Saturday, October 09, 2010

Tove Jansson – ‘A Winter Book’ and ‘Fair Play’

It wasn’t until quite late on in Fair Play that I realised I had the characters the wrong way around. Coming to it after the childhood reminiscences of A Winter Book, it was easy to interpret as lightly amended autobiography, with the names changed. Instead of Tove and Tooti, they are Jonna and Mari, living in a pair of nearby apartments in autumn and winter, on a small, isolated island in spring and summer, and travelling Europe and America between times. They spend the daytime apart, working (on printmaking, illustration, painting, writing), and the evenings together watching films (‘Truffaut, Bergman, Visconti, Renoir, Wilder’ (p. 28), though they also run to Chaplin and westerns). Jonna’s is the more forceful personality, the more acute judgement. So intent is she on a discussion about the superiority of watching films to socialising, that she barely registers the phone call she answers from a distressed friend whose cat has jumped out of a window in pursuit of a pigeon. Avoiding any attempt at sympathy, she gives out the number of a vet, and leaves it at that. Mari is soft hearted enough to be a little shocked at this, but Jonna’s argument applies to so much of Tove’s own work that it didn’t click that she is the Tooti character:
make no mistake: great directors know all about the irrational. You talk about things that don’t fit – they use such things, with a purpose, as an essential part of the whole. Do you know what I mean? Apparent quirkiness but with a point. They know exactly what they’re doing. (p. 31)
There are biographical clues later on which confirm this: Mari’s father was a sculptor called Viktor, and her mother founded the Swedish branch of the Girl Guides; she also receives fan mail.

[And here, I want to dart off into A Winter Book because of the wonderful ‘Messages’ chapter, which consists of short extracts from letters received by Tove from fans. My favourite is this:
Insufficient address
Father Christmas Moomin Valley.
Please give current address and surname (p. 167)
Also good is:
Dear Miss Jansson,
I have produced Moomin pictures for my home and also for profit and pleasure and placed them for sale in art galleries and kiosks bordering busy traffic routes. Now, one of my friends is saying one ought to ask permission, can this be true? If I don’t hear from you before week 5 shall go on as usual (p. 166)
 A Winter Book is largely made up of chapters from The Sculptor’s Daughter, an account of Jansson’s childhood, split up, like The Summer Book and Fair Play, into short stories or episodes which are not obviously part of a single narrative, but which add up to a sense of place(s), and of character. It is rather unfair of Sort Of Books to have included the majority but not all of The Sculptor’s Daughter’s chapters, and to have re-ordered them into winter stories (set in the city) and summer stories (on – guess what? – an island). I don’t know what order they were in originally, but if Fair Play is anything to go by, they should probably be mixed in together, with an apparent quirkiness which nonetheless has a point.]

Fair Play is playful with its clues, though. During one chapter, Jonna and Mari’s precious boat Viktoria, moored near their house, is in danger of being dashed on the rocks by a storm. They no longer have the strength to drag it up on to the shore out of harm’s way. It is the late 1980s – soon they will be too old to keep up the island house. Storms in Jansson’s fiction are brilliant because they are exciting (there are some strangers in A Winter Book’s ‘High Water’ who don’t understand how much fun storms are), and the ebbing of this pleasure is a subtly drawn tragedy. The two women talk about their fathers for comfort, and they are both called Viktor. Each talks about her own father as though they were both talking about the same man, and there is a curious blurring of their personalities.

Even in the midst of this storm, less fun than its predecessors, Jonna is able to remind Mari of what use she should put it to. Mari remarks the storm’s ‘long, humming tone’, and Jonna steps out of the moment to say:
You can use that acoustical stuff. […] You seem to work a storm into almost everything you write. Did you check the stern lines? (p. 112)
And although these two books feel utterly familiar, absolutely of a piece with The Summer Book and any Moomin story you could name, there is a difference. Art looms large in the background of both – for Tove’s parents in A Winter Book, and for Jonna and Mari in Fair Play. You have the same insistence on a certain attitude to life – non-judgemental yet critically alive, with that ‘mysterious blend of perfectionism and nonchalance’ (Fair Play, p. 22), compassionate and capricious, interested and fun. In the other books, these qualities are ends in themselves, but here they have a reason to be: work. All that matters is work.


Bits and bobs:
  • A Guardian interview with Sophia Jansson, star of The Summer Book.
  • Convolvulus (1931) by Viktor Jansson, modelled on Tove (from this page).
  • Tuulikki Pietilä / Tooti’s Super 8 films of most of the above are available on two DVDs.
  • I’m half convinced this is a practical joke, but apparently the UK premiere of Moomins and the Comet Chase is in Dundee next Saturday. Be there if you can.
Update: Moomins and the Comet Chase kept a cinema full of young folk reasonably quiet, so I think they enjoyed it, but it ditched much of the characterisation which makes the Moomin books enjoyable for adults. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but I can see why they wanted to let it tour the provinces before its west end run.


Anne said...

Thanks for reminding me to read Tove Jansson's books. I'm such a fan of Moomin I wonder why I haven't read her other stories yet. I've just ordered The Summer book.

Chris said...

You definitely should, they don't spoil the magic of the cartoons or the children's books at all. I'm slightly apprehensive about these films of Tooti's, that could go either way...

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