A Little Piece of a Life: Tove Jansson’s Fiction for Adults

By Madeleine LaRueDecember 21, 2014

A Little Piece of a Life: Tove Jansson’s Fiction for Adults

THERE’S A PHOTOGRAPH of the writer Tove Jansson that shows her swimming in the Gulf of Finland. The photo is from the late 1980s or early ’90s, when Jansson was in her 70s. Behind her is the rocky island that formed her summer home. Jansson is facing the camera, smiling, her eyes closed against the sun, a wreath of flowers in her white hair. She looks like the sort of person who should live forever. I, along with the millions of other readers who grew up on her Moomin books, wish that she had.

Jansson would have been 100 this year. Born to Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, she achieved global fame in the late 1940s for her illustrated stories of the Moomins, a family of trolls who live with an assortment of odd, endearing characters in the idyllic Moominvalley. Though she is still best known as a children’s author, Jansson spent the last 30 years of her life writing for adults. In the years surrounding her centenary, Anglophone readers have been granted the joy of discovering this new side to the writer as her later work becomes increasingly available in English.

Of the 11 novels and short story collections that Jansson produced between 1968 and 1997, eight have appeared in English and only one, Sun City, has gone out of print. The photograph I described above appears on the cover of The New York Review of Books’s recent edition of her selected stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. Also released this year were The Listener, a short story collection, and Boel Westin’s biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, both from Sort of Books. Sort of is also planning to bring out a volume of Jansson’s letters in 2015.

These short forms were Jansson’s favorites. She associated the short story with adulthood, and consequently, short stories make up the bulk of her adult work. Even her novels, with one exception, are organized in vignettes. “I love the short story,” she noted in the 1990s, “concentrated and united around a single idea. There must be nothing unnecessary in it, one must be able to hold the tale enclosed in one’s hand.” Indeed, though Jansson’s books were always small, they were equipped as one would equip a boat for a journey between islands: with nothing unnecessary inside. Jansson, who spent nearly every summer of her life on the archipelagoes in the Gulf of Finland, knew how to decide what was essential. Like so many boats, her stories appear small and light, but they offer passage to a vast world.                        

Despite her later confidence in the short story, Jansson had originally turned to writing for adults during a period of crisis. In January of 1961, overwhelmed by the fame the Moomins had brought her, she confided to her diary:

My first books were about happy childhood and the joy of being an amateur, with a little escapism. Now there’s no more material […] I used to show the beautiful, abundant profusion of the world. But how do you set about showing an empty room?

If childhood was marked by abundance, adulthood was about austerity: perhaps this is why Jansson felt so attracted to the short story. The limits of its form were like those of a small piece of canvas, and Jansson had an exceptionally good eye for composition. As she began filling up the empty room, her stories turned out to be anything but austere. Though expertly composed, they are not merely cold exercises in form; Jansson’s stories never leave us starved. Their author lived half her life outdoors; she loved the sea and storms, and so she writes with an abundance that recalls the natural world: never extravagant, but never wanting.

Shortly after making this diary entry, Jansson began work on her first book for adults, Sculptor’s Daughter. An unconventional memoir in vignette form, Sculptor’s Daughter relies heavily on the principles of the short story, but continues to offer tales, as the Moomin books do, of a largely happy childhood.

DAYS ON TOP OF DAYS: Sculptor’s Daughter, The Summer Book, A Winter Book

Jansson’s biographer, Boel Westin, has described Sculptor’s Daughter and The Summer Book, written in 1968 and 1972 respectively, as the most “Moominlike” of her adult works. An atmosphere of childlike wonder pervades these novels; both feature child protagonists and a lyricism that Jansson abandoned in her later writing. A child camping outdoors in The Summer Book is “wrapped in a cocoon of light and silence” and an island is “days on top of days, and passing time.”

In Sculptor’s Daughter (translated by Kingsley Hart, first published in English in 1969 and reissued in 2014), Jansson said that she was “writing in fully adult mode about what is still a small world.” Through the eyes of its young narrator, the book explores the two poles of her small world: her parents (an illustrator mother and a sculptor father, like Jansson’s parents) and art, more often called work.

