Tove Jansson’s Moomin books for children are beloved the world over by readers of all ages. Her stories about a family of trolls who live in Moominvalley and have adventures with their various friends are endlessly charming, and have spawned hugely successful cartoon adaptations, merchandise, and theme parks. The Moomin books have been translated from Jansson’s Finland Swedish into 45 languages, placing them amongst the most widely read work of Finnish literature outside of the national epic the Kalevala.
But Jansson was also a prolific and deeply original writer of stories for adults. The novels and short stories she wrote for a more mature readership tend to be overshadowed by the success of the Moomins, certainly amongst the Anglophone readership. This is a great shame, as her writing for adults displays the same warmth, charm, and deceptive simplicity hiding great wisdom that characterises the Moomin books, with a sharpness and originality that is all their own.
Her novels for adults include The Summer Book (1972), The True Deceiver (1982), and Fair Play (1989), and her short stories are collected in the volumes Sculptor’s Daughter (1968), The Listener (1971), Art In Nature (1978), Travelling Light (1987) and Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991). Jansson’s stories for adults tend to be less fantastical than the Moomin stories, but many of them hover on the boundary of slipstream, and they are all very much fuelled by Jansson’s love for fairy tales and the marvellous, even as she proves herself an expert at capturing the beauty and poignancy of life as it is lived day to day.
“You know, I begin to think I’ve been depicting things for much too long. Now I’m trying to do something new that’s all my own. It’s much more important to suggest than to portray. I see my work as pieces of reality or unreality carved at random from a long and ineluctable course of events—the darkness I draw continues on endlessly. I cut across it with narrow and dangerous shafts of light…” –“Black-White,” The Listener (47)
Jansson drew much inspiration from her own remarkable life, which is chronicled in the BBC documentary Moominland Tales: The Life of Tove Jansson (2012) and the biopic Tove (2020), directed by Zaida Bergroth. Indeed, the Moomin family closely resembles her own family, with Moomintroll and Little My representing Jansson herself, and Too-Ticky representing her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä. In the 1930s, Jansson studied in Helsinki, Stockholm, and Paris, becoming known as an artist and displaying her work in exhibitions. She also travelled around Europe, writing short stories and articles that were published in various magazines, and during World War II she published satirical cartoons in the anti-fascist magazine Garm. She published the first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, in 1945, which led to nine Moomin books being published between 1945 and 1970. The early Moomin books feature the Moomins facing large supernatural catastrophes like floods and comets which almost destroy their homes, reflecting the trauma and upheaval of the war.
Jansson met Pietilä in 1956, and the two women became lovers and artistic collaborators, living in separate blocks and visiting each other through an attic passageway. In the 1960s, they built their own holiday house on an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Finland. Jansson continued to work on her artwork and her writing throughout her life. As well as designing her own covers and illustrating the Moomin books, she also illustrated Swedish translations of The Hobbit and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. These experiences and events shaped the Moomin stories as well as Jansson’s adult stories, and the themes of how best to live with others and how best to live with nature recur throughout all her work. Almost all of Jansson’s adult writing—all the novels and the bulk of the short stories—has been translated into English by Thomas Teal, who does an excellent job of capturing the clarity and beauty and, crucially, the depth of Jansson’s deceptively simple prose.
The Summer Book
“Grandmother had always liked this great change in August, most of all, perhaps, because of the way it never varied: a place for everything and everything in its place. Now was the time for the traces of habitation to disappear, and, as far as possible, for the island to return to its original condition.” (167)
The Summer Book was Jansson’s first novel for adults, and might just be her masterpiece. Like most of Jansson’s novels for adults, it is light on plot, being more a series of vignettes in its characters’ lives. The novel follows a six-year-old girl called Sophia and her grandmother as they spend a summer together on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, both dealing with their grief over the death of Sophia’s mother. The grandmother and her granddaughter explore the island together and enjoy being out in nature, as they discuss and ruminate on love and life. Jansson’s lightness of touch is remarkable. The Summer Book is not a novel heavy with grief; it explores the ways we cope with loss and reflect on life through the little moments and character interactions between Sophia and her grandmother.
Jansson sensitively portrays two characters dealing with mortality, their perspectives fittingly opposite as they sit at opposite ends of life. So much of the beauty of the book comes from what is left unsaid. Neither Sophia nor her grandmother talk about their obviously very deep affection for each other, or how much they miss Sophia’s mother. Instead the novel gently shows us all of this in the way they interact with each other, the other family members, and the island around them.
