Tove Jansson – the Complete Artist?

15 Jan

O to have but a tenth of the talent of Tove Jansson… I have just watched an inspirational BBC4 programme about the writer and artist on i-player. Starting out as a much-in-demand graphic artist, Jansson is best known as the author of the Moomin books that she wrote for children. As mentioned here before, I have been reading the Moomins to my own children in the order that the books were published, reacquainting myself with the magic of her stories and characters, her dialogue and illustrations. But there was much more to this remarkable woman than the children’s author.

I’ve always been in awe of the Renaissance Man or Woman. Part of my admiration for Rex Warner springs from this. As well as that great series of allegorical novels that he wrote in the 1930s and 1940s, Warner was a classicist, a poet, a children’s author and an essayist. In addition, he could be found in his local pub playing darts with the regulars. What a man! It’s also part of my fascination with Wyndham Lewis – artistic innovator and leader of  the Vorticist movement, writer of modernist novels (Tarr is a superb book, somewhat in the Ulysses mould) and memoirs, survivor of World War One’s trenches, poet and philosopher (though not always a wise one). It strikes me that Jansson belongs in this company.


Scandinavian cityscape

Jansson was a highly accomplished writer of adult fiction, writing deceptively simple narratives in pared-down prose, sprinkled with beautiful images. I’ve described elsewhere how in second hand bookshops, I unearthed ancient and tattered copies of the two books of hers that had been published in English during the last century, The Summer Book and Sculptor’s Daughter (by coincidence, my late, great friend, Dyre Vaa Saetre’s mother was also a Scandinavian sculptor’s daughter, that of the renowned Norwegian sculptor, Dyre Vaa). In this century, the inestimable Sort of Books has been steadily publishing translations of Jansson’s other books. I’ve read them all and made a convert of my mother along the way. Perhaps the most revealing of them is The True Deceiver. In this novel, a writer and illustrator of children’s books (hmm, sounds familiar…) regrets that the beautifully executed backgrounds of her illustrations must always be adulterated with the fluffy animals that are the stars of the books. Two volumes of short stories are among them too, Travelling Light and Art in Nature, the latter of which I found to be much the more consistent. And yet Jansson’s writing for adults wasn’t published until she was 58. This in itself offers hope to the novelist struggling to find the time to write and attract publishers’ attention while the clock continues to tick away…


Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures in Oslo’s Vigeland Park. Dyre Vaa is Norway’s second most famous sculptor…

The BBC4 documentary also made clear what a fabulous – if unfashionably figurative – painter Jansson was. One of the paintings featured, a wartime portrait of Tove and her family, retains tremendous power. To her constant frustration, this aspect of her work never really received its due. All of this and Jansson had a talent for life too. She was the hostess of wild artists’ parties, summer inhabitant of a remote and empty island, the great companion and love of her partner’s life… If you can track down this intriguing documentary, I recommend that you do so. In the meantime, both her children’s and adult’s fiction awaits.

Jansson looms large over my imaginative landscape. Her books have been with me since first year juniors (that’s age seven) when our teacher began reading Comet in Moominland to the class. In my last year at school (aged sixteen or so), I was rebuked by my form tutor – an English teacher – for reading The Exploits of Moominpapa during silent reading. How was she to know that I was also reading Orwell and Huxley? In my notionally Scandinavian-based novella about a would-be lighthouse keeper, the ghosts of the Moomins are never faraway. And below is a short extract that demonstrates it.

* * *

For the last two weeks of shore leave, he resolved to remain at home in his apartment in the evening. There’d be no changing his mind this time. It would give him more time to work on his book, or if he were honest, to avoid writing it.

He’d just begun re-reading Moominpappa at Sea. He found that he couldn’t remember that much about it. Was it the one where the surviving Moomins – Pappa, Sniff, Snufkin and Little My – revisited their summer retreat after the deaths of Moomintroll (in the Great War), the Snork Maiden (in childbirth) and Moominmamma (in unexplained circumstances)?  No, no, he was getting it mixed up with Woolf. He had read the first fifty pages. There was no comparison. The Moomins got straight down to business, reaching the lighthouse in the opening chapter, whereas the Ramsays, so far as he could remember, had spent most of the book sitting around, talking about the mere possibility of visiting the island.  They’d got there a good deal quicker than he had, come to that.   

