Letters from Tove

6 October 2014 | Extracts, Non-fiction

Tove Jansson went to  Stockholm to study art when she was just 16. A letter to her friend Elisabeth Wolff, from November 1932

Early days: Tove Jansson went to Stockholm to study art when she was just 16. A letter to her friend Elisabeth Wolff, from November 1932

Artist and author Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is known abroad for her Moomin books for children and fiction for adults. A large selection of her letters – to family, friends and lovers – was published for the first time in September. In these extracts she writes to her best friend Eva Konikoff who moved to the US in 1941, to her lover, Atos Wirtanen, journalist and politician, and to her life companion of 45 years, artist Tuulikki Pietilä.
Brev från Tove Jansson (selected and commented by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson; Schildts & Söderströms, 2014; illustrations from the book) introduced by Pia Ingström

7.10.44. H:fors. [Helsinki]

exp. Tove Jansson. Ulrikaborgg. A Tornet. Helsingfors. Finland. Written in swedish.
to: Miss Eva Konikoff. Mr. Saletan. 70 Fifty Aveny. New York City. U.S.A.

Dearest Eva!

Now I can’t help writing to you again – the war [Finnish Continuation War, from 1941 to 19 September 1944] is over, and perhaps gradually it will be possible to send letters to America. Next year, maybe. But this letter will have to wait until then – even so, it will show that I was thinking of you. Curiously enough, Konikova, all these years you have been more alive for me than any of my other friends. I have talked to you, often. And your smiling Polyfoto has cheered me up and comforted me and has also taken part in the fortunate and wonderful things that have happened. I remembered your warmth, your vitality and your friendship and felt happy! At first I wrote frequently, every week – but after about a year most of it was returned to me. I wrote more after that, but the letters were often so gloomy that I didn’t feel like saving them. Now there are so absurdly many things I have to talk to you about that I don’t know where to begin. Koni, if only I’d had you here in my grand new studio and could have hugged you. After these recent years there is no human being I have longed for more than you.

It’s magnificent here [Jansson’s studio in Helsinki, now preserved as the artist’s home], is it not? A turret room, with a high ceiling like a church, nearly eight metres square with six arched windows and above them little rectangular windows like eyebrows on top under the ceiling. Cracks here and there, and piles of masonry, because the repairs to the bomb damage aren’t finished yet, and in the midst of the rubble an easel. A colossal, ornate Art Nouveau stove, and a funny old door with green and red glass windows.

A studio one could spend one’s whole life beautifying if one wanted to. And next to it an asymmetrical whitewashed room – where I can keep all my feminine odds and ends, all my gentle, playful, ostentatious and personal stuff – with two windows under the ceiling. Ulrikasborgsgatan Street 1. The Turret. Hageli’s old studio [Hageli: the artist Hjalmar Hagelstam who died in the war 1941]. Some of his cheerful, adventurous spirit is still here, I think. A bit melancholy. – I am happy and grateful that my great Studio Utopia has come true. And I have the urge to paint again. I wake up in the mornings and remember – first, that the boys [her two brothers] are alive – and then that I have the studio. (and then Atos!) [Wirtanen, her lover and friend]

16.12.47 [Helsingfors]

Dearest Eva,

… Except for last week, when I devoted myself to family parcels, tidying and Christmas presents in Lallukka [the artists’ home in Helsinki where TJ:s parents lived], I have been trying to rustle up paintings in the studio. The early part of the autumn was simply hopeless: I did things that were far inferior to the canvases of a year ago, and I had neither the desire nor the ability to concentrate. At the end of November things started to ‘gel’. A blotch here and there that looked like painting. I now have one or two items that might have a future, but somehow can’t manage to assess their quality – it’s rather as if my will had got out of control. Sometimes I think they are worse than ever, sometimes that I’m working in a completely new way, didn’t notice when I crossed the old latitude, and just voyaged on. The worst of it has been that absolute lack of desire for anything. I suppose it’s a result of spending the whole spring playing the part of someone I am not in order to win another human being. Swallowing it down and lying and pretending to be teasing and carefree. Then pretending to be happy for the family’s sake and the Swedish guest, and systematically trying to kill my feelings for the very person I was fighting for. It’s hard to remain suspended in the air between woman and man, and when one finally realises that one must be honest, and nothing but that – one no longer knows what is real.

