Art in Nature, Tove Jansson #TOVE100

Coming out of any intense, dramatic period of living can make it hard to choose appropriate reading material.

Recently I found it difficult to sustain reading as it all seemed too far removed from life’s demands that I be very present and attentive to the needs of those around me.

It made me reflect on what and who can I read I turn to during these kinds of periods. Short stories and/or non-fiction. Tove Jansson and The Dalai Lama.

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

I chose Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal), because even her stories feel like they haven’t strayed too far from the reality within which they were inspired. I find immeasurable comfort in reading the words of this talented artist, the short form allowing a brief respite without requiring an ongoing commitment of a novel, when concentration spans are short.

Art in NatureArt in Nature is an intriguing collection of character studies, characters who happen to be creative, eccentric, obsessive, all curiously flawed in some way and Tove Jansson observes them in a situation until the cracks appear. They are a slice of life short narrative and any one of them could easily have morphed into a longer story such as her novel The True Deceiver I recently reviewed here.

The first story Art in Nature is about a caretaker watching over an exhibition of work in open air.

“He slept in the sauna down below the great lawn where the sculptures were set out among the trees.”

The day has its rhythm and characteristics and the evenings belong to the caretaker, the quiet contemplative time when he is alone among the unmoving silent works, still, post creation. He observes everything, every inclination, every watcher, he categorizes them and becomes attached to how things are.

“Almost all the feet moved respectfully. If they were with a guide, they’d stand still for a while, all turned in the same direction, and then they’d change direction all at the same time to look at something else. The lonely feet were uncertain in the beginning, then they’d move slowly at an angle, stop, stand with legs crossed, turn around, and sometimes they’d lift one foot and scratch with it because there were lots of mosquitos.”

Until one evening when a couple overstays, middle-aged adults breaking the rules, having a domestic argument. He intervenes, listens to them argue, provokes them with his own thoughts on the mystery of what art is.

Tove Jansson's Atelier © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson’s Atelier
© Moomin Characters™

The Cartoonist is a mysterious, insightful look into the daily work of an illustrator, a job that Tove Jansson’s mother did and one she dabbled in herself, making me wonder how much of this was inspired by the environment and circumstance of her mother.

A famous newspaper cartoonist has quit suddenly after 10 years and a new artist is required to assume his role without a break in the cartoon strip, without his fans knowing. The new artist slips easily into the role but becomes plagued with needing to know why his predecessor quit.

The Doll’s House is brilliant and shocking and quite different from anything else of Jansson’s I have read. Like The True Deceiver, it shows her deftness at spotting signs and cracks in character that over time can grow from barely visible flaw into raging psychological dysfunction when neither checked or dissipated.

Two recently retired men who have lived together and shared the same respect for the beautiful objects that surround them, are adjusting to the new routine of no longer having demanding day jobs. Alexander is a craftsman and Eric a retired banker.

“Alexander was an upholsterer of the old school. He was exceptionally skilled, and he took a craftsman’s natural pride in his work. He discussed commissions only with those customers who had taste and a feel for the beauty of materials and workmanship. Not wishing to show his contempt, he referred all the others to his employees.”

In the beginning they have difficulty adjusting to this new way of life, discovering that in such close proximity their interests aren’t as fine-tuned or in harmony as they had appeared when their time was absorbed by outside demands. Eric begins to take on more of the domestic role and Alexander begins a project to build a miniature house. He seeks the help of an electrician called Boy, who becomes his trusted helper.

“Boy came back almost every evening. He often brought little table lamps, sconces, or a chandelier that he’d found in some hobby shop or toy store. He came straight from work in his jeans and trailed street dirt over the rugs, but Alexander didn’t seem to notice – he just admired what Boy had brought him and listened gravely to his suggestions about improvements to the house.”

Just rereading these two quotes, makes me realise what clever insights Tove Jansson’s places into the text, the clues into character are there from the beginning and the simple daily events that follow turn these insights into something raw and dangerous.

Another excellent collection of stories from the Finnish artist and writer who would have been 100 years old next month.

Absolutely gripping!

Check out her books and events at

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov
© Moomin Characters™


The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson – #TOVE100

True Deceiver

I am reading The True Deceiver as part of my #TOVE100 Reading Challenge.

This is the first of Tove Jansson’s novels I have read that flows like a single story, her A Winter Book and The Summer Book read like vignettes, not driven so much by plot, more focused on the characters that inhabited their pages, their environment and various encounters that carried them through the season.

The seasons are ever present in all her work and in The True Deceiver, we meet the characters snow-bound in winter, waiting for the thaw of spring. This passage of time will thaw the surroundings and to a certain degree the characters as they undergo a transformation due to the events that follow.

“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light.”

