Towards the empty page

Issue 3/1991 | Archives online, Authors

This autumn, a Japanese-made animated series about the inhabitants of Moomin valley will be seen on television screens across Europe and the United States; a range of merchandise including Moomin ice-cream, biscuits, back-packs and mugs is already available. As Moomin Valley goes commercial, Suvi Ahola examines in her essay the psychoses, sexual ambiguity and concern for personal freedom that lie at the heart of Tove Jansson’s children’s books

A quiet Sunday afternoon, some time in the first decade of this century, in one of the massive, handsome art nouveau tenement blocks of the Katajanokka district of Helsinki.

On the second floor of Luotsikatu Street 4 B two children are playing. The girl, two years older, advises her friend, a little boy, how to walk across the pile carpet in such a way that the snakes in the pattern won’t get him. Clutching a large handkerchief, the boy advances across the carpet in tiny steps, arms outstretched. The carpet’s brown garlands – the snakes – begin to writhe voraciously. Try and jump, the girl shouts.

‘He tried furiously to keep his balance, he waved his handkerchief, he began to cry, and then he fell over on to the brown carpet. He cried even louder and rolled on the carpet, he rolled across the floor and under the cupboard. I cried too, I crawled after him and put my arms round him and held him until he calmed down.

‘Pile carpets shouldn’t be allowed, they’re dangerous. It’s much better to live in a studio with a concrete floor.’

The boy in the story does not himself remember being frightened of the carpet snakes; and the girl has admitted embroidering the truth in her memoirs, written more than 40 years later. The atmosphere, however, is perfect: this is just how the Sibelius scholar Erik Tawaststjerna and the writer and artist Tove Jansson played together as children. ‘I hope you liked being frightened,’ Jansson wrote in the dedication, to Tawaststjerna, of her book of memoirs, Bildhuggarens dotter (‘The sculptor’s daughter’, 1968).

Tove Jansson was a brave little girl who idolised Tarzan and her father, but loved her mother and the little boy next door. Adventure, strength and excitement, and on the other hand security, love and care for smaller ones, are basic to Jansson’s literary work. In her writings she also constantly moves back and forth between the public and the private, from external to internal events, from adventures to the storms and still waters of the psyche.

It is no coincidence that Tove and Erik’s frightening game found its way into Jansson’s memoirs. A variation is found in ‘A terrible story’, from the collection of children’s short stories Det osynliga barnet (1962; English translation Tales from Moomin Valley, 1963), and here the meanings important to Jansson’s literary work are intensified. A little boy frightens his little brother half to death with his talk of snakes and wars, but in the end he is terrified by his own imagination:

‘”You mustn’t think about the mud snakes,” the whomper said, and so he thought of them, strong and clear, and they came creeping out of their holes at once, licking their moustaches.’

That is how writers are made.

Tove Jansson’s first book, Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The little trolls and the great flood’), appeared in 1945. The second world war was not yet over, and Jansson (born 1914), then a painter and cartoonist, lamenting (as she herself put it) that ‘colour had died’, set out to create, in the midst of the gloom, a memory of the happiness and security of childhood. Rotund Moomintroll, with his enormous snout, appears in the book essentially as a comic character.

Jansson began her career as a writer specifically as a story-teller. She wrote her first Moomin story in 1948. Four picture books, eight story books, countless strip cartoons – and, now, a Japanese-made animation – tell of the blue house in Moomin valley, and the unusual family that lives there. The Central characters, Moomintroll and his parents, are surrounded by a large group of adopted children, relatives, ancestors, neighbours, friends and frightening strangers – make believe characters, all of them.

Most of the Moomin books tell of an adventure or catastrophe (a flood, comet, typhoon, sea monster) involving a journey and return. In the end the Moomins’ home life regains its security and normality, and all the books, without exception, end in universal celebration.

Despite their bohemian attitudes, the Moomins are highly materialist, bourgeois figures. In analysing life in Moomin valley, the Swedish scholar Boel Westin points to the ‘cramped room’, a term used by a Finland-Swedish literary scholar, Merete Mazzarella, in describing a quality which she sees as central to the Finland-Swedish novelistic tradition. The Moomins are supported by invisible incomes – characters with ‘proper’ professions are often treated with irony or criticism. But tolerance and humour also form part of their outlook.