The studio where the child’s father casts his sculptures looms large as the site of encounter with art. Sometimes it is like holy ground: the window must not be washed because it “gives a very beautiful light”; the edges of the room are filled with “tiny white ladies” on shelves and piles of “sinister things that mustn’t be examined”; the middle of the room is empty, save for “a single modeling stand with a woman in wet rags, and she is the most sacred thing of all.” Jansson did not want Sculptor’s Daughter to be illustrated; unlike her Moomin books, it was to be without pictures, so that we readers should have to imagine the studio for ourselves, with its cold floor and northern light. Sort of Books has, however, elected to print the book with photographs from Jansson’s childhood, and one photograph in particular, of Tove’s parents, laughing while covered in plaster and surrounded by drawings, shows that the studio was not only a hallowed place, but also one of joy.

The title Sculptor’s Daughter connects the worlds of art and family and is in that sense fitting. Nevertheless it is also unusual, representing the only time in her oeuvre that Jansson establishes her identity in relation to a man. Viktor Jansson was indeed a powerful artistic role model in his daughter’s life, and perhaps Tove felt, even as she wrote her first work for adults, that she had not completely escaped the influences of her childhood. Her choice of title may have been a sincere acknowledgement of what she had learned from her father: how to chip away what was unnecessary, how to bring out the woman in the rock. Yet Jansson’s relationship with her father was conflicted: especially when it came to politics, the two vehemently disagreed. Jansson pokes fun at Viktor’s conservatism in the chapter “Pets and Females,” which details her father’s relationship to those two kinds of creatures; he much prefers pets because “they don’t contradict him.” In that light, Sculptor’s Daughter reads ironically — the work of a female who cannot be known as herself, but only as some man’s daughter. Whatever the title’s intention, it is unique among Jansson’s works: all of her subsequent novels, and many of her short stories, focus on the relationship between two women.

The Summer Book (translated by Thomas Teal, originally published in English in 1974 and reissued in 2003) remains Jansson’s most popular work for adults. Considered a modern classic in Finland and Sweden, the novel revolves around an 85-year-old grandmother going through a late rebellious phase and her (approximately) six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia. Their relationship echoes that between Jansson’s mother and her niece, also called Sophia. Jansson began to write The Summer Book the year her mother died; it was her mourning book, and death haunts its first pages. Sophia’s mother has died, apparently just before the start of the summer, and the child’s grief surfaces in unexpected ways throughout the course of the book: as a fear of deep water, as a desire for a storm, or as the terror that the tide will destroy the balsa wood model of Venice she and Grandmother have made.

The world of The Summer Book is not only in the minds of the little girl and the old woman, but also on the tiny island that forms their seasonal home. A remote, forested rock in the Gulf of Finland, the island is, to adapt Shakespeare’s phrase, a nutshell of infinite space. In her introduction to The Summer Book, Esther Freud writes that she could walk the entire circumference of the island in only four minutes, but that even so, the little rock seemed inexhaustible. Its pebbles “become cliffs,” its creek “a ravine”; like being an artist, being an island dweller means learning to pay attention. Grandmother gives her attention to branches and driftwood she finds on the island, producing carvings of animals that “retained their wooden souls, and the curve of their backs had the enigmatic shape of growth itself and remained a part of the decaying forest.” Asked by Sophia what she’s doing, the artist replies, “I’m playing.”

Though Grandmother and Sophia play a great deal together, underneath all the charm and humor of their games, something serious is happening: they are learning to let go. In August, the island begins to “shake them off.” Black nights return to the far north; the island goes back to its “original condition,” uninhabited, “growing cleaner and cleaner, and more and more foreign and distant.” Summer passes away. Childhood is ending, or will end. Grandmother, staring out at a vision on the sea that may be a herring boat or her own heart, is dying or will die.

To complement The Summer Book, Sort of released A Winter Book (2006), which drew together selected short stories from six of Jansson’s then-untranslated collections. The majority of these came from Sculptor’s Daughter, with scattered contributions from the Swedish collections Travelling Light, The Listener, Messages, Letters from Klara, and Notes from an Island. A Winter Book is organized, as Tove’s own life was, around winter and summer, town and country. The first half of the book contains many of the childhood stories of Sculptor’s Daughter, while the second half features adult narrators dealing with the struggles of fame, aging, and leaving some stage of life behind.