As the Moomins reflected Jansson’s family, the characters here are based on Jansson’s real-life niece, Sophia Jansson, and Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, Jansson’s mother, who was also the model for Moominmamma. Signe was a graphic artist and her artistic and personal outlook were a major influence on Jansson; her death in 1970 hangs over The Summer Book, as it does over the final, melancholic Moomin book Moominvalley in November (1970)—the real-life source of the grief that Jansson was processing through her writing.
While The Summer Book takes a realistic approach, exploring moments in everyday life rather than the fantastical world of the Moomins, it shares with the Moomin books a deep love and respect for nature. In the same way that the Moomin books can bring to mind the gentler Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbour Totoro (1988), The Summer Book also is fraught with a sense of nature as agential and animistic, a character in its own right. The island has its own moods, expressed in everything from beautiful sunshine to frightening storms, and the characters must adjust to the whims of the natural world rather than force the natural world to suit their convenience. Indeed, with its fascination with nature and its gentle but profound character work, a Hayao Miyazaki adaptation of The Summer Book would be remarkably well-suited to Jansson’s original vision.
The True Deceiver
“I wasn’t being underhand or dishonest. But you never know, you can never really be sure, never completely certain that you haven’t tried to ingratiate yourself in some hateful way—flattery, empty adjectives, the whole sloppy, disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want; maybe an advantage, or not even that, mostly just because it’s the way it’s done, being as agreeable as possible and getting off the hook…” (43-4)
The True Deceiver is perhaps Jansson’s darkest adult novel, and also the one most clearly indebted to fairy tales. In polar opposition to the warmth of The Summer Book, The True Deceiver is set in a small Finnish village at the height of winter. Anna Aemelin is an elderly children’s book illustrator who lives alone in a giant house with no one to share her wealth, despite being a beloved and respected member of the community. Katri Kling is an outcast with yellow eyes who only cares for her nameless dog and her brother, Mats, who everyone thinks is simple. Katri is jealous of Anna’s wealth, success, and stability, and wants these things for her brother. So she embarks on an insidious scheme to inveigle her way into Anna’s life. The two women enter into a battle of wills, but by the time the frozen winter thaws and spring arrives, their relationship has developed into something far more complex, where it is not immediately clear who is deceiving whom, or who has the upper hand.
The True Deceiver is remarkable for its character work. The villagers see Katri as scheming and conniving, a sinister figure attempting to take advantage of the gullible and lonely Anna. Yet Katri has her own rigid moral code. She cannot stand dissembling and deception in others, and prides herself on always being as straightforward and as honest as possible. This makes her unpopular with the villagers, but even they see the value of her rigid morality and go to her to settle disputes about money. In order to ingratiate herself with Anna, Katri must perform all the little acts of deception that make up social niceties which she so hates. But Anna, it turns out, is far from as innocent and naïve as people think. She is frequently cantankerous, her fame making her distrustful of the many people she doesn’t know who try to flatter her because of her celebrity. Katri’s directness and social awkwardness are fresh and exciting, and as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that as much as Katri is trying to insert herself into Anna’s life, Anna is manipulating Katri so that the only other person she can relate to will stay with her.
Jansson delineates this complex relationship in terms of her beloved fairy tales. Anna smiles to herself when she realises that Katri reminds her of the Big Bad Wolf, and when Katri is transporting her things to Anna’s house, the townspeople compare her to both a witch and Cinderella going to the ball. Katri, with her sinister yellow eyes and her affinity for her barely-tamed, wolf-like dog, definitely resembles both a witch and the Big Bad Wolf. But then, Anna, who can only draw her books for children when the spring comes, seems to be mystically connected to the changing of the seasons herself, and is perhaps closer to the Big Bad Wolf or the wicked stepmother than the innocent Red Riding Hood. The complex balance between the two characters is fraught with these fairy tale allusions, and helps bring the depth and sophistication of their relationship to life, in both its conflicts and the way these two outsiders eventually fill complementary gaps in each other’s lives. In the end, who are we the readers to think is the eponymous true deceiver? Perhaps all relationships require a bit of consenting deception on both sides in order to work.
