In 1915, a mother makes a sketch of her one-year-old daughter’s hands. “Look what beautiful hands, one flat, with outstretched fingers, one with a clenched fist,” she notes. The hands were to be key, as they belonged to Tove Jansson. Jansson was born in Helsinki, and spent most of her life there and on islands in the Pellinge archipelago, in the Gulf of Finland. On top of producing the nine Moomin books—about the adventures of a family of buoyant, good-hearted creatures that look like upright hippos—she painted, drew a Moomin comic strip, illustrated children’s classics and her own stand-alone picture books, and wrote fiction for adults. (As Damion Searls wittily observed in Harper’s Magazine, “It is rather as though Jonathan Franzen not only admired Charles Schulz but was Charles Schulz, retired from comic strips and deciding to try his hand at a family novel.”) But the anecdote of the sketched hands, one flat and one clenched, also heralds a conflict. In Jansson’s narratives, whether tilted to children or adults, a debate can be felt rustling under the surface: it’s between voices that speak for the open hand of compromise and diplomacy and those that see the truth as naked or nothing, wills that would rather do whatever the hell they like.
The Moomins were and remain a hit in Finland and abroad—there exist Moomin movies, Moomin theme parks, Moomin crockery, you name it. (Jansson put her foot down at sanitary towels and Disney.) And yet, as it’s known to do, all the commercialism can obscure. Over the past few years, though, some of her rich, unusually supple fiction for adults has been released by NYRB Classics, while Drawn and Quarterly has tackled the comic strips. In the U.K., during the centenary of the author’s birth, Sort of Books has now published “Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words: The Authorized Biography,” by Boel Westin, together with Jansson’s memoir of childhood, “Sculptor’s Daughter.” As in the stories, where the weather transfigures, the rain of titles is allowing fresh perspective on the career.
Jansson’s parents were two recognized, Swedish-speaking artists, the sculptor Viktor Jansson and the illustrator Signe Hammarsten. (The latter’s sculpting plans were sacrificed to family—instead, she merely designed more than two hundred postage stamps.) Home was continuous with studio, at night filled with music and the couple’s creative friends. While freedom exists in principle, when you grow up in such a setting, and one of your family pets is a monkey named Poppolino, chances are you will become an artist yourself. In an emergency, mother asked if daughter could fill in on an illustration job, and daughter obliged. Following art school and travels abroad, Jansson drew cartoons for different outlets, including, for fifteen years, the satirical political paper Garm. (“Do as you like,” the editor told her. “Just make sure you hit them in the mouth.”) This is where the Moomins first surfaced publicly. Originally meaner-looking and troll-like creatures called Snorks, they began mostly as marginalia, a kind of signature, and might even be found loitering in a cartoon about the German Army’s evacuation of Lapland.
That Jansson’s childhood was bright probably won’t shock readers acquainted with the Moomin books’ cheerful family, lovely natural settings, constant activity with friends, and, one of the early books aside, world that’s predator-free. Still, the series has shades. Two of the strongest titles, “Moominpappa at Sea” and “Moominvalley in November,” are suffused with melancholy, and, in all the books (the set is available from F.S.G.), the Moomins’ friends are a ragtag group, often less than perfectly sociable. They include Snufkin, a nomadic, solitude-loving musician; Sniff, who can’t stop thinking of jewels; and the skittish, troubled Toffle. The species are likewise subtly complex. Hemulens are like Moomins, but unprepossessing ones, often cluelessly given to roles of power. (“Who are those fellows? I can’t have them coming aboard to disturb our educational games!”) Fillyjonks suffer neuroses. The Hattifatteners, clusters of mysterious polyp-like beings, can’t feel or think, just seek: they come alive only in the presence of lightning.
Compared to the rest, and even though they have moods and little flaws of their own, Moominmamma, Moominpappa, and Moomintroll are enviably easygoing. They’re a tight, mostly harmonious unit who allow each other space—apparently one of the reasons behind their huge appeal in Japan, as family patterns changed in the postwar era. The Moomins seem to intuit their good fortune. Blessed with energy to spare, they’re always up for an outing, or ready to offer shelter irrespective of a visitor’s quirks. Jansson’s sympathy for all and sundry comes out partly in this inclusiveness, and partly in the illustrations, which convey charm and vulnerability in characters that might repel in the text. Yes, Snuff is greedy, yet he also just suggests a silly childhood friend: he’s cute, more or less a wallaby. The Groke, a metaphor for despair who freezes the ground over which she travels, has large, doleful eyes.
