“Freedom is the best thing”

“Freedom is the best thing” read the caption next to the first moomin, drawn as philosopher Immanuel Kant, by artist and writer Tove Jansson. While her best-known creations are adorable, the Jansson is anything but cutesy. Her writing has bite (and, yes, that includes the moomins), and, just like her prose, her paintings and political cartoons are unapologetic.

Tuula Karjalainen’s biography of Tove Jansson, Work and Love, is an inspiring account of Jansson as an artist and as a person, not just as the creator of the moomins, for which she is best known. Jansson’s output was enormous, spanning illustrations, paintings, political caricatures, novels, poetry, stage design, playwriting, and, of course, comic books. Karjalainen’s portrait touches upon all these and the book offers beautiful illustrations and photographs throughout, all of which provides insight into Jansson’s fascinating life, from the first moomin through wars, the art scene in Helsinki, lovers and sexuality, bravery and uncertainty, travels in Europe and international fame, to the house on the small island of Klovharun. Below are examples of Jansson’s painting, arguably quite different from the moomins of moomin valley.

Lynx Boa (Self Portrait), 1942


Abstract Sea, 1963

Jansson pulished political cartoons when few if any dared. In the Finnish satirical magazine Garm, she penned disparaging cartoons of both Stalin and Hitler during WWII, defiantly mocking both facism and communism. In 1946, at a time when homosexuality was against the law in Finland, Jansson had an affair with theatre director and lifelong friend Vivica Bandler. Later, in the mid-1950s, Jansson fell in love with engraver and artist Tuulikki Pietilä, again defying the laws of the time (homosexuality was legalised in Finland in 1971, and remained classified as an ‘illness’ until 1981). Jansson and Pietilä would remain together until Jansson’s death in 2003.

Her writing for adults gently moves between the quiet and observational to the odd and fragmented, but often with a core of unsentimental kindness. The Summer Book (1972) told a quiet, often funny, tale of loss and death through conversations between a girl and her grandmother. The contrast with the fragmented and oddly unsettling The Listener is obvious, although Jansson retains her calm voice throughout. And through it all, there is a conflict betwen the drive to create and the drive to nurture. Nowhere is this as apparent as in The Listener, where the titular novella sees a woman create a family tree of sorts, containing all the secrets she has gathered over the years, and in doing so, abandons her nurturing role. Perhaps there are echoes to Jansson herself, who saw her mother’s creativity stifled by her marriage and did not want this for herself. She writes about creativity and about death, about aging (Sun City) and loneliness (The Listener). And she wrote in response to the war she so hated: the Moomins.

The Moomins, Jansson says, were first conceived in 1939. War was looming and Jansson struggled finding the drive for her art. She wanted something different. Moomin valley is a peaceful world, threated by several external catastrophes over the course of the series. The great flood is a good example, which, if seen against the backdrop of its post-war publication era, reflects the anxiety of the day. There are others: the story of the comet set to hit the earth, the tale of the volcanic eruption, the tale of the moomintroll waking in the middle of the lonely, dark winter, and stories of storms and dark nights. Throughout, the safe and idyllic life of the Moomins offers a thin and transient protection against the dangers that lurk in this world, yet the cooperative and kind Moomins are never destroyed by these challenges. It may not be a coincidence that Moomin valley is populated with a diverse set of characters, often lonely and orphaned, many of whom can be seen as refugees from the world outside. And Jansson gives them refuge.  

In the Fillyjonk Who Believed In Disasters, we meet a Fillyjonk, a nervous person, preoccupied with belongings, social prestige and an overwhelming fear of impending doom. A tale of the illusion of control, of the joy of freedom and creativity, this is no simple children’s tale. Similarly, in the story of The Invisible Child, we meet Ninny, a girl so terrified by previous neglect that she has turned literally invisible, and the moomins are pondering how to make her visible again. Needless to say, this too is a tale which echoes with real-life troubles. And then there is the tale of Toffle. Who Will Comfort Toffle? Toffle, a small and scared creature, fleeing his house in the middle of the night, hiding from everything he sees, miserable, finally finding his courage when he discovers there are those smaller and more terrified than himself. There is something beautiful in seeing one of the tiniest creatures of moomin valley squaring up against the Grote herself, and emerging bigger than he ever was. I will admit I have not read Sophie Hannah’s translation of this, as my Norwegian copy is far too deeply rooted in my childhood to ever be replaced, but I would argue that the illustrations alone are worth buying the book, even if you don’t factor in poetry such as this:

But WHO will comfort Toffle and persuade him that a song,
is better than a suitcase if the road is hard and long. 

As for Work and Love, it is beautifully translated (again, I read the Norwegian translation Arbeide og Elske but I understand the English translation is equally well done) and richly illustrated. Work and Love is clearly written by someone with a lot of knowledge and respect for Jansson. I thoroughly recommend it.  

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