Going by the author’s own memoirs and the recollections of her contemporaries, the Moomin family appears to echo Jansson’s own, which lived in a studio flat at Luotsikatu 4. Tove’s father, Viktor Jansson, was a sculptor; her mother, Signe Hammarsten, a Swedish-born artist. Tove had two younger brothers.

On the way home from school, Erik Tawaststjerna remembers encountering gentlemen leaving the neighbouring flat, pale, dignified, and a trifle glassy of eye. The artists Alvar Cawén and Marcus Collin were on their way home, having spent a day or two at the Janssons’.

Periods between Victor Jansson’s commissions were sometimes lengthy, and Signe Hammarsten was forced to spend days and nights at her work table drawing book covers, bank notes, postage stamps and illustrations for the Christmas issues of magazines.

Jansson portrays her father as a melancholy man who was stimulated by unusual circumstances and was, happily, able to include his children in his adventures: the Sibelian wind- and thunderstorms of their summer cottage on the Baltic. The figure corresponds exactly to that of Moominpappa, who becomes depressed by the verdant peace of Moomin Valley, packs his family into a boat and moves to a lighthouse on a skerry facing out toward the open sea.

Equally close are Moominmamma and Signe Hammarsten, who also bring adventures into their childrens lives. Signe made Tove, among other things, a miniature theatre, for which Tove and Erik drew the scenery, and planned the lighting using pocket torches.

Nevertheless, there is a clear difference, for Jansson, between the roles of father and mother: only father can set out in a boat across the stormy sea. Once the children had been born, Signe Hammarsten worked at home, tied to the concrete-floored studio by the gleaming work table which, for the children, meant complete security. Hers were the ‘smaller’ adventures.

These Erik Tawaststjerna, too, describes ecstatically: Signe’s magnificent Christmas preparations, for example, began weeks or months before the event. Bildhuggarens dotter tells of the ‘green primeval forest’ of the Christmas tree, the ‘almost unbearable profusion of love’ of the parcels, and of the glass balls that decorated the tree, which ‘gather love, and so it is very dangerous if they are broken’. Naturally, the story has the child dropping the largest of the glass balls: ‘And mother said: well, that ball always was the wrong colour.’

No wonder that, as an art student in Stockholm in 1931, Tove Jansson wrote to her mother: ‘I think that you are the one who understands me better than anyone else.’

Tove Jansson has spoken openly of the backgrounds and possible inspirations for her characters. Moominpappa and Moominmamma are the writer’s own parents, the cheerful and rational Too-ticky is clearly reminiscent of Jansson’s closest friend, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, who lives in the same building, a floor below her.

Among the characters, Moomintroll can be considered the most direct self- portrait: in his sensitivity and lack of confidence, and the illogical tolerance which often brings him to the brink of destruction, Moomintroll is archetypal of contemporary life. Another autobiographical character is undoubtedly Little My, rational to the point of cruelty, ruthless, and shameless. Jansson has herself acknowledged this split. She has said that she writes for the child in herself: the child who on the one hand craves excitement, but on the other feels powerless and rejected.

Although many of Jansson’s story characters are clearly masculine or feminine, strong indications of gender are absent from Moomintroll and his closest friends. If Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin and Too-ticky are compared with the Snork Maiden or Little My, a difference is nevertheless clear: the first group are not women. As her central characters, then, Jansson has chosen male characters. With the exception of Moominmamma and a couple of others, her female characters remain two-dimensional, subsidiary figures. For example, in a sketch for Farlig midsommar (1954; English translation Moominsummer madness, 1955), Jansson paints a portrait of the Snork Maiden as ‘coquettish, romantic, sometimes intuitively wise in her womanly way’, while Snufkin is ‘a vagabond, cosily masculine’.

