Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words – the authorised biography, Boel Westin (2014) trans. Silvester Mazzarella

Long before Tove Jansson’s death in 2001 I longed to learn more about the enigmatic author of the Moomin books. When I first encountered these stories as a child I had no idea how to pronounce her name nor, as the biographical blurb inside the front cover gave no clue as to her gender, even whether it was a man or woman’s name. My maternal grandmother began our family’s love affair with the Moomins in the 1950s, when she read the Moomin comic strip in the newspaper and subsequently bought the books (in English) for her six children. My mother, aunts and uncles became devotees and my cousins were similarly infected with Moominmania – one of them even has a large tattoo of Moomin wallpapering his stomach. I loved the names of the characters – Snufkin, whompers, hemulens and mymbles – for their humour and implied affection between the author and her creations. And when I had my first car and house of my own, I kept a copy of Tales from Moomin Valley in the glove box, to read on my way home on the regular ferry crossing of Windermere. It felt entirely appropriate, given the amount of sailing and bathing done by the Moomins and their friends, and the stories fitted neatly into a couple of short journeys across the lake.

Tove on sofa

When my good friend Simon over at Stuck in a Book was sent a (free!) copy of Life, Art, Words to review in early January, I was both beset by jealous and huge excitement, and immediately treated myself to a hardback edition (the only one available). And throughout the wet, cold weeks of January, as my fiancé and I settled into our new home, hunkered down into the hillside above Grasmere, I devoured it in nightly installments.

‘She wrote no autobiography – she left that to Moominpappa. The nearest thing was her collection of stories of childhood, Sculptor’s Daughter (1968). But she spent her whole life writing a book about herself in pictures and words. Together, her many self-portraits, from those sketched in her diaries up to her last large-scale paintings, create a narrative of the self known as Tove Jansson and form a visual autobiography. It presents her, launches her, masks her and documents her.’

So beings Boel Westin’s tour de force, a 523-page epic which brings together Tove Jansson’s life, art and words. Tove Jansson’s family were unusually creative and both her parents were  artists in their own rights; her father Viktor Jansson was a sculptor and her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson a graphic artist. Her brothers Lars and Per Olov became a cartoonist and an photographer respectively.  Tove was the eldest and only daughter in this household, and even from infancy her parents nurtured her artistic talent. She also became the subject of their  art, starting with sketches by her mother (always known as ‘Ham’) of Tove from when she was just a few days old. There never seems to have been any doubt in Tove’s incredible artistic power by he family, and although she is now best-known for her Moomin creations this book gives full credence to her other talents as an artist, satirical cartoonist, children’s author and short story writer. The first half of the book follows her through school, art college, to Paris to live the bohemian dream in her atelier, back to Finland to live with her family again, and finally to her own studio and home in Helsinki. The ominous threat and presence of war form the background to this personal narrative, which also weaves in the story of Tove’s lovers: the painter Sam Vanni, the hugely charismatic left-wing politician Atos Wirtanen, the theatre director Vivica Bandler, and the love of her life, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä.

To the Moomin reader, Atos and Tuulikki seem curiously familiar, their characteristics amusing and comforting, because they inspired Tove to create some of the most popular inhabitants of Moominland. Atos Wirtanen’s joyful easiness, his old green hat, and lack of concern for material possessions are also apparent in the wandering musician Snufkin; Tuulikki (always know as ‘Tooti’) is present in both the name and nature of the energetic figure of Too-Ticky. ‘It is the nature of biography to pick a path through work and life, and move backwards and forwards between various types of material – in Tove Jansson’s case, between words and pictures.’ Boel Westin mimics that ‘path picking’ herself, as she follows the meta-narratives of Tove’s creations as a way of the shaping the biography. This is almost a dual biography: that of Tove, but also that of her most famous creations, the Moomins. The two run more or less in parallel, but the publication and production of the Moomin stories strongly shapes the narrative shape of the second half of the biography.

However, by this point in the book I had begun to loose enthusiasm for this type of ‘editing biography’, which seemed to move away from the familial and personal and into long battles with editors and publishers. Little vignettes captured me momentarily (the chapter on Tove and Tooti’s round the world trip was fascinating) but the book seemed to slide towards a kind of distant respectful recounting of the practical process of presenting the Moomins to the world, and away from what drove Tove Jansson to write, draw and create in the first place. Perhaps I will feel differently when I return to it in a few months or years, perhaps I simply overdosed on too much Tove in a short space of time. The first half of the book is brilliant, insightful and entertaining; the second slips away until Tove herself becomes only a vague and slightly impersonal presence. But I’m now off to order Sculptor’s Daughter

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4 thoughts on “Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words

  1. Epsie! Somehow I didn’t spot this at the time, but I have loved reading your post now – especially about the book-in-glovebox. Lovely 🙂 Sorry you didn’t love all the book, but I can see why. I only learned much later that there is another biography, which also came out in an English translation last year, called (curiously similarly) Tove Jansson: Work and Love, by Tuula Karjalainen. I’ve bought it (with monies!) but have yet to read it. Being shallow, it is a really beautiful book.

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