BOEL WESTIN Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words: The authorised biography. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
The Moomin cartoons were a worldwide phenomenon in the 1950s. Their fascinating artist creator has inspired this detailed, loving biography.
Towards the end of her biography of Finnish cartoonist Tove Jansson, writer Boel Westin describes a ‘flowering dream landscape’ painted and put aside by Jansson some time in the 1930s.More than 50 years later, Jansson returned to that same canvas to complete the painting, adding the familiar shapes of Moomins among the flowers.
Tove Jansson is arguably most famous as the creator of the Moomins – a family of irrepressible, hippopotamus-like creatures with big noses and tails. The Moomins first appeared in a series of children’s books, written and illustrated by Jansson, and later found even more fans as a comic strip, syndicated in hundreds of papers worldwide.
Published for the first time in English this year to coincide with the centenary of Jansson’s birth, academic (and friend of Jansson for more than 20 years) Boel Westin’s authorised biography, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, paints an intricately detailed portrait of Jansson’s fascinating life.
Born into an artistic family, members of a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, Tove Jansson was the daughter of a Finnish sculptor and a Swedish artist. Even from an early age, her eye for colour was apparent. She regarded herself first as an artist, but also as a writer, and her first book for children was accepted for publication while Jansson was still in her teens.
During World War II, Jansson found paid work as chief cartoonist for the Swedish-Finnish satirical magazine Garm, contributing more than 600 illustrations over her 15 years in the role. Although she intensely hated the war, she didn’t have much to say about politics, letting her cartoons speak for her instead:
At its best, her satire was fearless, sharp and confident. Her disrespectful pictures of Hitler caused anger in Nazi and pro-German circles. There was nothing harmless about this, and she was censured several times. In a memoir, Tove later summarised: ‘I enjoyed working for Garm, and what I liked best was being beastly to Hitler and Stalin.’
Gradually, a little creature started to appear in Jansson’s illustrations for Garm. It started as a tiny presence, becoming more and more pronounced as Jansson’s confidence grew. Eventually, Jansson came to use this creature as a signature. It was rotund, with a large nose and a tail – the first Moomintroll.
That was in 1943. Two years later, that single small Moomin had blossomed into an entire family, and Jansson’s first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was published. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when the fourth in the series was released and Jansson accepted an invitation to turn her books into a Moomin comic strip that her work became a phenomenon – not just in Scandinavia, but around the world:
When on 19th January 1952 Charles Sutton first wrote (in English) to ‘Dear Miss Jansson’ to suggest the idea of a Moomin strip for the Daily Mail, it was the beginning of a long correspondence. Tove said yes at once … It could help her books (which were not circulating as widely as she would have liked): ‘Besides it would probably give our Moomins more publicity,’ she wrote in her answer to Sutton.
Jansson was right. Her Moomins were soon appearing in papers worldwide. By the mid-1950s, demand for all things Moomin was at fever pitch, and determined to keep her creation from becoming over-commercialised, Jansson was forced into the unwilling role of Moomin overseer. From wrapping paper to jigsaw puzzles to ties, the Moomins were everywhere, and each new business deal meant a swathe of correspondence. The business side of the Moomin empire, combined with the constant demand for material for the comic strip, as well as answering her considerable amount of fan mail, began to take its toll on Jansson. ‘I could vomit over Moomintroll,’ she wrote in her diary.
This was the first of Jansson’s ‘quarrels’ with the Moomins. She took a step back from the business side of the franchise, and eventually handed over the comic strip to her brother, Lars, who continued to produce it until 1975.
As Jansson was beginning to write Moominland Midwinter, her sixth Moomin book, she met the woman who was to become her lifelong partner, Tuulikki Pietilä. Westin’s description of the moment their romance sparked is the book’s most joyous scene:
[I]t was during the cold Finnish winter in March 1956, in the studio on Nordenskiöldsgatan in Helsinki, that the love between Tove and Tuulikki really began. Tove’s road there was full of winter poetry and expectation. It was sparkling cold and snow was lying in large drifts. Tuulikki took a bottle of wine from behind the curtain and played new records from Paris. They talked about life, longing and dreams, everything people talk about on a profound first occasion. They drank the wine and listened to Tuulikki’s music. Then Tove walked the long distance home again. Her journey across Helsinki became a journey towards Moomintroll’s winter.
Moominland Midwinter marked a distinct turning point in Jansson’s career. It was the point at which adult audiences, including critics and academics like Westin, started to take the Moomins seriously. No longer were the Moomins for children alone.
Jansson’s relationship with her most famous creation was always fraught with difficulty. Like the canvas to which she returned after 50 years to finish with the addition of wandering Moomins, Jansson always found her way back to her trolls. The Moomins started life as her signature; they were an extension of herself, and though there were times when she couldn’t stand them, she never abandoned them.
Jansson died in 2003, aged 86, already well aware that Westin was at work on her biography. With unprecedented access to Jansson’s diaries and letters, as well as the tower studio from which Jansson worked for 60 years, with its stacks of paperwork, Westin’s task was one of unravelling. In her first chapter, Westin gives the impression that it was difficult for her to know when to stop. She seems to have had almost too much information at her disposal – and at times, it shows.
At 576 pages, Life, Art, Work is an imposing book. There are times when Westin doubles back on herself, unnecessarily returning to ruminate on a subject she’s already discussed. It’s more than merely repetitive; it’s often confusing, leaving the reader struggling to grasp the precise chronology of events.
When discussing the Moomin books, Westin’s writing noticeably changes gear, taking on a more analytical, academic tone. It’s no surprise to discover towards the end of the biography that Westin’s 1988 doctoral thesis was written on the Moomin series. While some might find Westin’s analysis of each of the books interesting, others might feel frustrated at her lapses into academia.
However, there’s no denying that Boel Westin writes with a genuine love and admiration for her subject matter that bubbles up from the page. It’s difficult not to let yourself get caught up and carried along by her unbridled enthusiasm.
Whether you grew up with the Moomins, or you discovered Tove Jansson through her novels and short stories, Life, Art, Words is an enticing look into the life of the famed author and cartoonist, written by a proud fan and friend. Reading this biography, you’ll begin to understand – and share – Westin’s fascination.
Boel Westin Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words: The authorised biography Sort of Books 2014 HB 576pp $49.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).