The collection’s wintry title works not only as a counterpoint to The Summer Book, but as an acknowledgement of what this often-misunderstood season meant to Jansson as a writer and as a human being. Winter was dangerous, but it contained a magic entirely unlike the summer variety. Normal rules did not quite apply in winter; it was the season when storytellers could be born. At the beginning of “The Dark,” the child narrator from Sculptor’s Daughter and her friend Poyu visit “the worst thing of all,” the skating rink out on the harbor, “an ocean of blue snow and loneliness and nasty fresh air.” When they are safely back at home, the little girl re-enacts the frightening scene, embellishing it with lyrics and pushing it toward the realm of art:

I used to sing sad songs to Poyu. He put his hands over his ears but he listened all the same. Life is an isle of sorrow, you live today and die tomorrow! The skating-rink was the isle of sorrow. We drew it underneath the dining-room table.

Sensing the symbolic significance of the skating rink, the little girl recasts it as the isle of sorrow. At the same time, she contains it, drawing it underneath the dining-room table, where it becomes useful, pleasurable, and psychically manageable — a work of the self, and of art. With these storytelling gestures, the child becomes not only more of an artist, but more of a human being. More than once in Jansson’s oeuvre, in fact, a child must learn to contain its nebulous fear of itself: the narrator of Sculptor’s Daughter, wearing her mother’s voluminous black tulle skirt, sees herself in the mirror and, in her imagination, sets loose dozens of huge, black creatures into the studio, who terrify her until she looks them in the face, flings open the window, and sends them out across the water. A similar event occurs in Jansson’s very last Moomin book, Moominvalley in November (written shortly after Sculptor’s Daughter), when tiny, childlike Toft nourishes a black creature in his mind until he fears the thing will consume the valley and himself. But, as winter approaches, he sets it free, and it vanishes into harmlessness.

Demons left unacknowledged will grow teeth and bite, but demons confronted can be made to work, made to write or draw. Children often sense intuitively that these demons are an aspect of our own selves, and adults, Jansson implies, would do well to remember it.

HARD-BOILED: Art in Nature, Travelling Light

The childlike fantasy and lush, poetic language that characterized Jansson’s early adult works are intentionally pared down in her later collections. Sculptor’s Daughter and The Summer Book, with their “Moominlike” sense of wonder, had still been considered appropriate for young readers in the Nordic countries. With her next two collections, Art in Nature (Swedish 1978, English 2012) and Travelling Light (Swedish 1987, English 2010), Jansson wanted something more “hard-boiled,” something “absolutely not for children.” She wanted to shock. If there was a touch of adolescent rebellion in this desire, it was not out of place. Jansson was maturing rapidly as a writer, and her concerns were shifting from the birth and development of an artist to the difficulty of living as one: how to work, how to love, how to negotiate all the complications, cruelties, and pleasures of creative life. Many of Jansson’s stories and novels from the 1970s and ’80s take on the darker sides of adulthood, but they are never morbid. They rely as much on comedy for their shock value as they do on critique; part of Jansson’s genius is to tread lightly over serious ground, as if over ice.

Much of both Art in Nature and Travelling Light deals with the problem of art, and more specifically, with the problems of artists. Jansson’s characters are cursed to carry the same two souls within their breasts that she carried within hers: they desperately want to be alone, but equally desperately want to experience human connection. Jansson, never above self-mockery, lends this conflict to characters who are exaggerated versions of herself. In “The Locomotive,” a train enthusiast and draughtsman finds himself simultaneously drawn to and repelled by a woman who seems to share his obsession. As their relationship escalates, the narrator grows ever more manic, and the story might have veered toward psychological horror were it not for its playful absurdity. “Travelling Light,” too, takes a comic turn, when a man who decides to escape all his worldly responsibilities becomes almost immediately entangled in someone else’s sorrows. With these helpless protagonists, Jansson winks at us, reminding us (and perhaps herself, who yearned for an unburdened boat) that there is no such thing as travelling light, no way to be both human and alone. (This theme recurs in later collections. In “The Listener,” Jansson writes of an elderly, isolated woman: “She understood that this was no way to live, human beings are not built to float.”)