It has all gradually turned into something that has no connection with either ‘happiness’ or ‘love’ – oh, all those words – but only with work and calm. When Vivica [Bandler: theatre director with whom TJ had fallen in love] returned from France and phoned me I was immensely happy.

Now we have only met each other once or twice, and her arrival was a long time ago. Nothing has happened, nothing is settled. Sometimes there is small talk or a flare-up of the old bitter misunderstandings, a prelude to a conversation, an attempt at warmth. I was ready for anything, to carry on, to let it become a friendship, only meet occasionally to talk and laugh. But I had to have someone to help me shape it all into something other than tormented brokenness and uncertainty.

She said, I don’t know. I don’t feel up to it. I have no desire to do anything. So I understood that there isn’t and never will be anyone to help one. And no matter how much I want to help her in her coldness, her vulnerability and distrust, her unproductiveness, I can’t help her, any more than she can me. We have become a sort of ‘relationship people’ to each other, but we don’t even have the energy to try to make a mutual impression – or care about each other. It all breathes nothing but deadly dullness, though violent reactions are liable to break out at any time. For example, I mentioned that I was drawing a Moomin comic strip for the children’s corner of Atos’s newspaper. She was furious at the betrayal and accused me violently. I shouldn’t have defended myself, but I did – and the result was an endless quarrel of vast proportions that ended in tears on both sides. You see, that is the unsustainable, unnatural side of a lesbian relationship. Not morality, not the anatomical problem, not the social problem. But the fact that a controversy, a trust, a joint venture, yes, all the things one tries to shape together, can never be capable of maintaining the balance. In, for example, an agreement between a [following line of text illegible] her gentleness, perhaps due to his calm. Between two women the complements are lacking; in their reactions they float out into the same excesses. I suppose it’s the same for two men. A hellish depression and helplessness afterwards. It’s like building a house of cards: when it collapses for the nineteenth time one has an urge to throw the pack out of the window.

Now I have done something about which (like everything else) I’m uncertain and don’t know whether it is brave or, on the contrary, exceptionally cowardly. I wrote to Atos and asked if he thought it was a good idea for us to marry. If he didn’t want to we could just talk about other things when he came home. He will get the letter in Stockholm on his way back.

After I sent it something very pleasant happened. The dialogue with Vivica I’d had in my head since early spring ceased. That terrible grinding of all that was said, could have been said, should have been said, had not been said. Stored up and chewed over night and day. Now she was here I hoped to be able to tell her everything that was weighing me down, and so become free from it. But she would not let me say anything. It served me right for being so self-absorbed, but I thought it the only thing that could save me. That I would understand something important, and that then we could truly be friends.

I think I am hoping that Atos wants to marry me. We would go on living as we are now, and not change our way of life in any respect. Probably not even his attitude to me would change – unless perhaps he lost his vague sense of guilt [following line of text illegible] But I imagine that the ‘symbol’ would mean a lot to me. Why – I don’t know. Really know less and less. But perhaps I would calm down and be able to work. And no longer yearn to be over on ‘la rive gauche’.

So much for that. Could tell you about the monkey and bits of trivia from Lallukka – no. I’ve written about all that in a lot of ‘Merry Christmas letters’. But when I write Happy New Year to you, I mean it with all my heart, and it is my dearest wish. Say hello to Ramon!


21.06.48 St Pierre [France]

[to Atos Wirtanen]

Paradise: Tove Jansson and Atos Wirtanen planned to set up an artists' colony in Morocco: in this illustration, Jansson has placed Wirtanen in the hanging garden on top of the tower, her studio is on the left. The dream never came true

Paradise: Tove Jansson and Atos Wirtanen planned to set up an artists’ colony in Morocco: in this illustration, Jansson has placed Wirtanen in the hanging garden on top of the tower, her studio is on the left. The dream never came true

Kenavo! which is Breton, and means: hello, sof.
[TJ occasionally called Wirtanen ‘solofif’, ‘sofen’ or ‘sof’: ‘filosof’ in Swedish means ‘philosopher’]

