Life in the mist
30 December 2001 | Authors
Although most famous for her classic Moomin tales for children, Tove Jansson (1914–2001) also wrote extensively for adults. Maria Antas is surprised by the unexpected coldness of many of these stories of art and solitude
It was easy to love Tove Jansson. The creator of the Moomin characters, painter, author of children’s books and books for adults, she was the public symbol of a rare combination of pure wisdom and human kindness. Finns needed her. As she records in the fragmentary letters that make up the short story ‘Meddelande’ (‘Messages’), people turned to her in order to ask for advice on the most diverse matters: how does one become a good artist, help me to understand my parents, my cat has died: help me!
But the letter-fragments also show the obverse side of what it means to be a much-loved author. The money wizards wanted to split up her creativity and turn it into more money. Could the white Moomintroll be turned into black licorice candy, could Little My be used in advertisements for sanitary towels for adolescent girls, how much would the copyright cost for Moomin oven gloves? ‘Meddelande’, the very last short story Jansson published, is truly an illuminating text about the pain of having been turned into a national and international artistic icon. But it also includes fragments of letters written to Tove Jansson by her beloved partner Tooti (the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, the Too-ticky of the Moomin stories). The icon lived and loved, and was loved. She was a human being.
Behind the image of Tove Jansson as an artistic icon live her own texts – the long series of books about life in the exciting and mysterious Moomin Valley, but also her novels and short stories, which with stern intellectuality reject all kinds of idealisation. Starting in the late 1960s, Jansson wrote eleven books for adults which, from an international perspective as well as in purely Finnish terms, form a complex intellectual structure relating to the prerequisites of artistic creation and individuality. In this totality the book Rent spel (‘Fair play’, 1989) forms a central fixed point in the portrayal of the tightrope walk between the freedom demanded by artistic creation and the communion on which life must be based. Jonna and Mari are artists, but they are also lovers who share their everyday lives. Their artistic talents seek different expressions, but sometimes they are also united in common joy at the right brushstroke or the right word. The book portrays a happiness that is lacking in so many other artists in Jansson’s writing.
Tove Jansson’s short stories about artistic creation are often chillingly cold. The artists she portrays have become lost in their isolated solitude, their creativity, which shuts other people out. Portraits of such loneliness are drawn in three short stories in the collection Lyssnerskan (‘The listener’, 1971), ‘Ekorren’ (‘The squirrel’), ‘Svart & vitt’ (‘Black & white’) and ‘Vargen’ (‘The wolf’), which probably frightened many readers – particularly those who knew and loved her Moomin books – away from Jansson’s work. In their cosmos, warmth is unknown; their landscapes are frozen, just like the people who seek expression for their artistic dreams.
The frozen landscape is grey. A mist often covers it. Seeing, the most important sense in Tove Jansson’s texts, is distorted. Without insight, her characters are lost. Grey is the colour of terror; but beyond the greyness something new awaits. Grey is therefore also a colour of hope and transformation. In the story ‘Konst i naturen’ (‘Art in nature’), the reader also encounters the shadowy, the unseeing. One night a caretaker is walking around an island where an art exhibition has been arranged in contrast to nature, or in harmony with it. As he moves among the works of art, they change in the night’s imperfect light: ‘They grew up out of the lawn, enormous dark monuments of smooth, incomprehensible shapelessness, or broken, prickly things, challenging and disturbing. They stood everywhere among the birch trees as though they had sprouted from the earth, and when the summer night came and the mist drifted in from the lake they were as beautiful as rocks or dead trees.’ In the semi-twilight the works of art assume frightening dimensions. They resemble something that is dead.
But beyond the greyness of the night something else awaits, a new day. Just as one of the unlawful nocturnal visitors declares about a painting he has bought: the picture of a motif that has closed itself off may suddenly open up, so that can see life itself behind the painted surface. Nothing is dead and dumb for ever. Least of all art. It constantly faces outwards; it is merely necessary for the artist and the viewer to wait until the process sets itself in motion. So the exhibition caretaker can go to bed in full confidence. He thinks: ‘“It’s the element of mystery that’s important, very important in some way.” He went and lay down in the sauna changing room, which had four empty walls. It was pleasant to look at them and fall asleep without those old recurring thoughts he was used to.’
In Tove Jansson’s short stories, as in art, creation and life, there are echoes of many branches of aesthetics and psychology. We hear echoes of the romantic idea of sublime terror, and we also hear an ongoing and critical discussion with psychoanalysis and its view of art as springing from trauma. But in the short stories there are also references to the minimalist concepts of modern art. For example, in ‘Konst i naturen’ Jansson makes reference to Christo’s gigantic wrapping project (in fact, it is possible that the entire story is a commentary on Christo’s art) and the tension between surface and hidden contents. It should however be noted that the story was written in 1978, quite some time before Christo became a major world figure in installation art.
Even as early as the charming portrait of childhood Bildhuggarens dotter (‘The sculptor’s daughter’, 1968), Jansson’s first book for adults, the attentive reader will see the tightrope walk between art and psychology in embryo. The little girl in the book looks at her father’s sculptures of women. They are classically white, they are beautiful, and they are worth all the admiration they can receive. At the same time, however, Jansson has the little girl reflect that inside the material there are real women who yearn to break apart the limits of the material, women who long to escape the fixed form. Art binds life: beautiful art can be dangerous, it kills. But on the other hand: there is also an art that pulsates in the same rhythm as life, art that awakens strong, intense emotions. The little girl herself possesses the power to create such art. When she manages to make the carpet’s ornamental pattern turn into snakes her little friend cries with terror because through her stories she is wakening his own inner demons to life.
Art is also deep, deep communication, with one’s own inner world, or with that of the viewer, the listener, the reader. Just as in the much later short story ‘Bilderna’ (‘The pictures’, 1991), where by means of his artworks a son succeeds in rendering visible and thus in taming the inner wild creatures that long tormented his own father. The father writes to his son, the artist: ‘You have managed to portray my companions, the other reality has been given a face. Their dreadfulness makes me calm, no wolf sits in my chair any longer.’ Of course: to create art is to open doors for oneself, and for those close to one. To create is to create an insightful and regained security. But the wait for the right picture is a life in grey mist.
My respect for Tove Jansson’s unique artistic achievement, including her visual art, does not resemble love in the sense of love as a feeling of warmth, of being touched. There is too much coldness in her texts for me to be able to feel secure. But this makes my respect all the greater. She is bold in her speculations on and portrayals of the strange connection between isolation, insight and love. The sharpness of her texts gives me, too, insight. There are not many artists in modern literature who offer such a complex and challenging reflection on man and art. But perhaps respect is, after all, a precondition of love? Perhaps it’s love I feel, after all?
Tags: short story
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Also by Maria Antas
Elina Hirvonen: Kauimpana kuolemasta [Furthest from death] - 30 September 2010
Animal instincts - 23 December 2009
Dear God - 30 September 2006
Hiking through a poetic universe - 30 March 2006
Cosmic and comic - 30 September 2004
About the writer
Maria Antas (born 1964) is a Project Manager at FILI (Finnish Literature Exchange), a literary scholar (she has studied the childhood memories of Finland-Swedish authors Tove Jansson, Solveig von Schoultz and Renata Wrede) and former editor-in-chief of the women’s magazine Astra Nova.
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