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Tove Jansson: Life, art, words

Rupert Loydell

Boel Westin (trans. Silvester Mazzarella)
Sort of Books, 523pp

Boel Weston, a professor of Literature at the University of Stockholm, was allowed open access to the studio and archive of Tove Jansson when researching this authorised biography. It may be down to the translation, but for me there is a coldness and distance about this book, despite this. It seems to fall between two stools: not quite a reader-friendly biography nor an academic study.

Tove Jansson is best known as the creator of the Moomins, a friendly family of trolls, and their associates, but she was also an artist, illustrator and author of fiction for adults. (Sort of Books have been gradually publishing translations of these in the last few years.) She was also an aesthete, a bisexual who in the end decided she preferred women to men, and an island dweller; not to mention self-deprecating and self-questioning.

Born into an artistic family - her mother was an illustrator, her father a sculptor - Tove could not help but grow up bohemian. The family encouraged her artistic output from an early age, took her on holidays to the islands she would eventually build a summer home on, and Tove would often spend time in her father's studio.

After school, Jansson studied illustration and fine art, and sometimes kept a considered, literary diary. Having established her own studio, she very quickly got commercial art commissions, and held back from being too experimental in this paying work, while experimenting and trying out things for herself elsewhere. These separate practices gradually evolved into two distinct strands, illustrator and fine artist; one undertaken for money, the other optimistically exhibited and sometimes sold, although times were hard during the war.

Elsewhere, she was bringing Moominland into being. Moonintrolls, hattifatteners, snorks and hemulen crept into her sketchbooks and notebooks. Illustrated stories slowly emerged, and then found a publisher in the 1940s. The early Moomin books found little critical or monetary success; it was only later - and often abroad, England being one such welcoming readership - that Moomins were adopted and celebrated. This in time led to a carefully planned and monitored marketing franchise, closely controlled by Jansson herself.

Westin is at her best when discussing the gestation of early Moomin books and the literary sources and inspirations. She shows how they involve episodes that draw on World War Two, biblical episodes and childhood catastrophes: destruction, storms, plagues and floods. The Moomins are childlike creatures who experience life; that is, events happen to them, they rarely take control or initiate - rather they respond and adapt. The extended Moomin family is the hub of their world, and Jansson brings to their world a slightly naive and moral tone.

This moral underpinning is a liberal one, for Jansson prized self-motivation and self-reliance above all else. She could be self-absorbed, mannered and fashion conscious (she had a thing from an early age about fur), but in the end she prized companionship along with time and space for herself (or her and her long-time partner Tuulikki Pietiluä, known better as Tooti - whom she met in the 1930s but fell in love with in the mid-1950s) more. Tove and Tooti built a summer cabin on an island and spent the summers in splendid isolation there in the Gulf of Finland.

The desire for her own time and space was, of course, the result of literary success, for as the Moomins grew in popularity, so did Jansson's fame (and fortune): she became Finland's most read author, and the recipient of the Hans Christian Anderson Award for Writing in 1966. What is it that draws readers to the Moomins? It does seem to be the bohemian family unit at the heart of their world, along with the adventures and supernatural events that occur which are told with a wit and humour that allows room for genuinely scary and strange moments. Later books in the series become more unsettling and realistic, the result, Westin argues, of Tove's self-doubt as to whether she could or should write for children or for adults.

In 1968 Jansson's first book for adults, Sculptor's Daughter: A childhood memoir, was published, a superb collection of short semi-autobiographical stories. Her next book, 1970's Moominvalley in November, would bring the Moomintroll saga to an end (apart from some later picture books), and see Jansson only write for adults from then on. Her strange, brief stories and novels, often told at a distance, would remain rooted in her own experiences, with her best known volume, The Summer Book, inventing and exploring the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter spending the summer together on a small island. Both characters are clearly the author; the island and cottage clearly Jansson's own.

It is when discussing links between Jansson's real life and fiction that Westin trips up. She is prone to some rather simplistic psychoanalysis, suggesting that this plus this produces that. Diaries, notes, photos and the subject of paintings (which Jansson continued to create and exhibit) are produced as evidence, and possible interpretations presented as fact. Moments of self-doubt, questioning and inquiry are flagged up as key exhibits.

Of course, contextualising literature and art is a standard critical technique, and when it works it is useful and informative. At times Westin makes clear and explicit links between source material such as hymns or songs and Moomin poems, or documented childhood events and Jansson's later version(s) of them. At other times there is a rather tentative construction being built, one that sits uneasily with the joy and forthrightness of Jansson's published work.

One does not wish to deny the worry that at times plagued Jansson, ignore how her life fed into her work, or turn a biography into a celebratory pat-on-the-head, but Westin has not quite managed to manage the difficult task of combining factual biography, fictional biography, storytelling and academic discourse here. Neither does she catch the originality, free-spiritedness or vision of Jansson herself or her characters. This beautifully produced and illustrated, if slightly overpriced, book is, however, all we have for the moment. If it gains her more readers, then it is to be welcomed.