The child reader is unlikely to interpret the gender-neutral Moomintroll’s affection for other equally neutral characters as anything other than a general analysis and praise of friendship: the pain of parting, longing, the joy of reunion, quarrels and reconciliations, tenderness, experiences in common. Nevertheless, other levels are clearly present.

The fact that Jansson has made Moomintroll and his friends more masculine than feminine may, of course, simply medicate the author’s dissatisfaction with the traditional role of women. It can, however, also be seen as evidence of a more profound feeling of estrangement in a gender-divided world; or even interpreted as an indication of sexual ambiguity.

When one looks at Tove Jansson’s other prose works (memoirs, short stories, novels) alongside her children’s stories, the qualities of androgyny, outsiderness and gender-related trauma only become more apparent. Jansson has said that the reason why she stopped writing Moomin books, in 1970, was because Moomintroll was approaching puberty: describing a wavering sexual identity would evidently have been too difficult.

Most of the characters of Jansson’s short stories, too, are either male (as are those of, for example, the American short story writer Willa Cather) or almost genderless women. These women are generally old – often also unmarried – or very young; children. They are generally polarised: a grandmother and her little granddaughter (Sommarboken; The summer book’, 1972); a sensitive, elderly artist and an energetic young housekeeper (Den ärliga bedragaren; ‘The honest deceiver; 1982); Mari, struggling between decency and guilt, and the laconic, logical Jonna (Rent spel; ‘Fair game’, 1989). For complete characterisation, two women are needed; for Jansson, one is not enough.

A homoerotic analysis is also supported by the fact that in her adult prose Jansson has written increasingly openly and emphatically of the journeys, shared lives and love of two women. The portraits of marriages in the earlier short stories can also be re-read in this light. Critics have, it is true, always noted the ‘different’ quality of the characters of her short stories, whose artistic talent, age or psychological imbalance gives them a deviant reality. But, with recourse to this analysis, a new factor can be added to Jansson’s treatment of difference: androgyny. Through the experience of homoerotic ‘otherness’ and an elastic sexual identity, the matrimonial hells, the doppelganger and shape-changer stories, the symbolic journeys and, particularly vividly described, the psychoses of Jansson’s prose, take on additional power.

One example of a dazzling description of female psychosis is the story, in Det osynliga barnet, of ‘The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters’. Its main character tires of the genteel emptiness of her life and half fears, half hopes for a catastrophe that would change everything. Her friend will not allow such rebellious thoughts:

‘ “You were talking about wind,” the fillyjonk said suddenly. “A wind that carries off your washing. But I’m speaking about cyclones. Typhoons, Gaffsie dear. Tornadoes, whirlwinds, sand-storms…. Flood waves that carry houses away…. But most of all I’m talking about myself and my fears, even if I know that’s not done. I know everything will turn out badly. I think about that all the time. Even while I’m washing my carpet. Do you understand that. Do you feel the same
 way?” ’

‘ “Have you tried vinegar,” said Gaffsie, staring into her teacup. “The colours keep best if you have a little vinegar in the rinsing water.” ’

The fillyjonk becomes angry when it becomes clear that her friend wishes to deny her expression of her deepest ideas, her attempts, sometimes violent, to change 
her life. When she dares to send Gaffsie away, she is rewarded: the wind rises to 46 metres per second, the house collapses, objects fly through the air, until at last all that is left is a china kitten. Among the emptiness there appears the symbol of the new values, an enormous waterspout:

‘The fillyjonk was unable to move. She was standing still, quite still, crushing the china kitten in her paw and thinking: “Oh, my beautiful, wonderful disaster….” ’

Such internally and externally cathartic upheavals also appear in many of Jansson’s adult short stories. Growth through adventure, familiar from the Moomin books, takes the mode of internal, wildly victorious struggle: the result is a truly unusual individual, a rebellious and courageous woman.

Among Jansson’s female characters, the most unusual and positive is Moominmamma, Moomintroll’s mother, a tribute to Signe Hammarsten – surely one of the most complete, beautiful and original mother-figures of literature.

In the early books, Moominmamma is a domestic figure who efficiently looks after the old wooden house, the embodiment of the Finnish and Swedish family idyll. The Moominhouse has a well-provided larder, Moominmamma a much-used sewing basket. It is clear that celebratory dinners and expeditions can be arranged at a moments notice.

