Intimacies and Dishonesties

Intimacies and Dishonesties

In Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver, the uncertainties laid bare go to the heart of human relationships.


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?

The True Deceiver is set in a summer place off-season, a run-down former fishing town where snow piles up against doors and windows for long months on end. Thin, sharp Katri Kling lives with her younger brother, Mats, and her big nameless dog in the attic above the store. Like Wallace Stevens’s snow man, Katri has a mind of winter, seeing "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." She trusts in numbers and in scrupulous honesty; hates "flattery, empty adjectives, the whole sloppy machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want." She is an outcast in the village, and though her neighbors seek her advice about their business affairs, they leave her company with a sense of shame. The book begins in Katri’s small apartment, and within a few pages it has slipped into her voice, which seems to come from some prehuman place:

They say that money smells; it’s not true. Money is as pure as numbers. It’s people that smell, every one of them with their own furtive stink, and it gets stronger when they’re angry or ashamed or when they’re afraid….Dogs are mute and obedient, but they have watched us and know us and can smell how pitiful we are…. Why aren’t people afraid of their dogs? How long can what was once a wild animal deny its wildness?

That unmarked slide from the narrator’s mind to Katri’s will happen again and again, implicating the storyteller in her careful plotting and making the reader experience her world from the inside.

Against angular Katri Kling, Jansson sets round, soft Anna Aemelin, an elderly artist of children’s books who lives alone in a house on a hill that resembles "a large, crouched rabbit." Anna has inherited her wealth from her beloved parents and keeps the house as a museum of her childhood, dispatching visitors with an "absent-minded graciousness" and living by her own rhythms. "Perhaps the reason people called Anna Aemelin nice," says the narrator (or is it Katri speaking?), "was because nothing had ever forced her to exhibit malice, and because she had an uncommon ability to forget unpleasant things." Anna and Katri are as starkly opposed as figures in a fairy tale—dark against light, winter against spring, consonants against vowels, hunter against prey—but Jansson muddles the contrast from the start. Anna, too, is stubborn, a literalist in her paintings, which are all meticulous close-ups of the forest floor in spring—except that she adds rabbits with flowery fur. The novel takes her art seriously but never mystifies it; like everything else, it is observed with a cool, appraising eye: "Anna Aemelin made people see. They saw and recalled the essence of the forest, and, for a moment, experienced a vague yearning that felt pleasant and hopeful."

Katri decides to move into Anna’s house and claim her wealth for Mats. She begins a campaign to make herself indispensable without dissimulation, ingratiating herself with Anna through her blunt refusal to engage in social niceties. But Katri’s definition of honesty is disarmingly literal, applied only to words: she has no scruples, for instance, about staging a burglary to seal the older woman’s sense of vulnerability. Nor is Anna a helpless victim; she knows she has something to gain from her peculiar visitor. From her first visit, Katri disturbs her passivity and offers an inkling of power: "It was a small but definite insight. She didn’t like coffee. In fact, she never had."

The women’s battle is fought at first over small domestic details. As Katri and Mats establish themselves in the house, Anna is subjected to the invasive presence of someone else’s gaze and to the humiliation of having her needs anticipated. Katri is like a mirror, clear as ice; she can make herself invisible, know what Anna is thinking, forge her signature and her style. She takes over Anna’s wearying correspondence with her readers, reproducing "Anna’s uncertainty and her awkward kindness getting lost in needless small talk" but adding her own capacity to cut off expectations. Each defeat for Anna is also a relief: the pile of old furniture Mats throws out onto the ice, the sheaves of business correspondence sorted and stored in files, the lifting of her family’s taboo on talking about money. "What you throw away," says Katri, "what you so utterly despise, is quite simply possibilities…. Without money, a person’s thinking gets narrow. It shrivels!" As Anna begins to fight back against the invader, she takes on some of her qualities and acquires definition, a spine. "You’re incapable of playing," she tells Katri cruelly. "You don’t know how to play." Katri, meanwhile, becomes less certain, even guilt-ridden; when Anna begins to seduce her brother and her dog from her, she has no way to resist.

The tale unfolds with Jansson’s usual delicacy and restraint. The shift in the balance is slow, with setbacks and reversals; the reader’s sympathies are teased and kept in play. Anna and Katri’s relationship is more than a power struggle; it is also a version of a love affair that has overstepped some boundary—of respect, or care, or tact. Several stories in Fair Play also describe situations in which one partner relinquishes to or borrows from the other qualities that she can’t quite acknowledge in herself. In "The Hunter" Jonna semi-accidentally shoots a black-backed gull that has been killing eider chicks, leaving its own chick orphaned; when Mari berates her for her love of guns, she answers as Katri might: "There are times when a healthy ruthlessness is the right thing." The story ends with Mari handing Jonna the pistol as she goes to talk to some hunters who have landed on the island: "Take this. You never know."

The difference between Mari and Jonna, on the one hand, and Anna and Katri, on the other, is partly to do with the characters’ intentions—a wish for generous connection set against a hunger to possess—but it is also a function of literary form. Though The True Deceiver can be read as a psychological novel, or even as a social satire about small-town life, the women in it are not naturalistic creations. Each one animates something elemental—a drive, an instinct, a way of being in the world—that is also expressed through the book’s strong visual imagery: dark Katri in her wolf-skin coat with her dog against the ice; Anna’s pale rooms in snow light; a liver on the kitchen counter, "brownish red, swollen with blood"; the frozen bay; the boat Mats longs to build. The story skirts the edge of parable or fable; the crack and melt of winter into spring lends it a frame and structure as well as its austere setting: "Out on the ice, the wind had opened glassy patches between long strips of snow." Katri "watched the dark ice bulge and bend over the swells moving in towards the shore, a long, slow, rising and sinking surge." But Jansson’s touch is too light, her voice too wry and knowing to allow the book to crystallize into a rigid pattern. Its oppositions remain dissolved in the particular, until they come to seem uncertain after all.

Jansson said that The True Deceiver was particularly hard to write, and it is tempting to see in it a version of her struggle to free herself from the Moomins, as Anna is set free from her oppressive flowery bunnies. Yet it is Katri’s consciousness that Jansson most fully inhabits, and Katri’s loss that resonates after the book is done. Though it’s never made explicit, the "wildness" that undoes her in the end is love—for Mats, on whose behalf she embarks on her campaign, and for the dog that finally turns on her and flees, "running on and on without rest under the ominous ensign of the wolf skin." Like Moomintroll’s lie to his mother, Katri’s deception turns out also to be an act of generosity, leaving the reader with an unanswerable question. Who in the end is the artist and who the true deceiver: Katri, who forces Anna to see the world more clearly, or Anna, who withdraws into her solitude to paint, uncluttered by rabbits, the moist, dark forest floor?

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