The Love of Tove Jansson
In truth, The Summer Book and Fair Play are not precisely the novels one might imagine to have hailed from the author of a series of beloved illustrated children’s books. Unless, that is, you are familiar with the world of the Moomins—in which existence is at once filled with dreamlike and froth- coloured whimsy and storylines which are profoundly every- day, often melancholy, and occasionally cynical. If the Moomins feel ordinary in spite of their evident fantastical nature, Tove Jansson’s novels succeed in rendering an island storm, afternoon sandwiches, or the attic passage between two rooms fantastical. In this manner, Jansson’s characters—human and Moomin—exist in the same world, highly conscious of their physical surroundings, wonder, and the passage of time-however variable it may be. Both novels are less than 150 pages; they are the kind of slim-spined volumes designed to be melted in for an afternoon. While their brevity, as well as an absence of plot in any traditional sense inspires an illusion of lightness, they are thematically expansive and rich in the portraits they distill.
One of Jansson’s most effective perspectival tools is the contrast of age in The Summer Book’s two central characters: six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother. Despite a vast division in terms of years, frequent reference to events long since passed, and Sophia’s youthful interaction with stimuli and the physical world, the two are engaged with the very same questions, both highly aware of the imminence of death, the possibility of God, and the dissolution of summer. Painted in vignettes, it is, as much as a story of their companionship and a reminder of joy, a tale of the two coming to terms with grief and love within the enormity of the natural world, existing in the Finnish landscape which itself becomes a character. ‘Every year,’ Jansson writes, ‘the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sud- den it’s pitch-black. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive.’
Mari and Jonna are a writer and an artist who, for most of their adult lives, have lived at opposite corners of the same apartment building, connected by an attic, which serves as a symbolic double for space and distance, their relationship, separations, and the constraints placed upon them awarded a physical form. The subjects of Fair Play exist in a way that is in every manner enmeshed, the present and past blending into something of an understated manifesto of their companionship. The story is obviously, though not explicitly, a queer romance, which in many ways can be interpreted to mirror Jansson’s own life; despite her contemporary success, which rendered her a public figure, she lived an intentionally private life, her sexuality, in mid-twentieth century Helsinki one factor which necessitated her covertness. Unlike in the case of Sophia and her grandmother—for Sophia, the sensations of life are, comparatively, new—the past is a shared experience. It is a multi-yeared and accumulative tale which is presented in fragmented moments and often, silence and unequivocal mutual understanding.
What I find striking about the two novels in dialogue with one another, or, what makes itself vital to me in a season so punctuated by an emphasis on attachment or lack thereof, is the fact that companionship is stripped down to its most essential elements, familial and romantic love painted in complementary colours. I have no desire to launch an oedipal claim, or suggest anything that there is something innately beautiful about both of these bonds, founded on the principal of a shared life, faced in some manner with isolation from the outside world. Of course, something must be said in defence of the frequent assumption that queer women are merely ‘companions,’ a guise often assumed as means of self-preservation. The absence of male characters at the core of both narratives is an additional neutralising factor, which shifts established narrative dynamics, creating entirely new ones which feel almost entirely devoid of the trappings of femininity and masculinity.
Though distinct, the love of one chosen and one inherited becomes a matter of presence, of instants, and days in the other ’s company which build unconsciously until summer ’s end—a reminder of the ephemerality of all things. Perhaps the two works feel wedded because despite their age, Mari and Jonna see the world through the eyes of Sophia—a child to whom each approaching moment is novel and fresh. “It is simply this:’ advises Jansson, ‘do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent-lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.’