It wasn’t fair, of course, to mention Woolf and Jansson in the same paragraph. Woolf set him in mind of the Fillyjonk; her writing was just so completely joyless. It had given him an idea, though. For the rest of the evening, he kept himself entertained re-working the modernist canon for children’s TV. There was Ulysses re-imagined as Pogles’ Wood, with Mr and Mrs Pogle as Leopold and Molly Bloom, and Pippin as Stephen Dedalus, a boy in search of a surrogate father.  Continuing the Homeric theme, there was the science fantasy version, 2001: A Space Odyssey, re-enacted by the Clangers (or possibly the cast of Button Moon).  Waiting for Godot seemed to have been written for the Flowerpot Men while The Wasteland was the perfect setting for the Wombles. He busied himself adapting some of the poem’s better known sections – London, the unreal city (‘Under a brown dog on a winter morn, a crowd strolled over Wimbledon Common’), the fortune-teller sequence (‘Madame Cholet, famous clairvoyant’) and the visions of Tiresias (‘And I Great Uncle Bulgaria have foresuffered all’). The evening simply flew by. There were just five days to go until his return to the lighthouse…

All text and images © PSR 2015


4 Responses to “Tove Jansson – the Complete Artist?”

  1. franny Lloyd January 27, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    Very interesting article Paul. I don’t know the artist but it put me in mind of the British artist Shirley Hughes whose autobiography I came across a while ago and found delightful. She does mostly children’s books but some more serious painting as well and the book marked out the tragectory of her career from art school, giving a really good impression of the sort of life available to a good cartoonist, showing the influences affecting her when she was young and many of her own series; the struggle she had taking her work around various publishers and, when the work started coming it and the reputation growing the tours of school in England she made to give talks to school kids.

    Another favourite of mine, though I’m not normally a humour reader was Edward Lear who also was employed teaching children but in a very private capacity as tutor to the children of one of England’s aristocrats. His touring India and the many serious and comic drawings he did there are fascinating besides him being I think a quite good poet.

    My favourite of all cartoons is one done by an australian comic artist called ‘the boy who breathed on the glass of the British Museum’ if that’s relevant, I don’t know if it is but anything that gives me the opportunity to write is always good!

    I loved the Dr Seuss books I came across only a bit late in life but nonetheless very rewarding to see the volumes of humour and pithy comments on social mores that cartoons can have.

    I’m always happy to come across a comment that I can have doubts about as it sets me wondering and digging for argument and here I think, maybe some day, a blog from you about Virginnia Woolf and how or why her writing is completely joyless; I like it because it makes me ask, what writing should do? But if so I think she was such an insightful writer that she made up for what I found, or thought I found as long boring passages as In Orlando, but generally very deep and quiet as a writer.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves January 27, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

      Hi Franny and thanks for your comments.

      I’d never heard of Shirley Hughes, but I shall have to investigate and try her out on my children. I looked her up on Wikipedia and I see that she’s the daughter of the founder of T J Hughes, the department store chain that went bust last year! I can always sympathise with the struggle to find a publisher, an experience I’m going through with my war novel at present. I’m very fond of the Dr Seuss books, an enthusiasm I’ve shared with my children. A couple of them have been filmed recently, and we’ve been to watch them. And you’re right, they do have a strong moral centre to them. If you annoy those of a neo-con/Tea Party bent, you know that you must be working along the right lines, I should say! And who can resist Edward Lear?

      As for Virginia Woolf, her books wouldn’t still be in print if they lacked merit nor would she be the subject of intense academic investigation. It is, of course, my character giving this opinion, though I have to say that I share his view that the books lack humour. In my view, however dark a book’s subject matter, it must still have comic elements if it is to reflect the totality of human experience. My protagonist also lambasts Tolkien, a writer without a comic bone in his body. I’m aware that I’d be considered by many unworthy of replenishing the ink in Woolf’s pen or Tolkien’s stocks of blotting paper, but there it is! A post on Woolf? Now there’s a challenge…

  2. Sofia February 3, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    Very interesting article Paul! I appreciate Tove Jansson and her work very much and I have read a couple of interesting biographs about her, she was so talented ( I have also written a little about her) Thanks for sharing!!

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves February 3, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

    Thanks for dropping by, Sofia, and for your comments. I’m always pleased to find someone else who appreciates Tove Jansson and to share my love for her works with the world! Biographies of her? I wonder if they’re available in English? Have you managed to watch the programme about her that I mentioned?

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