Jans­son’s art loosed the grip of war

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Gre­gory Day

Tove Jans­son: Life, Art, Words: The Au­tho­rised Bi­og­ra­phy By Boel Westin Pro­file Books, 576pp, $49.95 (HB) Sculp­tor’s Daugh­ter: A Child­hood Mem­oir By Tove Jans­son Sort Of Books, 192pp, $24.99 (HB)

MY brother tells the story of how be­fore I was born our Aunt Joan, an in­vet­er­ate bach­e­lor-girl who’d spent time on the Greek is­land of Hy­dra with Charmian Clift and Ge­orge John­ston, turned up at our house af­ter one of her trips abroad with a very de­lib­er­ately pur­chased copy of Tove Jans­son’s book Finn Fam­ily Moom­introll. From the cover, it was im­me­di­ately clear that this was no half-lit gumtree tale or cherry-red dose of Enid Bly­ton. Rather, it seemed a mag­net­i­cally ex­otic book, a mytho­log­i­cal an­tipode whose round-snouted trolls, preter­nat­u­ral chap­er­ones and graphic il­lus­tra­tive style sat per­fectly with our aunt’s own warmly cos­mopoli­tan air.

Boel Westin shows in her au­tho­rised bi­og­ra­phy of Jans­son, pub­lished to co­in­cide with the cen­te­nary of the Fin­nish writer’s birth, how this strange yet com­fort­ing Moomin uni­verse was a di­rect prod­uct of the ter­ri­fy­ing bom­bard­ment of Fin­land dur­ing World War II.

From an early age, Jans­son was an ac­com­plished drawer, a co­pi­ous sto­ry­teller and diary writer. She was raised in the artist’s colony Lal­lukka, in Helsinki, the el­dest daugh­ter of Vik­tor Jans­son, a well-known Fin­nish sculp­tor, and Signe Ham­marsten-Jans­son, a Swedish artist and il­lus­tra­tor. She grew there­fore as an ‘‘em­bryo-artist’’ into a world where the re­for­mula- tion of re­al­ity through the imag­i­na­tion was as com­mon as cig­a­rettes. Her fam­ily took reg­u­lar sum­mer trips dur­ing these years, to the myr­iad postage-stamp is­lands in the Gulf of Fin­land, and there Tove was fur­nished with her life­long is­lo­ma­nia, great love of dra­matic weather and wild soli­tudes, and an in-built aware­ness of na­ture’s real and al­le­gor­i­cal pow­ers.

By the time the catas­tro­phe of the Rus­sian in­va­sion of Fin­land and the sub­se­quent hor­rors of the Win­ter War oc­curred in 1939, such al­le­gories and soli­tudes were clearly emerg­ing in Jans­son’s artis­tic out­put. Her self-ro­mance was cen­tred around be­ing a pain­ter but it was dur­ing this time that she pri­vately be­gan her first Moom­in­val­ley tale, com­plete with its stormy propin­quities and safe har­bours.

Due to the Rus­sian in­va­sion, Fin­land was al­lied with Ger­many for the ma­jor­ity of the war, and the con­stant Soviet bomb­ing raids, as well as her dis­agree­ments with her beloved but proGer­man fa­ther, made it a har­row­ing time for the nat­u­rally paci­fistic Jans­son. She la­belled the war a ‘‘men’s war’’, declar­ing that she would never have chil­dren be­cause of the risk of them be­ing sons and there­fore soldiers. It was a com­mit­ment she kept to.

Westin’s hand­somely pro­duced book brims with vivid in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing won­der­ful colour il­lus­tra­tions and pho­to­graphs. Her ac­cess to Tove while she was alive, and to her ar­chive af­ter she died in 2001, was un­par­al­leled. The bi­og­ra­phy be­gan life as a PhD dis­ser­ta­tion and, un­for­tu­nately, traces of a typ­i­cally wooden aca­demic struc­ture re­main. One also won­ders whether sev­eral small chrono­log­i­cal dis­junc­tures are the re­sult of Westin’s dif­fi­culty in syn­the­sis­ing the vast amount of ma­te­rial at her dis­posal. It is a shame that with such a nu­mi­nous project a lit­tle more ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tion wasn’t brought to the tex­tual style.

De­spite its flaws, Westin’s method man­ages to chart Jans­son’s tra­jec­tory from po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist through the in­ven­tion and flour­ish­ing of the Moomins to her prize-win­ning, yet un­der­recog­nised, later fic­tion for adults. As the magic of her Moomin world de­vel­oped, with its Hemu­lens and Hat­ti­fat­ten­ers, its mythic me­te­o­rolo­gies and stylised hori­zons, she ex­pressed as­ton­ish­ment at the ease with which she could es­cape so-called re­al­ity through a ‘‘back door’’ open ‘‘to that creepy yet se­cure world with red and green skies and a vi­o­lence of de­tails’’.

By the 1950s, with the trau­mas of war re­ced­ing, the subtly tragic tone of the Moomin books be­gan to lighten. This made them even more pop­u­lar and Jans­son was ap­proached by the Evening News in Lon­don, the world’s largest daily paper at the time, to cre­ate a Moomin comic strip. The suc­cess and syn­di­ca­tion of these strips saw the Moomin sto­ries take off in­ter­na­tion­ally. Jans­son was be­sieged with commercial re­quests and pri­vate ado­ra­tion un­til, as the years went by, she de­vel­oped an ‘‘un­prece­dented dis­in­cli­na­tion’’ to the very en­chant­ment she had cre­ated. Quot­ing from a let­ter Jans­son wrote to her about this pe­riod be­fore she died, Westin de­scribes the rut of cre­ation on the Moomin fam­ily’s ‘‘ter­ri­bly hack­neyed ve­ran­dah’’ as a ‘‘forced per­ma­nence of sum­mer’’.

It was dur­ing these years of com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion and hard work that Jans­son’s trans­for­ma­tion from chil­dren’s writer to adult nov­el­ist and short-story writer be­gan. Once again she was seek­ing free­dom, though this time from a dif­fer-

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