Just one character in Moominvalley is nasty: Little My. A tart and ruthlessly independent-minded philosopher, she’s the clenched fist incarnate. Given the milieu, however, those very qualities make her an important check on naïveté, a voice without whom the Moomins’ wishful optimism would go untested. When Moomintroll’s otherwise perfect hiding place turns out to be full of ants, Little My volunteers to take care of the problem on her own—by drenching them with kerosene. Moomintroll grieves, and Little My chides him: “Anyway, you knew exactly what I was going to do to them! All you hoped was that I shouldn’t tell you about it. You’re awfully good at deceiving yourself!”
Both the memoir and Westin’s biography yield obvious ties between Jansson’s life and work. Though Jansson enjoyed writers like Jules Verne, Jack London, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, her taste for adventure tales didn’t stem solely from books. We learn that her mother, a clergyman’s daughter and the model for Moominmamma, was a crack shot and a horse rider who, before getting married, reportedly performed in a circus attended by Swedish royalty. The whole Hammarsten side of the family, it seems, somehow a fusion of scientists, thrill-seekers, and storytellers, left a strong impression. “Sculptor’s Daughter,” which reads like Jansson’s fiction, is especially absorbing for its finely observed tales of life by water, a feature of both the Moomin stories and the masterpiece of lightness that is “The Summer Book.” Hearing of how being out in the dangers of a storm would cheer up Jansson’s father, it’s impossible not to think of “Moominpappa at Sea.” In that story, at self-involved loose ends, Moominpappa relocates the family to a remote, rocky island, his mood turning only when the weather becomes furious.
As for relationship stuff, “Tove Jansson” naturally goes into that. Jansson was taken with men and women, came close to marrying, and found lasting love with the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä. (She is the basis for Too-ticky in the Moomin stories, while the couple’s shared working life underpins “Fair Play.”) The evidence points to nothing simple, yet does suggest that Jansson’s adult view of her father’s role in the family, combined with “the utterly hellish war years,” came to affect her outlook on the male sex as a whole: “Of course I’m sorry for them and of course I like them, but I’ve no intention of devoting my whole life to a performance I’ve seen through … A men’s war!” These words, which I’ve abridged for space, were written as the Continuation War, between Finland and the Soviet Union, dug in. Part of the Second World War and strangely its own affair, the conflict saw Finland accepting help from Germany. Jansson, whose best-known cartoons were aimed at Hitler, couldn’t abide her father’s politics—he had fought against the Bolshevist side in the civil war during his youth, and stood by Germany as a liberator—nor his private anti-Semitism.
Writing the Moomins afforded an escape at war’s end. After a quiet start, the series took off in the fifties, bringing welcome financial stability—but the success also represented a kind of detour. Jansson’s ambitions for painting never left her. Now free time was scarce, thanks to an unceasing flow of fan mail, the minutiae of merchandising, processions of visitors, and, until Lars, one of her brothers, took over, the arduous demands of the comic strip. For a while, there was no pleasure to be found in working. Thankfully, social media didn’t exist yet: “I could vomit over Moomintroll,” she wrote. “I shall never again be able to write about those happy idiots who forgive one another and never realize they’re being fooled.”
As with someone like Kafka, it is hard to know how literally to take Jansson’s obstacles. To some degree, her entrapment was avoidable: to be so involved in the products, to answer every letter, seem Moominish ideas—either that or, for a person who so prized being left free and alone, they’re plain masochistic. Were an analogous scenario to occur in the books, the hassles would be washed away by flood, to be followed by a celebratory picnic. As it was, Jansson believed that her nature didn’t give her a choice. The good part is that the internal clash fed into “The True Deceiver,” a marvellously steely novel about an aging children’s-book author and her rough-hewn outsider assistant. It was a nightmare to write.
Jansson’s “serious” writing was acclaimed, and she eventually enjoyed aspects of her popularity—yet in the biography, at least, an impression of restlessness hovers. (Is there something about serving both kids and adults, or work that lives unexpectedly at the juncture of art and commerce, that plays strange tricks with fulfillment? Saul Steinberg, whose biography came out last year, shared a number of parallels with Jansson.) When it came to the Moomins, Jansson tended to align herself with Little My and Snufkin, but one wonders if the predicament of a character called the Hobgoblin wasn’t an echo of her own. Cutting a villainous, nineteenth-century figure with his beard and top hat, the Hobgoblin sits on his lunar abode, brooding over stolen rubies. Descending to Moominvalley in pursuit of them, he turns out to have more than one side. After eating some pancakes, he charmingly and very generously grants everyone wishes. His own desires are another matter: “I can only give other people wishes, and change myself into different things.” It’s a qualified magic he works, then, but others can see that it goes a long way.