Jansson’s art loosed the grip of war
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-