The True Deceiver is the story of an aging woman artist Anna Aemelin who lives alone on the outskirts of small village, snow bound as the opening pages reveal its stillness and propensity for chatter within. Anna keeps to herself and is content that way, her post and necessary supplies are delivered, there is minimal disruption to her way of life and the inspiration that feeds her artistic leanings, which awaken with the Spring and her venturing into the woodland beyond her home.

She often receives correspondence from fans, her art depicts realistic portrayals of the forest floor, disturbed only by the presence of her not so life-like animated rabbits, for which she is world-renowned, especially among the younger generation.

Tove Jansson © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson
© Moomin Characters™

As Boel Westin notes in Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words: The Authorised Biography, Jansson often writes herself into her fiction:

“Sometimes unconcealed, freely, openly, sometimes hidden behind various names and disguises…traces of Tove Jansson run hither and thither in all her texts and pictures, and the patterns they form are constantly new” Boel Westin

One of the villagers, Katri Krill, known to all as being good with numbers, one who can sniff out the slightest hint of corruption or exploitation, dreams of financial security for herself and her brother Mats. Despite her trustworthiness, her sudden interest in the aging artist sets tongues wagging in the village, as she takes over more and more of Anna’s business affairs, bringing her out of an oblivious state of denial regarding her situation, an interference that is both appreciated and resented equally.

“Now don’t take this the wrong way, Miss Kling, but I find your way of never saying what a person expects you to say, I find it somehow appealing. In you, there’s no, if you’ll pardon my saying so, no trace of what people call politeness… And politeness can sometimes be almost a kind of deceit, can it not? Do you know what I mean?”

When Katri takes over the letter writing activity to Anna’s child fans, the artist is appalled to learn how business like and impersonal her responses are, it might take less time, but it is not her style at all and she lets her know exactly how it should be:

“And what about this one? Anna went on. “Where’s the chitchat? He’s tried to draw a rabbit – obviously no talent at all – so here you could write something like ‘I’ve hung your picture above my desk’… This one’s learning to skate, and her cat’s name is Topsy. You can fill nearly a whole page with the skating and the cat if you write big enough. You’re not using the material.”

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

It is as though Tove Jansson is arguing with herself, Katri is like her alter ego and Anna resists embracing what she knows should be done, it undermines her integrity as an artist, she resents all the questions relating to the ugly business of merchandising that has grown like a malignant tumour out of her artwork; people take these things on, come up with ideas that have nothing to do with her work or her characters and their inclinations and want to do things with them, that in her imagination she knows they would never do. Katri tries to get her to detach from them, trying to convince her that she will never see these manifestations of her work, she should see them purely as a source of income, but Anna will not compromise, the artist’s integrity is not for sale.

Who is the true deceiver? Perhaps everyone has something of the deceiver in them, the truth can be brutal, kindness can be deceptive, secondary agendas can lie behind them both. The True Deceiver is Tove Jansson at her best, struggling and yet persevering to put into story form, the battle of those two states of mind, objectivity and aesthetic sensibility, constantly at war with each other, unlikely companions just as Anna and Katri, the rabbits and the dog.

Brilliantly evocative of the artistic struggle, it is a story that invites discussion and keeps the reader thinking long after that last page is turned. And wondering what those rabbits might have looked like, Moomins perhaps?

Highly Recommended.




Tove Jansson Anniversary 100 years #TOVE100

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

2014 is TOVE100, 100 years since the birth of the Finnish artist and writer Tove Marika Jansson.

I have read a few of her books (the adult books translated by Thomas Teal), discovering her about a year ago and I have become a little obsessed with her work since then.

To celebrate her 100 years, I plan to read a few more books by or about Tove Jansson and invite you to join me if you wish.

Books Read

A Winter Booksee my review here

A quiet, honest collection of stories, containing evocative black and white photos that add to the atmosphere the author evokes making the reader experience life on the island and all its challenges, right up to the final story, Taking Leave, the last visit, when the nets have become too heavy to pull, the boat too difficult to handle, the sea too unpredictable for two aging women.

The Summer Booksee my review here

An elderly artist and her six-year-old grand-daughter spend a summer on an island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and desire for independence, coming to an understanding, teaching each other something along the way.

The True DeceiverSee my review here 

An aging women artist living alone on the outskirts of a village is befriended by a younger woman, who after faking a break-in moves in with her brother, allegedly to provide companionship. It is a relationship that peels back the layers of both women, bringing their inclinations and bugbears to the surface, a face-off between truth and kindness, both containing elements of deception.

Art in Nature – See my review here

Sculptors daughterStill To Read

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson

Fair Play by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words: The Authorised Biography, Written by Boel Westin, Translated by Silvester Mazzarella

The Moomintroll Books

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov
© Moomin Characters™

She wrote and illustrated children’s books and later in life began to write for adults as well. She was close to nature and spent nearly every summer on a family island in the Pellinge archipelago, in the Gulf of Finland, an environment that features often in A Winter Book and The Summer Book.

