Book Review: Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words: The Authorised Biography

by Boel Westin, Silvester Mazzarella (Translator)

Tove Jansson, author of the Moomins and one of the great idiosyncratic talents of the 20th century, must surely have found her ideal biographer in Boel Westin. With previously published works on Lewis Carroll and August Strindberg, this Professor of Literature at the University of Stockholm knew Jansson personally and wrote a PhD dissertation on her ideologies and philosophies.

A Swedish-speaking Finn, Jansson was both novelist and artist, but became so well known for creating her bevy of eccentric “beings” (most closely resembling terrestrial manatees or curvaceous hippos) that people tend to be unaware she was a respected painter, cartoonist and illustrator in her homeland long before becoming a world-famous children’s author. Westin does much to rectify this oversight, with some of her most captivating chapters devoted to Tove’s time as a humble student, her early exhibitions, travels in Europe and her struggle to cope during the dark and depressing war years. Of this period Jansson wrote:

“One day people will say that we lived in interesting times, in a great period. But I think the great events around us have only diminished us. People cannot manage to be magnificent in a long-lasting war.”

Westin was given complete access to Jansson’s vast personal archive of notes, letters, diaries, illustrations and sketches in order to research this fascinating 500-page book: an affectionate, honest but never salacious life history. She treats with respect Tove’s deep and joyous relationships with women, most notably her soul-mate, Tuulikki Pietilä (known as Tooti), describing their extraordinary, symbiotic existence with immense understanding and warmth. She also explores in considerable detail her artistic background (her father was a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer), close friendships, passion for isolated islands and the years following the final Moomin story when she focussed on writing for adults.

The Moomin books, published between 1945 and 1970, became big business from the 1950s onwards and their popularity merely increased with longevity. These days, when you visit Finland, you can stay in Moomin-themed hotel rooms; go to Moominworld, a theme park on the island of Kailo; and enjoy savoury pancakes at the Moomin cafe in Kuopio. Indeed, so much are these small philosophical trolls now an integral part of Finnish culture, they even adorn the wings of Finnair – fondly known as ‘The Official Airline of the Moomins’.

It is no longer necessary for fans to travel to the Nordics in order to seek out Moomin merchandise, for they can now drop into The Moomin Shop in London’s Covent Garden Market and acquire anything from Moomin-themed make-up bags and bath towels to Snufkin candles and Little My cushion covers. There are even Moomin cafes and shops to be found as far afield as Japan, Hong Kong, China and Thailand.

One wonders what the famously high-principled Jansson would have made of this extreme commercialisation of her creations. She was exceedingly protective of her work throughout her life and seldom permitted companies to use her inventions for profit – refusing Walt Disney’s request for the exclusive rights to the word Moomin. Nevertheless, I feel sure she would be quietly pleased that the Moomins continue to resonate with 21st century children and adults in countries across the globe.

In this intelligent and meticulously researched biography (adeptly translated by Silvester Mazzarella), Westin has succeeded in capturing the spirit of Tove Jansson (who passed away in 2001 at the age of 86) – a singular woman with a strong work ethic and rich imagination – in short, a genius of Moominmental proportions.



Categories:Biographical, Book Reviews, LGBTQ, Non-Fiction

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