But Moominmamma is far from being an exhausted housewife. She is the dynamic focus of the family’s feeling, a sympathetic mother and an artist, who can, for example, create an exotic cummerbund from sacking, grains of rice and fragments of broken glass.

From a child’s point of view – Moomintroll’s, and the reader’s – Moominmamma’s most important characteristic is an untiring solidarity and capacity for empathy. Moominmamma never shames or embarrasses anybody, and she always listens to what the children have to say. When the hobgoblin’s hat changes Moomintroll into a strange, ugly-looking beast, she is the only one who recognises him.

But Moominmamma’s divine strength also has its night side, its forbidden zone. Moominmamma is, on the one hand, the mother-figure idolised and idealised by Jansson as a child; on the other she is, nevertheless, a woman. Through the working out of this internal tension, the ideal gradually becomes flawed, and its power becomes uncontrollable.

In the early Trollkarlens hatt(1948; English translation Finn Family Moomintroll, 1951), Moominmamma wanders through her empty house on a rainy day and, absent-mindedly dusting, throws some rubbish into the magician’s hat, which is being used as a waste paper bin. As she retires for her siesta, the rubbish has already begun to grow, and when she wakes, the house has disappeared and in its place is a jungle – as if sprouted from Moominmamma’s wild dreams.

In Pappan och havet (1965; English translation Moominpappa at Sea, 1965), Moominmamma’s harmonious image finally crumbles. This book, in which Moomintroll begins to experience the weltschmerz of the adolescent, also shows his mother for the first time as a woman who, in addition to surviving a family crisis, goes through her own mid-life crisis. According to Boel Westin, the book is above all the story of a woman’s development, an account of Moominmamma’s journey into herself. Moominpappa’s obstinate decision to move to a deserted lighthouse island – which is in itself a telling description of a male life crisis – robs Moominmamma of her role as focus of the family’s emotions, her familiar tasks and roles. One cannot live on a barren skerry as one did in a patrician country house.

Moominmamma becomes bored, isolated, saws enormous numbers of logs, tries to make a garden. Then she discovers art: she begins to paint her own beloved Moomin Valley on the bare walls of the lighthouse. When the family wants to join in the painting, she says: ‘No, this is mine.’ In the end the painting is so perfect that Moominmamma can step into it. At first the family wonder at her absence, but soon they adjust, and begin to take care of the housework themselves. In the end, Moominmamma returns from the painting – from her journey inside herself. She has, in a typically Jansson-like way, restored her self-esteem through psychosis, and is now ready for life’s new challenges.

Seasons, in the Moomin books, play an important part, as they do in the English scholar Northrop Frye’s mytho-critical conception of literature, which associates different literary genres with the cycle of nature and to the ages of human life. As it becomes gradually more serious, the Moomin series seems always to be progressing towards autumn and Winter, desertion, cold, and bright clarity.

The light, summery early books – Trollkarlens hatt and Farlig Midsommar – are full of comic and romantic elements. The season of Pappan och havet and Sent i november (English translation Moominvalley in November, 1970) is autumn. They are the most serious of the series, and deal with the unavoidably tragic phenomena of human life: loneliness, growing old, alienation, inadequacy.

Trollvinter (1957; English translation Moominland Midwinter, 1958) brings Moomintroll, usually hibernating at this season, into the midst of a snowy landscape. Jansson handles his adaptation to a new environment only partly seriously: there is also irony, and gentle mockery of numbing convention and the pointless helplessness of the individual. A similar development is to be seen in Jansson’s current work. She writes variations on similar dramas of human relationships, honing her characters and polishing their expressive language.

As book follows book, narrative condenses, atmosphere intensifies. The relation of the individual to family, friends, the world has been clarified. Her most recent book, Rent spel (‘Fair play’) describes a mature relationship in which communication is possible even without words. What next?

The gradual intensification is fascinating. Perhaps, next, Tove Jansson will turn to aphorism. And then: silence – the empty page.

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