The Authorised Biography
Boel Westin, trans Silvester Mazzarella
An amazing book with a luxurious number of colour and black-and-white pictures. I knew nothing at all about Jansson’s life. The book was a bit puzzling at times as I knew very little about Finnish / Swedish twentieth century history or artistic movements (Jansson was the daughter of artists), but definitely worth reading.
Interesting things include how Jansson related to people, the tension between children’s and adults’, serious / playful art or writing, how her work was seen, and her urge to write and re-write, re-imagine or re-tell her past and present, including using real people and events very clearly in her work. I’ve also been reading a biography of Stevie Smith, and she also uses friends recognisably in her writing (sometimes leading to them ceasing to be friends).
The Moomins became an enormous industry, overwhelming Jansson’s ability to manage it and continue other creative work; in particular, she felt obsession (Westlin’s word) about painting, and guilt about not doing so, or not doing so well enough: “There have been so many attempts and so many failures, endless pauses and trying again. … And my feeling of guilt has increased, year by year, to a constant, compact feeling of indisposition, which has made it harder and harder for me to paint.”
She loved to build things: “This was how she described her ‘latest flight from reality’ and the details of its intricate construction (in front of a cave): ‘It is built so that the cave opens out like a inner room … its back wall is not covered but you look up to see the mountainside and patch of sky … Under the ceiling runs a primitive multicoloured thorn, with a window of plaited osiers, and outside a totem pole … Inside there’s an earth floor with flat stones and a stair up to the cave on whose white sandy floor I have strewn shells and on whose walls I am busy carving mammoths and other animals faithfully copied (from ancient discoveries). … ‘
I liked this poem by Jansson’s mother, Signe Hammarstein:
I was a clergyman’s daughter
care of the sick
books and drawing
in religion an idealist
I was loved
moved to his country
survived four wars
worked hard for
the meatballs of life
gave birth to three wonderful
the whole thing wasn’t so
Mentions a fifteenth century church mural by Albertus Pictor of Death playing chess with a knight.
Jansson wrote to a friend “I’m afraid that all my life I shall be an unpolitical = asocial painter, a so-called individualist depicting lemons, writing fairy tales, collecting weird objects as a hobby and detesting associations and societies.”
Something missing for me – and this may be to do with being an ignorant reader – was little sense of how Jansson came across to people, what people who knew her thought of her. It’s only in the last paragraph of the Acknowledgements that Westin, who knew her well, writes “Tove Jansson was at the same time open and secretive, intimate and distant, in a manner all her own”.
The archive and studio Jansson left sounds incredible for her biographer, containing over fifty years of work and life, and Westin implicitly returns to it in the last few words of the book in a sort of Strachey’s Victoria and the rug way, looking back to Jansson’s parents’ studio where bookshelves reached to the ceiling “and she was free to search all the way from the big art books at the bottom near the floor up to the novels and poetry … as she put it herself, ‘to find the Pictures and the Words: the things that will never end’”.