Tove Jansson: Work and Love, by Tuula Karjalainen

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Tove’s youth and her attitude towards her own life are perhaps best illustrated by the ex libris motto she created in 1947, and used from then on. The Latin phrase – labora et amare – is not quite correct grammatically, but its intended meaning is ‘work and love’. It was characteristic of Tove to put work before love. Most young women would have put them the other way around.The small ex libris drawing contains a large number of motifs, including sea, anchors, roses and thistles, and grapevines winding around Greek columns. Right in the centre of the drawing is a burning heart, at the top right is a naked woman, and on the top left a lion king with a crown, brushes and palette. Tove’s astrological sign was Leo. Along with representation of all the things that she loved, the drawing also shows her own symbols. The large number of different elements makes the small picture area rather crowded, rather like the life of the artist who is just starting out, a young woman in quest of independence and great love. Later she drew another ex libris in the form of a large sea wave. Her last essay in the genre was illustrated by Ham [her mother], and based on Tove’s initials.

I’m fascinated by the great Finnish writer Tove Jansson, and I was fascinated by this book. Growing up in an artistic household, she saw herself as an artist above all else. She wasn’t terribly political, though some of her lovers were, and she did some excellent satirical covers for the magazine Garm in the 1930s. But after the war, her artistic style was out of tune with the times, and while trying to make a living from her art she discovered that her other skills were sometimes more lucrative: her book illustrations and, of course, the Moomins. I hadn’t realised that the Moomins hit the English speaking world big time as early as 1954, when a London newspaper (the Evening News, which merged with the Evening Standard in 1980) commissioned a regular comics strip from her which was widely syndicated. Although she only did it until 1961 (her brother Lars shared the burden from 1959 and took over completely until it ended in 1975) it was a step change in her circumstances.

Tuula Karjalainen’s biography looks in detail at her work but also at the way in which Jansson’s love life intersected it. Like her parents, her lovers were all creative artists in one way or another – Sam Vanni, Tapio Tapiovaara, Atos Wirtanen, Vivica Bandler and finally Tuulikki Pietilä, immortalised as Too-Ticky in the later Moomin books. Karjalainen is very good at teasing out the direct and indirect influence of Tove Jansson and the people she loved on each other’s works – starting when she was still a teenager and modelled for her father’s sculptures. Jansson’s relationship with Tuulikki Pietilä seems to have been the least dramatic of all, and lasted for fifty years.

The book is beautifully illustrated, as you would hope given the importance of the argument that Tove Jansson’s art was crucial to her life; it’s a real joy just to look at, with Tove Jansson’s handsome figure over the years – always slim and sharp, to the very end – dominating the pages. I think even readers who had never heard of her would enjoy just looking at it.

This was the remaining non-fiction book most recommended by you guys at the end of last year. Next on that list is A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton.