, a push-­and-­pull between fine and commercial art, between practical vocation and the romance of the perceiving, feeling self. In the spring of 1933, she writes to her mother:

I’m looking forward to coming home. Why shouldn’t I? It isn’t hard to leave a temporary environment, and people with whom one is such good friends that one sheds a parting tear but six months later recalls them only hazily, as if they weren’t real. But one can take up one’s profession again at any time, that’s the main thing, and all the little people one has met, be and been or annoyed by [sic], ultimately amount to no more than a couple of blurred pencil lines in an old, old sketchbook.

Family and vocation dwarf outside social life, which she depicts as “blurred” and transient, though new experiences open the way later for nuance and complexity; as the years roll on in the letters, one sees her life gain texture and detail, becoming deeper, wider, vaster. A thrilling independence of spirit and tough-­minded artistic individualism emerge in her. After arriving at the prestigious École des Beaux-­Arts in France, Jansson finds she dislikes the atmosphere and leaves after two weeks, enrolling at the considerably smaller atelier of Adrien Holy, a Swiss artist. A month or so later, she writes to her “Beloved Mama!”:

I’ve decided to devote my remaining time here entirely to painting… . I have now succeeded (I think) in liberating myself from the influence of the Beaux Arts, those over-­admired idols, and the urge to paint loud pictures, just to impress. Today I was at the Musee de Luxembourg and noted with a certain satisfaction that I no longer got stuck in front of every canvas … but calmly walked past things that did not fit with my way of seeing, and knew for sure what I liked and what I could learn from.

What I like now are the stylised paintings with their emphasis on planes (e.g. Matisse, Valadon), their clean almost brazen colours.

Jansson’s own art, too, eventually grew stylized, and these moments of insight led to her eventual mastery of her own vision as we find it in the Moomin books or The Summer Book. In all of her best-­known work, her style of illustration and her prose style speak to each other, mirroring each other in clarity, directness, simplicity, and originality. It’s no coincidence, then, that her letters to her family bounce along in the frisky tone—alert, amused, amusing—that imparts to her later prose its remarkable charm and freshness. She is alive to comic anecdote and the nuance and flux of a day, reveling in fleeting observations that often have the probing, suggestive confidence of a sketch: “Enckells have been in Venice for a day and it’s nice to have them here again, even if I really only see them at dinner. Our evening out was very pleasant, Lacryma Christi and asparagus in a little eating house with lots of kittens running round our legs.”

Eva Konikoff, a lifelong friend Jansson made in young adulthood, helped Jansson’s ascendant sense of self grow sturdier. Candor about relationships and sexuality as well as searching, detailed conversations about work and art marked their friendship; through their exchanges, Jansson felt out her own boundaries, learning them by reflecting with Konikoff on the nature of her various romantic escapades. Konikoff and Jansson traveled in the same artistic circles in Helsinki, and later took up a steady correspondence about life, love, and work after Konikoff immigrated to the United States. Jansson plainly admired Konikoff’s free, strong character; she admired her honesty in their friendship and her leaving Finland for the States, and saw in her a model of independent mind, a mirror in which she could glimpse new possibilities for her own expression. Jansson decisively declared her lesbianism to Konikoff through her letters—a move that defied the moral conventions of 1950s Finland and met with resistance.

Jansson’s letters to Konikoff form a sizable portion of Letters from Tove. They record an eventful period for Jansson: her years as a young painter in wartime Finland; the ebb and flow of commissions, exhibitions, love affairs; her relationship with Atos Wirtanen, a journalist, author, politician, and philosopher with whom she occasionally discussed marriage; her passionate affair with Vivica Bandler, which awakens her definitive preference for women; and, in the 1950s and 1960s, her fame as the Moomin author.

Among the pleasures of these letters (which include memorable descriptions of wartime urgency and uncertainty, gossip about friends and family, and Jansson’s liberating move into her own studio), watching Jansson hone her craft and come into her own sexually and socially stands out. If Jansson saw freedom in Konikoff, in these letters she herself explored her complex life as an artist disclosing progressively more intimate realizations about herself. “I’m definitely an art snob, Eva,” she writes, “L’art pour l’art.” About her first romantic experience with another woman, she reports, “I’m finally experiencing myself as a woman where love is concerned, it’s bringing me peace and ecstasy for the first time.” These letters often read like a diary, an interesting generic resemblance: both are part of the inner life, yet earnestly shared and expressed and brought out; they’re both intimate and social. While in the throes of her love for Atos Wirtanen, she contemplates her own attitude toward separateness and togetherness, writing:

Up to now I’ve been a single person, who has taken great care over safety margins, and I’ve always kept that kind of private life carefully hidden, keeping it as a rather embarrassing luxury, alongside my work. Now I don’t care about the margins anymore. I don’t want, and never will want, to have anyone else but him. Until now, the thought of potential loves to come has always been thinkable. That’s been a bit sad, perhaps, but also comforting. Now my burning wish is never to have another love affair—it seems inconceivable.

Is it the ardor of youth speaking? In such a boundary-­troubling life, certainties ardently declared may melt away (comically or tragically): about a year later, Jansson falls in love with a woman for the first time. Jansson writes to Konikoff as though speaking both to her friend and to herself, “You know, Eva, I seem able to talk to you about all my great joys, all my agonies, everything going on in my head—there’s no one else I can talk to as I do to you.”

