Reviewed by Simon Thomas
Tove Jansson is one of my very favourite authors, and I often recommend her to friends and fellow bibliophiles. Each time, except in the rare cases where The Summer Book has made an impression, I have to explain who she is by mentioning the Moomins. The cover designer for Sort Of Books (a publisher which deserves a thousand garlands for commissioning a stream of Jansson English translations) obviously expects the same – for, there she is, holding a Moomin toy and surrounded by others. But look up from the toys, to the face, and here is a woman a million miles away from the dewy-eyed children’s writer. The tiniest glimmer of a smile balances out the eyes and eyebrows which seem to be posing a challenge – is this who you think I am?
Once you’ve come to the end of Boel Westin’s biography, first published as Tove Jansson: Ord, bild, liv in 2007 and newly-translated by Silvester Mazzarella, you certainly won’t have a neat and simple vision of Jansson. She was indisputably a complex woman; Westin excels at bringing across – and bringing together – the different aspects of her character and talents. These fall into three major categories – the painter, the children’s author, and the writer for adults. It’s not quite true to say that Westin considers each equally (I was a little frustrated at the way in which her excellent books for adults were rushed through in what was essentially an epilogue), but she certainly recognises that none can be left out of a portrait.
Most biographies start by discussing the subject’s family, and Westin’s is no different. Jansson was born into a Swedish-speaking Finnish family, with parents who were both renowned in their own right – as a sculptor (her father) and illustrator (her mother). Her siblings were also to become artists – a photographer and a cartoonist. We are introduced to an upbringing after which Tove could hardly avoid being artistic, and her ambitions certainly started off – and to a large extent remained – in the sphere of art. She enrolled at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and entered art shows early in her career. Some of the most moving sections of the biography actually relate not to people, but to Jansson’s securing of a studio, and the feelings of creativity and liberty she felt by having this large space to herself and her work. Any reader of her novels and short stories in the recent NYRB editions will have seen her paintings on the covers, and this biography is (thankfully) lavishly illustrated with more. I say ‘thankfully’ because nothing is more frustrating than a book which describes paintings without displaying them (a bit like, er, this paintingless review). Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words doesn’t skimp on the Art, and as well as the mandatory inset photographic pages, there are black and white illustrations on many other pages. As a nice touch, the endpapers are a painting of Jansson’s family; a piece which is often mentioned in the biography.
And onto those Moomins. Even though Westin writes in detail about the genesis and development of the Moomins, it still seems a bit of a curious twist to Jansson’s career. Her paintings were solemn and technically impressive, gaining press and admiration, and then… suddenly they started having trolls in them. She also worked extensively as an illustrator, particularly for the satirical magazine Garm, and… suddenly these illustrations started having trolls in them. And thus, somehow, the Moomins were born.
By far the most extensive section of the biography deals with the comic strips and the children’s books. Westin’s research is exhaustive, and there are interesting personal and business letters detailing the different views of the Moomins held by publishers, journalists, friends, family, and Jansson herself. Particularly notable, I thought, is the fact that the actual books started off as failures. The first two or three made losses, and received minimal critical or commercial attention. And yet, and yet… in an era where authors were allowed a couple of misfires, Jansson was given room to keep trying. Little seemed to change, except the Finnish public’s willingness to enjoy the Moomin books – which later spread, of course, across the world. The 1990s TV show was bought by an astonishing 100+ countries.
It is a truism of biographies that artists and writers grow to resent their most successful creations – and Jansson is no exception, as Westin writes repeatedly (echoing the repeated times Jansson spoke of it):
Celebrity came at a high price. “It’s going so well I can’t help getting rich even if they keep cheating me,” noted Tove ironically. At first, the strips had been a guarantee that she could keep the studio and work freely, but the relationship between storytelling and business soon became complicated and eventually difficult to control. Tove often remarked how drawing the strips had become an artistic straitjacket, turning pleasure into duty, into something that had to be done and delivered by a deadline. What should have given her freedom to do the work she wanted in time became a job that restricted her freedom.
Time and again Jansson said she needed time to paint – that remained her priority. She considered herself first and foremost a painter, and there is the obvious irony that this biography would never have been written on the strength of her art alone. At the height of her Moomin success, when those troll creatures were in great demand, she insisted on working towards one-women shows, possibly filing away the feelings of being artistically underestimated to use later in the creation of characters like Anna in The True Deceiver or the main figure of her short story ‘The Cartoonist’. (How frustratingly reticent are these five words on p.274: ‘She also rejected Walt Disney’!) Westin presents this conflict very well, with plenty of primary evidence – she avoids too much guesswork, and only occasionally plays the biographer’s trick of fanciful imaginings about how the subject might have felt. She does draw some connections between characters and people, but these are always based on secure evidence – Tove’s partner Tuulikki was openly used as Too-ticky, for example, and Moominpappa and Moominmamma clearly have some roots in the Jansson’s own parents.
Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words is not (inevitably) a perfect biography. The first chapter is rather confused, and there is quite a lot of low-level repetition throughout. The same facts and chronologies recur – and you get the feeling that one final edit would have sorted out the intermittent haziness of the structure, and conclusively shaken off the book’s genesis as a research thesis. And, as I have already said, more about Jansson’s works for adults – and perhaps slightly less synopsising and back-and-forth about the Moomins – would have made for a more rounded biography. But Jansson, who spent her life refusing to fit into neat boxes, would have been grateful for the broad canvas Westin allows her subject. One comes away from reading Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words with an appreciation for a multi-faceted artist whose creativity was perhaps too varied to be comprehended by her market – but who, in her own way, successfully and memorably conquered the worlds of life, and art, and words.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and would love to visit Scandinavia, only he can’t affjord it…
Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words trans. Silvester Mazzarella (Sort Of Books: London, 2014) 978-1908745453, 523pp., hardback
Also read our BookBuzz article by Silvester Mazzarella about translating this book.