“The Doll’s House” is more sobering. A retired carpenter nearly alienates his partner by turning their apartment into a studio for the perfect, stunningly realistic doll’s house that consumes his imagination. The story, while highly sympathetic to those people who must live with artists (they have a difficult lot), refrains from casting the artist as the villain. He is acting according to his nature; like Jansson, he seems motivated by work and love, in that order.

“The Cartoonist” introduces the problem of commercial success and features a different kind of artist: one who tries to give up his art. The story follows a young man named Stein who has been hired to continue producing a famous comic strip after its original creator suddenly disappears. The popularity of this comic parallels that of the Moomins (references are made to the myriad products available featuring the comic’s characters, from curtains to candle wax, as well as to the number of letters the artist receives from ardent fans), and the reclusive creator recalls Jansson, too. When Stein finally tracks down his predecessor, he chastises him for his willingness to throw away the contents of his desk. “After all, it’s a life,” he protests. The artist corrects him immediately: “‘Stein,’ he said, ‘not a life. A little piece of a life.’”

Witold Gombrowicz once lamented in his diary, “When I, therefore, demand of them that they be people who paint, they want only to be painters.” Jansson would have understood this; she and her characters are people who paint. In “The Cartoonist,” she exerts the right of the artist to be a human being; that is, to be more than the sum of his or her works. Even as the cartoonist asserts himself as a person with a life beyond his art, he shyly suggests that he could come back now and then to do to a guest strip for Stein, “if you get stuck.”

The unpleasant but inevitable relationship between art and commercialism never fully disappears from Jansson’s work. While in “The Cartoonist” the stakes of this conflict remain fairly low, they achieve a much more sinister level for another character, the artist Anna Aemelin, in the book Jansson’s biographer called “the black novel.”

WORKS OF LOVE: The True Deceiver, Fair Play

The True Deceiver (published in Swedish in 1982, translated by Thomas Teal in 2009) is one of Jansson’s best and most enigmatic works. A winter book of the most chilling sort, it takes place in a tiny coastal village in the north and revolves around two women with the souls of animals. Katri Kling is a taciturn, yellow-eyed wolfish person with a special genius for numbers and a fierce, protective love of her “simple” little brother, Mats. Katri, trusted but disliked by the entire village, decides to take over “the rabbit-house,” the residence of the leporine Anna Aemelin, an artist renowned for her paintings of the forest floor. Katri’s motives, she believes, are pure: she wants the house because she wants a better life for her brother, away from the taunts of the village’s children and the casual nastiness of its adults. Although she prides herself on her honesty, Katri secures an invitation to move in with Anna largely through deceptive means, even going so far as to stage a break-in at the rabbit house so that Anna will be afraid to live alone.

Once Katri, along with her brother, has moved in, she and Anna grow more and more entangled in each other’s lives, the potential for disaster growing with each encounter. But the ways in which Anna and Katri deceive each other, though numerous, are not nearly as dangerous as the ways in which they deceive themselves. There is not one battle but two: one inside each woman, and she who wins out against herself will also win out against the other. The tension comes to a head at the first sign of spring, the change in season already offering a clue as to who will triumph. The wolfish Katri, from the beginning associated with winter, wanes along with her season, having somehow lost what is most essential to her. In proportion to Katri’s fall, Anna rises: as soon as she sees herself clearly, she blossoms, both as a person and as an artist.

The True Deceiver, though barely over 180 pages, took Jansson years to write and presented enormous difficulties. Its prose is unusually sparse, as if Jansson were carving the words out of ice and had to save her strength for the most essential of them. Scenes are introduced with the least information possible — “Mats Kling and Liljeberg met on the village street,” opens one chapter — and even the descriptions of the winter weather rely only on essential adjectives: dark, cold, snow-covered. And yet this taut language proves disturbingly ambiguous. Though Jansson manages to convey an impressive amount of information in only a few sentences, the reader feels the meaning of the words shifting underneath the text, leaving in doubt what had appeared to be so exact. This effect is enhanced when the narrative suddenly changes from third person to first. During a conversation between Katri and the spiteful village storekeeper, for example, Jansson writes:

This exchange was quiet and hostile, like two wary animals circling for an attack.

