Roll over Shakespeare, I’ll take my treasured Tove
My favourite novel
IN the years I lived in Britain, I listened regularly to a BBC radio interview program called Desert Island Discs in which the subjects imagined what music they would take to a desert island. In addition to music, you were allowed one luxury item plus the complete works of Shakespeare.
I understood the need to take the complete works — but in my desert island fantasy, I’d argue in favour of trading Shakespeare for the Tove Jansson collection. For wisdom, insight, comfort, guidance, company and wit, this Finnish writer could sustain me for a lifetime.
She’s widely known as a children’s writer who created the endearing Moomins, often loved with almost fanatical passion or else dismissed as cutesy talking animals. But even her Moomins are bigger than they seem — each character capturing and revealing human foibles and frailties with perceptive clarity.
Jansson, who died in 2001, aged 86, was rare in her ability to recognise the human condition unflinchingly but always threaded with love. This quality is especially alive in her extraordinary work for adults — stories, novels and essays that have been steadily translated in the past decade, to the joy of those of us who adore her.
Of all Jansson’s work, though, it is Fair Play to which I return in small and large doses. I must have given away a dozen copies of this since it was published posthumously in English in 2007, each gift creating a new convert. This slim novel of love and work is, as British writer Ali Smith has said, discretely radical’’.
Eschewing traditional narrative arcs in favour of a more circular, exploratory form, Fair Play is a series of gentle yet precise vignettes that unpack the nature of creativity. Two women, Mari and Jonna, live and work together, occasionally travelling, collecting irascible, difficult people. Work and love, the two components so central to all Jansson’s writing, breathe through each interaction.
Each delicate moment in this novel is so finely tuned that the reader inhabits rather than observes.
Jansson is sometimes read as a realist writer, but she is not. Nor is she straightforwardly symbolist — not in the gilded-rope-
‘‘ philosophically calm and