“Really good films don’t diminish anything, they don’t close things off. On the contrary, they open up new insights, they make new thoughts thinkable. They crowd us, they deflate our slovenly lifestyle, out thoughtless way of chattering and pissing away our time and energy and passion. Believe me, films can teach us a huge amount. And they give us a true picture of the way life is.” (11)
Fair Play, Jansson’s final novel, is a beautiful and delicate queer love story about two older women who have known each other for decades. Mari, a writer, and Jonna, an artist, live in opposite ends of an apartment building connected by a long attic passageway, and have a summer house on an uninhabited island. Jansson’s own relationship with Pietilä is very clearly the model here, and, like their Moomin counterparts Little My and Too-Ticky, Mari and Jonna are very different people with different temperaments who nonetheless beautifully balance each other out.
The novel returns to the vignette form of The Summer Book, following Mari and Jonna as they watch movies together, choose which paintings to put up on their walls, quarrel, comfort each other, go on holiday together. Like The Summer Book, it is beautifully written and gentle, as it explores the shape of these two characters’ lives together, and what it means to love and live with somebody. Part of what makes it so unusual and moving is that it is so rare to see a love story, particularly a queer one, from the perspective of two older people who have been in love with each other for a long time. Mari and Jonna frequently bicker and get on each other’s nerves, and like Sophia and her grandmother in The Summer Book, they avoid explicitly talking about their feelings for each other, but the deep love and affection they have for each other is clear in every interaction.
Fair Play is also a profound meditation on art and how to integrate it into one’s life. Both women have dedicated themselves to art throughout their entire lives, and clearly intend to continue to do so deep into their old age. Their art is their passion, an integral part of how they experience their world, and shapes their lives as much as their love for each other. It’s a novel about ageing, as well, about realising that one is coming to the end of one’s life, and making the most out of the time remaining. Mari and Jonna find this applies equally to love and to art. As Mari’s friend Wladyslaw puts it,
“Just one thing—and now, my friend, you must give me your complete attention. It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent—lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.” (69)
Fair Play is a beautiful and moving summation of Jansson’s philosophy towards life, art, and love, as profound and as moving as the best of the Moomin stories and as beautifully written.
The Short Stories
“It’s the mystery that’s important, somehow very important.” –“Art in Nature” (11)
All of Jansson’s short story collections are worth tracking down if you can find them, though sadly the original collections have fallen out of print. However, the two currently available compilations A Winter Book and The Woman Who Borrowed Memories are both excellent and helpfully cover complimentary ground. A Winter Book (2006), published by Sort Of Books, largely focuses on the early and semi-autobiographical stories collected in Sculptor’s Daughter, with a handful of stories from her other collections thrown in to round it out. The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (2014), published by NYRB Classics, collects highlights from The Listener, The Doll’s House, Traveling Light, Letters From Klara, and the previous compilation Messages: Selected Stories (1998) to give a comprehensive overview of many of Jansson’s best stories.
Given the episodic nature of many of her novels, it’s no surprise that Jansson’s writing works particularly well in short story format. Her short stories are enormously varied. The early stories from Sculptor’s Daughter are largely slice-of-life vignettes that recall episodes from Jansson’s own childhood, whilst others veer further into the Weird and the uncanny than her novels. “Shopping” and “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories,” both originally in the collection Travelling Light, are prime examples of Jansson at her most strange and disconcerting, and make the case for her as an early writer of the Finnish Weird. “Shopping” focuses on an elderly couple who are struggling to survive following an apocalypse, both desperately trying to keep some semblance of normality and routine in a transfigured world. “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories” tells the story of a woman who steals the memories of her old friend until she eventually subsumes her victim’s entire life.
Other stories are less explicitly Weird, but still evoke strange, reality-altering atmospheres, such as “Black-White” (from The Listener), Jansson’s tribute to Edward Gorey’s unsettling illustrations, or “The Locomotive” from Art In Nature, a chilling tale told by an unreliable narrator about a train obsessive and the woman he possibly murders. Others, like “The Cartoonist,” about an illustrator who feels pressured by his creations, and “The Squirrel,” about an elderly lady’s fixation on a squirrel who appears on an otherwise uninhabited island, reflect back on familiar aspects of Jansson’s life and recurring themes.
Jansson’s work for adults may not be as well-known or as well-loved as her Moomin stories, but they convey much of the same warmth and wisdom. While they are not genre fiction per se, for the most part, even at her most realist, Jansson possesses a playful attitude towards genre and a love of fairy tales and the fantastic that informs all her writing. Her works for adults are beautifully written, their beautiful surfaces revealing surprising depths, and are often wondrously strange. These are novels and stories that deserve more love, and will no doubt charm anyone who fondly remembers the Moomin books—and perhaps surprise them as well.
Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.