Born on 9 August 1914 to a family of artists, her mother was a graphic designer and her father a sculptor. An artist before anything, she was multi-talented, painting, illustrating and writing, not confined to any one genre. Her first book for adults was part fiction, part memoir, The Sculptor’s Daughter, written 10 years after her father’s death.

Although I admit to never having read any of them, she is most well-known for nine children’s books that grew out of her family of characters, little white trolls living in Moominvalley named Moomintroll, Moominmamma and Moominpappa along with other creative creatures such as the Hattifatteners, Mymbles and Whompers. She also illustrated other classic children’s books including versions of Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit.

Tove Jansson and Her Moomintrolls © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson and Her Moomintrolls
© Moomin Characters™

Her career started early, drawing for a liberal satire magazine Garm at the age of 15, the title where her large nosed character Moomintroll made its first appearance. I think she may have been filling in for her mother, based on a comment I read in The New Yorker, but I’ll find out more when I read the biography. Her first book Sara and Pelle and the Octopuses of the Water Sprite – was published when she was just 13.

Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages, making her one of the most well-known Finnish artists, remembered by many from their own childhood and continuing to gain new audiences today.

“I didn’t realise it was set in a real place. I thought she’d made Finland up. Finland was like Narnia, with these incredible characters that were so strange but instantly recognisable because you had met lots of them – noisy Hemulens or neurotic, skinny Fillijonks.” Frank Cottrell Boyce


There are numerous events happening worldwide and the national gallery of Finland, Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki is holding an exhibition of all oeuvres of Jansson’s career, her surrealistic paintings of the 1930s, modernist art of the 1950s and more abstract works in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as her satirical anti-war illustrations for the magazine Garm, her murals created for public spaces, and illustrations of her Moomin characters and stories. I’m unlikely to make it to Helsinki, but was pleased to discover the audio presentations linked below, 2 minute descriptions (in English) of 12 of her paintings which you can view while listening.

Further Reading, Listening

Two Minute Audio Descriptions of 12 of her Paintings, via the Finnish Art Museum, Ateneum

TOVE100 – website with events happening internationally, resources

The Hands That Made the Moomins – An article in the New Yorker


Have you read any of Tove Jansson’s books? Are you planning to read any of them this year?

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

I promised myself to read this in summer, after a series of other seasonal reads like Susan Hill’s In the Springtime of the Year,  Tove Jansson’s A Winter Bookand Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I seem to have skipped autumn, so perhaps that will next, maybe Irene Nemirovsky’s Snow in Autumn or Albert Camus’ Fall.

The Summer BookThe Summer Book is a novel that reads more like non-fiction, an invocation of the spirit of its author Tove Jansson, who like the Grandmother and Sophia the grand-daughter in her book, spent all her summers on the small family island off the coast of Finland, doing just the kind of things young Sophia does and eventually feeling the constraints of the older woman, so that she herself comes of age (at 77) and no longer has the strength nor confidence to brace the unpredictable sea after a storm destroys their boat, she sensibly retires to the mainland for the rest of her days.

Esther Freud writes a captivating foreword, including sharing parts of her own visit to the island to meet the real life Sophia, who is Tove Jansson’s niece. She visits both the island of Jansson’s childhood and Klovharun, a place of pilgrimage today (see the video below), the island she later moved to with her partner when their own island became too crowded with relatives and friends.  Freud ponders:

“What kind of person could live here? Someone so fuelled by their imagination, so stimulated by the sea, so richly creative that they could find solace and inspiration in what to others might seem a barren rock.”

This short video clip helps us imagine just what it might be like.  As for me, I could well imagine living like this for the summer.  And you?

In the book, we meet Sophia, who has prematurely lost her mother and so with her father will spend spring and summer on the island with her grandmother. While the father is present, whenever he is mentioned, even when in the same room, he is working or busy and so given background status, though in reality on such a small island, his existence would no doubt be more noticeable, however in the story he is a reassuring but not interfering presence, just like the island itself.

Sophia on the island with her grandmother (Tove's mother) in 1968

Sophia on the island with her grandmother (Tove’s mother) in 1968

The pages turn like days of summer, governed by the moods of the elements, the creatures that inhabit its shores and the occasional visitor. Underneath or implicit within all that passes is the perplexity of death, that absence, prematurely confronted by a young girl and sensitively explained by her older companion. The chapter entitled Playing Venice is especially poignant, the loss of the hand-made palace necessitates Grandmother staying up all night to replace it, Sophia unable to cope with another loss of something so special and close to her heart, even if it is only a small sculpture.

In both the chapter Berenice, which is about Sophia’s friend who comes to stay for a while and The Cat, Sophia has to deal with the paradox of really wanting something, then discovers she no longer does and finally must learn to appreciate both her friend and the cat, just as they are.

