These letters spanning more than fifty years give a compelling inside into the full and important life of a great writer and visual artist. Tove Jansson is best known in the UK as the author of the Moomins, and The Summer Book, although she was also a painter (and much of her work featured in a recent exhibition in London).
Born in Finland in 1914 to a graphic artist and a sculptor, Jansson was a committed and honest letter-writer, reflecting on the times and places she lived as well as personal relationships. For anyone who loves the island where The Summer Book is set, these letters provide insights over years into how Jansson and her family and friends lived and worked there. Her late 1930s travels to Italy and France transport the reader to a sun-drenched but uneasy southern Europe.
Helpful editing from Boel Westin and Helen Svensson provides good context on what is happening in Jansson’s life and the world more generally, without being intrusive. Westin wrote Jansson’s authorise biography, Life Art Words, and knows her subject inside out (see also here for how the letters were selected). The letters are grouped by correspondent. You get a rounded picture of the individual as she writes to very close friends, to her mother, her partner, her publisher.
Some of my favourites are her wartime letters to her closest friend, Eva Konikoff, who escaped from Finland to the US before the war began. She talks about the divisions and pressures of war, even within her own family: “Under the pressure of being obliged to keep quiet, anxious about their own little circle, everyone hunches more deeply into their shell. The great events unfolding around us, rather than widening our horizons, have shrunk them into petty stubbornness, we get manically hooked on the phraseology of misdirected nationalism, on slogans, boundaries grow less and less flexible, logic goes out of the window. But the old prejudices and principles continue to be defended.” (p. 138). Her experiences living through the Second World War, where one of her brothers is fighting and she does some agricultural war service, are formative.
Fans of her Moomin strips and novels will also find that many of the themes of those works draw on events and characters from Jansson’s life. At one point she considers dedicating Moominpappa at Sea to her father, with whom she had a very strained relationship, but thinks better of it as the character is based on him.
It is a real privilege to be admitted to the intimate thoughts of a favoured writer, and this collection is as compelling as any of her writings. A complete treat.