He doesn’t forget, this little storekeeper, he hasn’t forgiven me that time. His lust was ludicrous, and I let him know it. I wasn’t objective. Things get out of hand every time I lose my objectivity. I have to get away from here.

We can identify Katri’s voice by the tone and content of her utterances, but otherwise the changes are unmarked. Though Katri’s interruptions appear infrequently, they are unexpected enough to destabilize the entire narrative, prompting us to question, if only slightly, the reliability of the third-person narrator and, by extension, the author herself. Would “true deceiver” not be a fitting description of a novelist?

The graceful motto Labore et amare was carved into Jansson’s graphic designs as early as the 1940s: work and love, her guiding principles. But there was a third term to her life’s equation as well: play. Work, love, and play, these three concepts, usually in that order, structure nearly all of Jansson’s work. In The Summer Book, Grandmother describes carving her beautiful wooden animals as playing, and even in The True Deceiver, both Anna and Katri are unexpectedly concerned with play. “You don’t know how to play,” Anna once tells Katri, insisting that this knowledge is indispensable to an artist. Katri, interestingly, has already accused Anna, albeit silently, of the same thing: “You know nothing about fair play!” Both women place a high value on the ability to play properly (Katri refers to her entire conquest of the rabbit house as a game), but they are operating under different sets of rules, different understandings of what constitutes “fair play.”

Fair Play (published in Swedish in 1989 and translated, again by Thomas Teal, in 2007) is the mirror image of The True Deceiver. Though it also examines the relationship between two women, Fair Play, unlike its predecessor, is a romance. Inspired by Jansson’s life with her partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, the novel centers on a pair of artists. Mari, a writer and illustrator, as Tove was (Tove’s middle name was Marika), is contrary, affectionate, and sensitive; Jonna, like Tuulikki, is a graphic artist, brilliant and practical, constantly thinking up plans with a “mysterious blend of perfectionism and nonchalance.” Both in their 70s, they live in two studio apartments connected by an attic passageway. Mari and Jonna fill their days with absorbing, unglamorous things: they hang pictures on the wall, watch videos, travel, host eccentric visitors, bicker, make up, make art.

Fair Play is a very slim book, shorter even than The True Deceiver. Its chapters are rarely more than three or four pages, with, however, not a single word out of place, not a mark of punctuation wasted. It can easily be read in less than a day, but perhaps more than any other of Jansson’s novels, Fair Play conveys the years of life behind it. Given a few moments in her characters’ lives, Jansson’s reader experiences a fullness, a complexity of relations and emotions that are pointed to by the text, but not contained within it.

In the chapter called “Killing George,” for instance, Mari asks Jonna to critique a story she’s just written. They discuss the characters’ motivations, they disagree, and Jonna, growing fed up and tired and eager to return to her own work, alone, goes into the bathroom:

Looking in the mirror, looking at her own face, she thought with sudden bitterness that it couldn’t go on like this, these short stories that were never finished and just went on and getting rewritten and discarded and picked up again, all those words that got changed and changed places and I can’t remember how they were yesterday and what’s happened to them today! I’m tired!

She goes back out to Mari, determined to get rid of her by giving her a difficult exercise. “Try to describe what I look like,” she demands. Mari, after hesitating a while, says,

“I’d try to describe a kind of patience. And stubbornness. Somehow bring out the fact that you don’t want anything except […] well, except what you want. Wait a moment […] Your hair has an unusual hint of bronze, especially against the light. Your profile and your short neck make one think of, you know, old Roman emperors who thought they were God himself […] Wait. It’s the way you move and the way you walk. And when you slowly turn your face toward me. Your eyes […]”

“One of them’s gray and the other one’s blue,” Jonna said. “And now drink your coffee because you need to stay alert. We’ll take the whole thing from the beginning. Read slowly, we’ve got time.”

The cover of the NYRB edition of Fair Play is a portrait of Tuulikki by Tove showing precisely these features that Mari saw in Jonna, that patience and stubbornness and faintly bronze hair. Like the novel itself, the painting is a work of love. Fair Play is neither the flashiest nor the most acclaimed of Jansson’s novels, but it is one of the only convincing love stories I have ever read.


Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity for Music & Literature.

LARB Contributor

Madeleine LaRue is a writer, editor, and translator, and is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity for Music & Literature. She lives in Berlin.


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