Jansson’s lesbianism was not encouraged by Konikoff, although this did not appear to put a significant damper on the intimate tenor of their correspondence; several years later Jansson made herself clear: “I think I finally know what I want now, and as my friendship with you is very important to me and is very much founded on honesty, I want to talk this over with you. I haven’t made the final decision, but I’m convinced that the happiest and most genuine course for me would be to go over to the ghost side. It would be silly of you to get upset about that. For my own part, I’m very glad and feel intensely relieved and at peace.” “Ghost” meant “lesbian.” Homosexuality was illegal in Finland, and Jansson’s letters to Vivica Bandler during their brief affair (lasting a few weeks—the two later became friends and work colleagues) swell with yearning, jealousy, clarity, confusion. Words suggesting exploded boundaries—­unbounded, boundless—abound. In true Romantic mode, the division between presence and absence collapses into sublime and agonized longing: “Vifslan, you know what, I’ve started getting a strange new sense of ‘coming home’ when I go into the studio. Home to you. Of course there could be a letter waiting, and your chain is hanging on my bedhead. I look at it before I go to sleep and when I wake up, and hold it in my hand when I’m unhappy. But it isn’t only that. Sometimes your thoughts are here, I can sense it. And sometimes it’s as if you are folding me in your arms.” Jansson also made porous the divide between this world and that of the Moomins: the love between her and Bandler is transformed and coded in the characters of Tofslan and Vifslan (Thingumy and Bob in the English translation), identical creatures who speak a topsy-­turvy shared language. In Finn Family Moomintroll (1948), they carry a suitcase around together that hides the enormous, sparkling King’s Ruby. When they reveal it to the cast of characters who live in Moominvalley, it draws everyone present into deep, awed remembrance:

The inhabitants of the Valley were still sitting in silent awe in front of the King’s Ruby. In its flame they seemed to see all the wonderful things they had ever done, and they longed to remember and to do them once more. Moomintroll remembered his midnight rambles with Snufkin, and the Snork Maiden thought of her proud conquests of the Wooden Queen. And Moominmamma imagined herself once more lying on the warm sand in the sunshine, looking up at the sky between the swaying heads of the sea-­pinks.

If family,
art, and the ever-­evolving process of discovery remained the constants of Jansson’s existence in early adulthood, a new steadiness appeared in the 1950s: Tuulikki Pietilä, or “Tooti,” the engraver and artist who became her partner for the remaining forty-­five years of her life. Jansson’s letters to Tooti are the other most significant, pleasurable section in Letters from Tove, since they stand as a testament to something rarely depicted: a supportive, mutually curious, loving relationship between two artists. Early in their relationship, Tove writes to Tooti from Bredskär, an island where she and her brother had built a summer house: “Suddenly my arms are heaped full of new opportunities, new harmony, new expectations. At last I’ve found my way to the one I want to be with. I feel like a garden that’s finally been watered, so my flowers can bloom.” A moving, mellow certainty pervades this correspondence, even as the two navigate, over the years, waves of work, of practical concerns around life on Bredskär, on Klovharun (another island on which they built a small cottage), and in Helsinki, where Pietilä moved into an apartment that was connected to Jansson’s studio by an attic corridor. (All this island living informed the descriptions and atmospheres of The Summer Book.)

Even in this togetherness, though, there were, of course, complexities—living with Jansson also meant living with Jansson’s family, and with her mother in particular. Signe Hammarsten lived with them frequently after Viktor Jansson’s death, and some letters allude to occasional strain, like one to Vivica Bandler from 1964 in which Jansson mentions Tooti’s need for a break: her love is “rummaging about in the attic for suitcases” so she can get away for a bit.

But this is not the stuff of gothic nightmares. Things fluctuate, and Jansson finds in Pietilä a lover and partner who shares some of the essential qualities that have come to shape her life: a love of travel and exploration, a sense of artistic play and curiosity, an extraordinary work ethic. The two often worked together on projects, creating Moomin tableaus and artifacts, putting on a joint exhibition, and writing, photographing, and filming their shared life on Klovharun. They traveled the world together. A 1975 oil painting by Jansson, The Graphic Artist, shows Pietilä working at her drafting table; Jansson was sixty-­four by then, and she and Tooti had gone to Paris for a shared residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts. This image adorns the cover of the New York Review Books edition of Jansson’s moving Fair Play, a work about two women who pursue art, travel, and life together. The writer Ali Smith observes in her introduction, “Is it a novel? Is it stories? It’s both; it breaks the boundaries of both forms, in a series of linked vignettes about two women who live and work side by side in an equilibrium that’s at once slight and revolutionary.”

“Tuulikki” became “Too-­ticky” in Moominland; in the voice of Moominpappa, this character is described, next to a gallery of Moomin figures in the back of one volume I have next to me here, as “quite a philosopher in a way.” As when she expressed reverence for Eva Konikoff’s freedom, Jansson here simultaneously describes the object of her adoration and herself. Her imaginative world was, after all, one in which twin souls played a major part: Thingumy and Bob of Moominvalley, Sophia and her grandmother in The Summer Book, Mari and Jonna in Fair Play. Full of exceptional and highly specific individuals, it nevertheless returned again and again to a sense of security in shared permeability, an intimacy that could be both ecstatic and confusing. The nursery chamber and the chamber of horrors are not so far apart; one may move through the looking glass between life and art, transforming both with each intrepid passage; friends and lover are both others and mirrors, discrete entities and familiar aspects of oneself. Ingenious and playful, a down-­to-­earth trickster, Jansson had a way with a philosophical epigram, too; through Too-­ticky in Moominland Winter, she utters her haunting, mischievous truth: “All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”

Evan James is the author of Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe: A Novel and I’ve Been Wrong Before: Essays.
Originally published:
June 1, 2020


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