Right now your still faithful Tofsla is sitting in Bar de l’Océan near the fishing harbour and drinking absinthe, reflecting that midsummer and pandemonium are coming, and around me seamen and fishermen are running riot in blue and pink pants with this hilarious, half-Gallic-Celtic language; now and then they ask me if I’ve taken any photographies today and why on earth don’t the Finns like the Russians. It’s a seriously communist part of the world, this, as I discovered at the lobster festival in Le Guilvinec. The main attraction was trying to knock the hat off a gentleman by the use of cloth balls – and it was a Stars and Stripes hat, too. After that one could amuse oneself by running ten laps round a pole and balancing over a rope to reach for a packet of cigarettes which of course one never reached, or by drinking red wine in green tents packed like tins of sardines – then there was a bit of propaganda, and then there was dancing in the youth centre, and I missed the bus and walked eight kilometres over the salt flats all the way to my friendly lighthouse. The sky full, full of stars and the breakers ever closer, and the enormous cross of light sweeping over, towards one, then past and far out to sea.

There is something immensely peaceful about this flat, treeless landscape, the huddled row of   houses by the sea, the long beach at low tide with glints of blue in the distance. A landscape of horizontal lines, sparse in colour, but highly nuanced. A wonderful cadmium-yellow moss on the low stone walls, seaweed of every hue between blackish purple and honey-yellow, grey-white sand, the sun-bleached grass – and constant wind. The waves of the whole Atlantic that stop right here, on this very low beach – but there are sharks and whales further out – here Tofslan and others go gathering seashells in the safe low tidewater.

Talk of shells and shore-winds must seem very distant from what you are working on, which occupies all your time and all your thoughts. But those things are on the island too, the one where we stay. The seaweed and the horizon, all of it. Perhaps some time at the end of the summer you will be tired of talk and people and will feel like going out there. So I send words of enticement from this coast where the days go by without much talk or the sight of many people. Right now lilies are blooming in the potato patches inside the walls. Wind-tossed shrubs with glossy leaves, and two low apple trees in front of the gate.

At the fishing harbour and the pier the boats lie red and blue on the seabed at low tide amidst screaming clouds of seagulls, the vessels jut out in the inlet and heavy brown nets are spread in the sand. The women sit in decent black, crocheting in the shadows of the walls. And in all this I wander around – the most ‘genuine’ landscape I have found in all my travels, and the one that bestows the most calm. If one were not at peace with oneself the monotonous desolation might drive one crazy – but as it is it merely cancels all the expectations of desire, and one lets the days pass as quietly as the falling rain.

Unfortunately the banknotes wander too, so some time in July I shall have to pad off home to my home turf. Eva [Wichman, the writer and artist who was using the studio as her study] will stay quietly in the studio, as I’m only going to give myself the time to get some work materials, cement and food together, and then I can go out to the Island and stay there until the winter storms begin. If you have a spare week you are welcome to visit – I am sure you will need to blow away all the nonsense you have had to listen to, from bourgeois folk and others.

Spread greetings to the old kolkhoz system, and be greeted yourself, through this Whale by


28 Feb 1952 [Helsinki]

Dearest Eva,

Self-portrait of an artist? Tove Jansson's Moomintroll

Self-portrait of an artist? Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll

….These last few years have, from an emotional point of view, been very unsteady and uncertain. Constant preambles to infatuation, a great deal of invented feeling or disappointment, casual relationships, the re- establishing of old ones – and all the time I have had an unpleasant feeling of being suspended in the air, seeking where nothing is to be found.

Now I think I finally know what I want, and since my friendship with you is very important to me and is largely founded on sincerity, I want to talk about it with you. I have not decided, but I am convinced that the most real and the happiest thing for me is to go over to the ghost side. It would be foolish of you to be sad about it. I myself am very cheerful and feel a strong sense of liberation and peace. – During these last weeks I have almost exclusively been with the one whom I only found, alas, shortly before her trip to France. We are both equally happy. At the same time I am working like a lunatic – among other things, on a few portraits and nudes of her. She is not coming back here any more, but I decided that this time I would not bury myself in any grieving.