“If only she were a little bigger, Grandmother thought. Preferably a good deal bigger, so I could tell her that I understand how awful it is. Here you come, head-long into a tight group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them more compact and self-assured.

An island can be dreadful for someone from the outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are hard as rock from repetition, and as the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”

Like A Winter Book, this is not a volume to be rushed, it is best savoured and enjoyed slowly, it reminds us of the joy of simple things, that there is value even in those things that sometimes irritate us and above all that we ought to respect and pay attention to natures elements. This is one you’ll want to gift to another or even read again. A literary gem.

Further Reading:

A Biographical Essay on Tove Jansson

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

Too many days have passed in a fog and even this is hard to write, because I had already written and lost it, so peeking out from the blur of la grippe (flu), I hope I find the inspiration that assisted me first time round.

A Winter BookI came across a review for Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book after spending an evening reading Katie Metcalfe’s sublime poetry here.

Metcalfe is a young contemporary poet from Teesside, in the North of England, who churns out poetry at an astonishing rate and has an abundant talent for getting to the heart of it, all of it, any of it, whatever it is she chooses to write about in that heart-felt way that only poetry can do.

Inspired by the Arctic and snowy landscapes, it was no wonder a book like Jansson’s would appeal to her. And something about it appealed to me too, a collection of tales to read in winter, semi-autobiographical bite sized vignettes of another creative spirit.

The Moomin Family

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was not known to me, but will be known to many as she was the author of the children’s fantasy Moomin books. The Moomins are a family of pale, rotund trolls with large snouts, resembling hippopotamuses. Sniff, Snufkin, Moominmamma, Moominpapa and more, they live in Moominvalley in the forests of Finland and have lots of adventures.

Jansson was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature in 1966.

Her first collection of stories for adults The Summer Book was published in 1972, and this more recent collection spans her writing career, like seaside keepsakes gathered over the years. I now have The Summer Book, but shall make that a seasonal read as well.

The daughter of creative parents, her father a sculptor and her mother an illustrator, Jansson’s own imagination has been given full rein and it comes out in her first stories, which are told from the perspective of a girl, whom I am sure was the author herself. In fact all through the book, I was left more with a feeling of reading non-fiction than anything else. This selection draws from five collections presenting the best of her short fiction.

In one story entitled Snow, she writes of a girl and her mother being snowed in, the light slowly disappearing as the windows are covered up and expresses her delight in having escaped the outside world, warm in the safe and secure presence of her cheerful mother.

“..we have gone into hibernation. Nobody can get in any longer and no one can get out!”

I looked carefully at her and understood that we were saved. At last we were absolutely safe and protected. This menacing snow had hidden us inside in the warmth for ever and we didn’t have to worry a bit about what went on there outside.

Jansson spent every summer living and working on a tiny island off the coast of Finland, returning to Helsinki for the more difficult months and clearly spent many summers in boats and on the island during her childhood. Another memorable story was The Boat and Me, she is given her first boat at twelve-years-old and wastes no time in asserting her new-found independence, taking the boat out along the coast to look at her favourite spots from another perspective, with little regard for the hours that pass by or the hearts that might be fretting.

I go slowly, hugging the shore, into each creek and out round each headland; I mustn’t miss anything out because it’s a ritual. Now I’m about to see my territory from the sea for the first time, that’s important.

I pulled up the anchor-stone and rowed straight out into the path of the moon. Of course the moon’s path is lovely as a picture in calm weather, but when it’s rough, it’s even more beautiful, all splinters and flakes from precious stones like sailing through a sea set with diamonds.

And at that very moment Dad turned up…

Tove SquirrelBut my favourite story has to be the one that follows, in a section entitled Travelling Light, signifying the latter years, where annoyance is more likely the emotion of choice to greet uninvited guests in place of the enthusiasm or delight of her more youthful years. Even when that guest is an island-hopping squirrel.

Either I am incredibly gullible or this story will teach you something new about the intelligence of squirrels, as a reader I was right there with squirrel and hoping for the best, while Jansson was lining up his escape options, ill inclined to do anything to encourage the lonesome animal to stay.

She didn’t care about squirrels, or fly fishermen, or anyone, but just let herself slip down into a great disappointment and admit she was disappointed. ‘How can this be possible?’ she thought frankly. ‘How can I be so angry that they’ve come at all and then so dreadfully disappointed that they haven’t landed?’

Not just a quiet, honest collection of stories, but containing wonderful black and white photos that add to the atmosphere the author evokes and make us feel the heaviness and significance of that final story, Taking Leave, the last visit, when the nets have become too heavy to pull, the boat too difficult to handle, the sea too unpredictable for two aging women. It is with a quiet sadness but knowledge that many happy hours were spent, that we turn the last page on that final visit.