Studies in obsession
From Tove Jansson’s first short book, Småtrollen och den stora överstämningen (‘The little troll and the great flood’, 1945) to her latest volume of short stories, Dockskåpet (‘The doll’s house’, 1978 – see extracts 1 & 2), there is a great step, and few of the readers of that first children’s story could conceivably have foreseen just how far its writer was to go. Since her start in 1945 Tove Jansson’s reputation as the originator of the Moomintroll stories has become worldwide, and in one sense her own creation must have become a burden to her, not least because many of the themes which have emerged have been difficult to encompass within the Moomin framework. It is not easy for a writer who has created a reputation as a children’s author to break through what might be termed the ‘adult barrier’, but Tove Jansson has shown herself determined to do so, and with Dockskåpet she must surely have overcome any lingering doubts her readers may have had. Here is the adult writer, firmly in control of her art and delving into subjects far removed from the child mentality.
In fact Tove Jansson has always worked on more than one level of meaning. This is probably even true of her first book, never republished, and certainly so of the second, Kometjakten (1946, English translation Comet in Moominland, 1951), which was recast and republished with more obvious overtones under the title of Kometen kommer (‘The comet is coming’) in 1968. Both these stories present a consistently recurring motif in Tove Jansson’s work, the confrontation between security and danger, or rather perhaps the threat to the security and tranquility which are part and parcel of life in Moomin Valley. The author herself has commented on this more than once, pointing to the child’s longing for security but fascination with danger and adventure. Thus far the ‘childhood’ element in these early novels and most of the later ones can be seen and defined: the general pattern is some kind of disturbance to the everyday life of the Moomins, who usually return to their customary peace and harmony – though the implication of the last two novels in the series can be discussed. However, the insecurity/security motif can be seen in a wider sense, in a national, even international perspective. Born in 1914 as a Swedish-speaking Finn into an artistic family which in itself offered her complete security, Tove Jansson grew up surrounded by constant threats from outside. There were the implications of the First World War (though she was obviously too small to understand them consciously), the repercussions and tensions within the Finland of the Russian Revolution and the Finnish Civil War, and the slow emergence of a stable new Finland. However, to Swedish speakers a new instability arose through the language struggle of the 1930s, while national security again came under threat from the Winter War and the Continuation War. Since then, although Finland may have become less the object of direct threats, it has, like the rest of the world, been subjected to the fear of worldwide nuclear catastrophe and all the other terrors with which the world in one way or another has learned to live.
In the midst of this kind of insecurity came instability of an entirely different kind, the instability of human nature, the question of change within human beings. This is already implicit in Muminpappans bravader (1950, The Exploits of Moominpappa, 1952) but it becomes a dominant feature in Trollvinter (1957, Moominland Midwinter, 1958) where Moomintroll actually experiences winter and comes to terms with the new conditions with which he is confronted. He manages, wins through – and is changed. In Pappan och havet (1965, Moominpappa at Sea, 1966) he is changed still further, seeking the independence which comes with adolescence.
While these changes might be considered ‘natural’, other aspects of change in human nature emerge, some of them less natural, irrational impulses, obsessions, the decline sometimes brought about by old age. There are signs of this early on, in the unswerving determination of the Hemulins to collect and organise, and more especially in one Fillyjonk’s obsessive belief in an approaching catastrophe; this is one of the Moomin stories in which Tove Jansson embarks on the study of the irrational – some would even say demonic – sides of human nature, with perspectives far beyond the understanding of a child. Still within the framework of the Moomin books, she combines this with the consideration of loneliness and people’s inability to make contact with each other. All these themes are worked out in Sent i november (1970, Moominvalley in November, 1971), the last of the Moomin books proper. They are further explored in the short stories in Lyssnerskan (‘The listener’, 1971) and the novel Solstaden (‘Sun city’, 1974), and now in the powerful, often disturbing stories of Dockskåpet the dual themes of human change and the ill-defined borderline of insanity and neurosis are explored with a consistency and concentration which at times are frightening. When does an intense interest become abnormal? Does the obsessive narrator in ‘Locomotive’ murder the woman whose power over him he comes to fear more and more, or do all the events take place in a sick mind? The power of one human being over another is also seen in slightly less sinister guise in the actress who can interpret her role only by studying, almost devouring, the character of an otherwise uninteresting cousin. Tove Jansson was, as said above, brought up in an artistic home, and she has always been aware of the demands and problems arising from the artistic temperament, first in her parents, later in herself. So the problems of the artist, the demands on him, the urge to create, are also recurrent motifs.
In ‘The Monkey’ one particular problem of the artist is taken up in a special form, curiously fused with the problem of contact, or the lack of contact, between living beings. This wel lestablished motif is dramatized by the inevitable limit on the possibility of contact between the sculptor and his monkey. However, the man is an artist, an artist in decline, and as such meets public condescension and private merciless criticism in the cafe confrontation. The ending is symbolical, with the monkey, for all its fear and its alien surroundings, being able to climb, to rise, thus inspiring the sculptor, despite all, to persist in his work. In its artistry, its concentration, its concern with the relationship between living beings, the problem of the artist and his public, this story epitomizes the new art of Tove Jansson.
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About the writer
W. Glyn Jones (1928–2014) was a British scholar of language and literature specialising in Nordic literature. He was Professor of Scandinavian Studies at Newcastle and then at the University of East Anglia. Alongside his academic career he translated literary works from the Scandinavian languages, including Finland-Swedish, into English.
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