One fine day it will no doubt be possible to start looking for someone else of whom I can be fond. It will not be easy. And slightly ridiculous, I’m afraid. Can you imagine me carefully interrogating all those tie-wearing ladies, or inserting pathetic adverts in Hufvudstadsbladet? ‘Who will lead me to Lesbos’ distant shores?’ There’s a risk they will think it’s Esbo one is talking about… [Esbo, Espoo in Finnish, is the neighbouring city of Helsingfors/Helsinki]

But that will be later. The main thing is that one is at peace with oneself and knows what one wants.

All spring I am going to paint my walls. In a few days’ time the two five and a half metre canvases will be dry and ready for painting. I had two youngsters from Ateneum [art museum in Helsinki] here, and they prepared them and stretched them for me in return for an hourly wage. (‘Old naturalist exploits poor young geniuses for labour of Mammon…’) The 1:1 drawing is ready. And the sketch for the wall in Kotka delivered.

With regard to the Daily Mail I am still in correspondence with them about a Moomin strip. Would be a good thing for the publicity of my books. Bobbs-Merrill writes about the possibility of toys, perhaps solid, perhaps balloons, based on my Moomins. But it is no more than an idea, I believe.

The picture book from the summer is going to press now, and [Thomas] Warburton is taking forever with the translation of the Moomin memoirs. And tomorrow I deliver a collection of 6-7 oils to the Konsthall [Kunsthalle Helsinki] public exhibition. It’s a lot to have going at the same time. But it’s fun to be working – at last, after so many hellish years of failure or improductivity. Now I’m going to do a bit of cooking. So long until tomorrow!

26.6.56 [Bredskär]

[To Tuulikki Pietilä]


I miss you so dreadfully. Not in despair or melancholy, for I know that we shall soon be with each other again, I am simply taken aback, and cannot absorb the fact that you are not around any more.

This morning, half awake, I groped around for you, then remembered you were gone, and got up quickly to escape the emptiness. And worked all day….

Yesterday I woke the social conscience of the whole of the Bay and wrote an application to the chief of police for seven penitent people without a fishing permit. Then I went to Odden and admired all Anna-Lisa’s plant arrangements and cement rings and other peculiar contraptions and received a whole basket full of small plants which I’ve planted here and there on the Island.

The Island looked very grave without you when I arrived here at sunset. It had closed itself up in itself, and I almost felt like a stranger.

Not until I came up to the cabin did it grow friendly and alive again. The wagtails were screaming at the top of their voices with indignation, complaining horribly because the copper pot with our midsummer leaves had fallen down and probably frightened the wits out of their children. Very possibly they got a shower as well. Now the idyll is restored and the mother so tame that she stays on the top of the flagpole when I go in and out of the cabin. For the swallows I brought clay from Anna-Lisa’s bay – but they continue with their secretive visits and are reluctant to take family life seriously.

Late at night I brewed kilju [moonshine] in the ‘best’ water bucket and augmented the recipe with all our raisins.

It was a wonderful night, calm and breathless, and I still could not believe you were gone, I kept constantly half turning round to see what you were doing, to say something to you.

Today a strong south-westerly is blowing, and we would have found it hard to get into the Bay. You are probably far better off deep in the city’s universal hub and rushing about in heat and irritation to get everything organised before you set off.

That first day in town is usually such a nasty contrast to the island life out here. Everything that has been lying in wait comes crashing down on one like a shock, and in the evening one misses the sound of the sea and feels quite disoriented.

Wherever I go on the island you are with me like a reassurance and a stimulus, your joy and vitality remain everywhere. And I if I went away from here you would come with me. You see, I love you simultaneously enchanted and with great calm, and I am not afraid of anything that may be in store for us. This evening I filled the tub with water from the big vat and tried to pick out that dreadful Sea Eagle Waltz on the accordion. You will hear! Now I’m going to read Karin Boye and then go to sleep – goodnight, beloved.

Today I swept and washed the vat since it was empty and sprinkled sand in it as you told me to.

And wrote Svenska Dagbladet’s dreadful article about ‘what it’s like to write for children’, that has been making me uneasy for a long time. I tried to spice it up with the children’s own refreshing sense of the macabre, the obvious and the impetuous in the healthy meanings of the words, and to write as little as possible about me and my blessed old troll….

I am so unused to being happy that I have not yet really grasped what it means. One has simply received an armful of new opportunities, new calm, new expectations. I feel like a garden that has finally got water so that my flowers have the energy to bloom….

Translated by David McDuff

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