Near the beginning of Moominsummer Madness (1954), the fifth of Tove Jansson’s much-loved children’s books about a free-spirited community of invented creatures, young Moomintroll is thinking about the miniature bark schooner his mother is putting together. He is sure it will be for him, because she always makes the first boat of the summer for the one she likes the best and then "muddles it all away a little" so that no-one will feel hurt; he privately hopes more than anything that the schooner will have a dinghy. But when she comes and floats it on the pond beside him, he sees at once that she has forgotten that vital detail. Still, he rubs his snout against hers and says, "It’s the nicest you’ve ever made." Like Moominmamma’s "muddling" to protect her family’s feelings, Moomintroll’s small deceit is an act of generosity, made possible by the silent understanding he has with his mother. Of course there is also pain in it, the sharp pain of a disappointment swallowed.
Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki in 1914; her parents were well-known artists, members of Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority. The Jansson family seems to have been the model for the Moomins, the gentle bohemian bipeds who brought Tove fame, first through her books and comic strips and later through TV series and international franchises. ("We’ve launched a discreet new mini sanitary towel…aiming at a younger clientele with the slogan ‘Hi there, Little My always plays safe,’" reads a fragment from a letter in her collage-story "Messages.") The adult stories translated in A Winter Book (1998) offer a child’s-eye glimpse of life in the Janssons’ Helsinki apartment and on the rocky island in the Pellinge archipelago where the family summered: a father prone to whims and moods that the family must humor; a warm, creative mother who holds everything together; a stream of parties and adventures and eccentric visitors.
The brief author’s biography in Jansson’s books for children still claims, as it did when I discovered them at 8 or 9, that she lived alone on a small island in Finland. In fact, she lived for more than forty years with her partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, a successful graphic artist. Jansson started writing for adults in her 50s and published eleven books; until now only three of the most autobiographical have been available in English, end-papered with photographs of Tove and Tuulikki, the studio and the island. The photographs are lovely, but the writing is subtly diminished by such packaging, as if it would be of lesser interest without the appealing life.
Jansson was a meticulous stylist, an exact observer of intimacies and dishonesties and the mysterious processes of creativity. Her prose is spare and light—line drawing rather than painting—and her use of form is open, deft and enigmatic. The Summer Book and Fair Play both hang suspended between story collection and novel, linking scenes from a relationship with the faintest hint of a narrative arc, as if anything more would hamper the work’s quiet attentiveness. The Summer Book is about a child and her grandmother on a Finnish island, their days shaped by the unobtrusive shadow of an ending. Fair Play is a series of vignettes from the life of two women artists, tracing the misunderstandings and face-saving silences, the discretion and tact required to live with another person: "Over the years, she’d learned not to interfere with Jonna’s plans and their mysterious blend of perfectionism and nonchalance, a mix not everyone can properly appreciate. Some people just shouldn’t be disturbed in their inclinations, whether large or small. A reminder can instantly turn enthusiasm into aversion and spoil everything."
The True Deceiver is a very different book, a novel that claims the authority to direct and surprise the reader even as it investigates the meaning of influence and control, possession and exploitation. First published in Finland in 1982, it is in a sense the mirror image of Fair Play, which celebrates with perfect nonchalance the awkward, delicate art of equal companionship. Its territory is the Finnish winter, with its harsh light and biting winds that cut through to the bone. The intimate power struggle between its two protagonists strips them of their illusions and almost of themselves; the uncertainties laid bare go to the heart of human relationship: is there such a thing as kindness, or is all generosity ultimately self-serving? Is truthfulness always honorable, or can it be another form of deceit?