The BBC is currently running a series of documentaries about children’s writers, and there was an episode about Tove Jansson, author of the Moomintrolls. It is a beautiful thing, and if you can I really recommend that you watch it. I was introduced to the Moomins, and Tove, as an adult having missed them entirely as a child. If you have a child or know a child, I can really recommend that you introduce that child to the Moomins as soon as you can. They are charming and funny, brave and adventurous and the stories are brilliant. If you, as an adult reading this blog, haven’t read Tove Jansson’s adult fiction I recommend that you do so immediately. And the Moomins, which are equally good reads for grown-ups. You may have noticed I’m recommending a lot here. This is no accident. Tove Jansson is not read enough, in my opinion. She isn’t recognised as the great and extraordinary writer, the great and extraordinary human being, that she was. After watching the BBC programme I knew I would have to read something by Tove, and I chose Fair Play.
I’ve read Fair Play before. In fact I’ve read most of Jansson’s work, though not all of the Moomin books (I may be rectifying this quite soon). It’s both gentle and unsettling. Little happens, and yet everything happens. As with much of Tove’s work there is no single thread (The True Deceiver is the exception here, also exceptional in every meaning of the term, being a complete and continuous story) but rather it is a series of stories following the relationship of two women living together on a small island. The more I learn about Tove, the more it becomes clear that much of her work is biographical in nature or at least heavily drawn on her interactions and relationships. In this case the two women living together on a small island are Tove (Mari) and Tuulikki Pietilä her life partner and fellow artist. The book takes some incidents from the women’s lives, their little interactions and habits, and shows us something universal and wonderful about human nature, love and friendship.
“Jonna had a happy habit of waking each morning as if to a new life, which stretched before her straight through to evening, clean, untouched, rarely shadowed by yesterday’s worries and mistakes.
Another habit – or rather a gift, equally surprising – was her flood of unexpected and completely spontaneous ideas. Each lived and blossomed powerfully for a time until suddenly swept aside by a new impulse demanding its own undeniable space.”
Thus starts the first little story. This is, perhaps, what I love the most about Jansson’s writing. It is economical and yet conveys great depth with equal simplicity. Immediately we have a picture of Jonna. I see an energetic woman, resilient, impulsive perhaps. All in two sentences. Each little story is quite short, and the book as a whole is only just over 100 pages long and I read it in less than 2 hours. But don’t let these facts fool you into thinking the book is slight or weightless – it is weightless in a way, but that’s just the power of the writing – no, this is a book which exposes truth, and every little story is a little vignette, like a complex but small painting, which reveals far more than it first appears. There are stories about hanging paintings, about guns, about thunderstorms and feeling jealous, there are stories about B movies and cowboy movies, about travelling, about sailing in fog. One of my favourites is this one, where there is a huge storm and the two women weren’t able to properly secure the boat, on which they rely:
“They listened to the rain.
‘She’ll get too heavy,’ Mari said. ‘And we can’t get out to her to bail.’
Jonna said, ‘Don’t tell me things I already know.’
They both knew well enough. The rain would go on, the boat would grow heavy, the eaves would come in over the stern, she’d sink in her lines. But how deep would she sink, and would the rocks on the bottom knock her to pieces, or was it calm down there despite the storm and how deep was it, how many metres…?”
Because at the time Jansson wrote Fair Play she would have been in her early 70s and the women, at that point, had had to move from their isolated little island because they were growing too frail to manage out there alone. But buried in plain view is the question of death. Fair Play, more than any other book I’ve read by Jansson, is melancholy in tone though not hopelessly so. But that the lines just quoted are a reflection on the impending likelihood of one or other of the women’s deaths is plain. And this frailty, the sense of aging rigidity in need of challenge, clinging on to the past – these are all themes that absorb Jansson in this short but powerful little book. Like here, when Mari and Jonna sail out to rescue their last net:
“Mari was holding the net with both hands and could feel it breaking and tearing apart on the rocks on the seabed. What she’d already gathered slid off the net peg into the bottom of the boat in one big tangle and Jonna shouted, ‘Let go, let it go!’ and the whole thing went back over the gunwale until the net peg stuck up its tail and disappeared. Jonna rowed in against the wind and crashed the bow up on the granite. The cat sat waiting and meowed. They didn’t tie up; just climbed out and sat on the thwarts. The sea had turned back to the south. It had begun to blow hard.
‘Forget it,’ said Jonna. ‘Forget it. Don’t grieve for a net, grieve for everything else that’s broken and can’t ever be mended. Your uncle liked making nets; it was what he knew, it was calming and familiar. Going into that loft you’ve talked about, I’m sure it helped him shut everything out, and everyone. He wasn’t thinking about fish, not a bit, and not about you getting the net as a present. He was just at peace, doing work that was his and only his. You know I’m right. He didn’t have goals anymore.’”
This absence of goals is another absorbing factor, the sense that her work is either meaningless or a wasted effort, that she would never succeed. Jansson was an excellent writer, she was recognised for her cartoon work and particularly the Moomins, yet this was not Jansson’s passion. Her passion was her art, and her art was the one thing she never quote got the recognition for that she desired. In these stories there’s a sense that she’s obsessed with the idea that she will never succeed, that it saddens her that she will never achieve what she wants to and she doesn’t understand why Jonna isn’t consumed by it too. Yet in the end, despite the melancholy and the worries, there remains hope. Jansson never really hangs you out to dry (except, perhaps, in Moominvalley in November which I haven’t yet read), she is the embodiment of tolerance and hope and the thin sliver of resilience which carries you through. This is what makes the Moomins so powerful, and this little book too. And it is one of the many reasons I admire her so greatly. If you have only a little time to dedicate to discovering Jansson’s work, you can’t go far wrong by starting here (or anywhere).
Fair Play is published in UK by Sort of Books, in a lovely edition, very beautiful, and a wonderful introduction by the equally wonderful and talented and marvellous Ali Smith.