“Freedom is the best thing” – Reading ‘Tove Jansson: Work and Love’

Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson

I’m half-Finnish, but I didn’t know what a Moomin was until I was an adult.

Maybe that’s not entirely true; I do have a dim memory of receiving a Moominpapa piggybank as a child, but I had no idea what what the character was supposed to be. However, as an adult I did finally learn, and I began also to learn about the Moomins’ creator, Tove Jansson. And I began to like her quite a lot!

My friend Susanna is a Finnish visual artist, and together we share this Tove-admiration. I had asked her if Finland had a good Jansson biography in English, and soon enough, a book more beautiful than I could have imagined arrived at my door.

Written by art historian Tuula Karjalainen, Tove Jansson: Work and Love, as the title suggests, focuses on Jansson’s life as it relates to her work and her relationships. I knew a bit about her life, and I knew that she did more than create the Moomins (I own a few of her non-Moomin books and love them dearly), but her level of dedication to her work was new to me. From an early age, she knew she wanted to be an artist. She worked at it diligently, and was prolific across many creative fields – as Karjalainen writes:

. . . embracing painting, fairytale, short stories, novels, plays, poems, songs, stage sets, monumental paintings, illustrations and advertisements to political drawings and cartoons.

Tove Jansson studio

My friend Susanna is also the one who encouraged me to read Big Magic last year, and so we had many long chats as I was reading the Jansson biography. We talked about the creative process, and how important it is to take it seriously and assert your self-identity as an artist (and, yes, for these purposes I’m classifying writing as an artistic pursuit. Odd how people separate it out from that category, isn’t it?).

I’ve been making more of an effort to put writing higher in my list of life priorities than it has been. The novel progress I was able to make during NaNoWriMo by writing every day reaffirmed to me that waiting for vague inspiration to strike only defeats projects before they get going. Reading Big Magic strengthened that belief, and since then I’m proud to say that I’ve been showing up more regularly, ready to do my end of the collaboration between me and my creativity. So it was highly timely to read about Jansson’s commitment to her work. She had her own vision and her own style, and she rarely strayed from it, even if it alienated her from her friends and peers. When abstract art came to Finland, she largely rejected it even though everyone else embraced it. She wrote that she would be:

a so-called individualist who paints lemons, writes fairytales, collects strange objects and hobbies, and despises mass meetings and associations. Looks ridiculous, but that is how I want my life.

Tove Jansson GARM

Jansson did have quite firm political and social beliefs, but she expressed them in her own way, and often in a way that may not have been obvious. She experimented with different styles and forms, but only if she wanted to. She brushed off the expectations people had of her, but she was also sensitive to criticism and worried about the value of what she was creating. Even though she struggled with the popularity of the Moomins and her specific identity as a painter, she still arranged her life so that her work came first. And even though I can’t follow her example quite so precisely, I know I’ll be forever inspired by her quiet determination, and how intricately she wove her life and work together.

Tove Jansson studio

Yesterday, I made myself a cup of coffee and read from the book in the shade of my balcony. It was a scorcher of a day, and most of my neighbours were indoors. All I could hear were birds, the occasional car. A family across the street was going in and out of their house, getting ready to move. I was, as usual, texting Susanna about all my Tove-thoughts, at that point so affectionate that they could easily appear to be thoughts about a distant relative. I looked up, thinking about a passage I had just read, and I saw a girl emerge from the house across the street. She was, almost impossibly, wearing a t-shirt with the Moomin character Pikku Myy on the front. I can’t help but take that as a good omen. An encouraging nudge.

If you’re in the US, you can find it on Amazon here, and in Canada, here.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. This is beautiful, Samantha. I really love your voice. I think I’ll have to pick up this same book–I am unfamiliar with Tove Jansson and her work, but I feel all tingly and excited reading about her here! She sounds inspiring. Thank you!

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words, Regan! And yes, I really do feel like you would enjoy this book, even if you’re not familiar with her work. It gave me very similar writer-inspiration feelings as Big Magic (which I remember you liking too)! She was just such a quietly dedicated person that you can’t help but want to follow her example.

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