Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson (Author), Boel Westin (Editor), Helen Svensson (Editor), Sarah Death (Translator)
|Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson (Author), Boel Westin (Editor), Helen Svensson (Editor), Sarah Death (Translator)|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: An inspiring insight into a truly remarkable artist, and into the times in which she lived, and the places she called home. A delightful read, full of depth and warmth. Each letter makes you feel as it if were written just to you, or to wish it had been.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 496||Date: October 2019|
|Publisher: Sort of Books|
|External links: Author's website|
Back at the beginning of the century I went on holiday to Nepal. I met a wonderful Finnish woman and we became sort of friends. I can't remember if it was on that holiday or a later one that Paula told me I really had to read Tove Jansson. I do know that it was four years later that I finally acquired an English translation of The Summer Book, and that I eagerly awaited the Sort Of translations of the rest of Jansson's work and devoured them as soon as I could get my hands on them.
I believe that you should always separate the artist from the art. How you feel about a composer's politics should not influence how you feel about his music…at least, not after he's dead. While he's alive you might want to think twice about funding his world-view. But at the same time, I also think that through some art you get the unswerving belief that you would like the artist. I have felt like that about Tove Jansson from the beginning of my acquaintance with her work. I'm not sure she would like me – I'm far too unpractical for her taste – but I think I would have loved her.
For a long time I based that on nothing more than the short books I've read – and they are all short. In the order of my reading, not necessarily of writing or translation , The Summer Book, A Winter Book, Fair Play, Travelling Light, The True Deceiver, The Listener', Letters from Klara, Art in Nature and Sculptor's Daughter, all of them spoke to me, even in translation, in a very clear voice, of a very clear sensibility – and I loved them all.
Back when I was first told about Tove, my Finnish friend Paula was not surprised I didn't know the name, but said: but you must know the Moomintrolls and I did. I have a recollection of seeing them on TV, but when I do an internet search now, all the references that come up look far more modern than my feint recollections.
So now you know who Tove Jansson is. Finnish author of the Moomin stories for children and a number of semi-autobiographical novels for adults. Before she commenced on any of this however, she was a renowned visual artist. Her first love – and acclaim – was painting. She only turned to writing and illustration when the finer (?) art couldn't pay the bills or she was struggling to determine what she wanted to do with it.
Jansson was a 20th century figure, born in 1914, she died in 2001, so her adult years were spent in the most turbulent of that century. She was in every sense and sensibility and sensuality a free spirit, which was not an easy thing to be in the middle years of the 20th century. Always as passionate in her friendships and relationships with her family as she was in her love affairs, it was only as she grew older she became more comfortable with who she was, and who she was with, spending over 45 years with Tuulikki Pietilä – most commonly referenced in the letters as Tooti.
The collection is necessarily a one-sided conversation. We only have the letters that Tove wrote, none of those that she received. I assume she didn't keep any. It's clear in many places that she didn't expect hers to be kept. Letters were conversations. She often writes of "talking to you" no matter who she is writing to, clearly she sees letter writing as ephemeral, a way of sending words out, to be used and then absorbed or forgotten. It is our pleasure and privilege that her correspondents felt otherwise about what she wrote and said. Why individuals kept so many letters we can only speculate. Perhaps they knew that Tove was going to be not just famous, but important…perhaps they just wanted to be able to re-read them later…perhaps they recognised the social commentary that lingered within the very personal stories that she talks about. Whatever their reasons, I'm glad that they did.
These letters show the absolute person that was Tove Jansson. Her loves and her hates. Her trials and tribulations and also her utter joys. All of these things – positive and negative – are born of very small matters in the grand scheme of things, and that is what makes them such a joy to read. It is easy reading her letters to imagine that they are being written to you, as she talks about the latest storm on her island – she loved islands, and she loved storms – or what they've planted or the latest gossip about who is upsetting who. She tells us about the art world and glittering prizes, but mostly she talks about how she feels and about her loves and her family. She talks about cats and seaweed and trying to build a house.
She talks about a life very much less ordinary…and she makes you wish you could have shared at least some of it with her.
The letters are arranged firstly by recipient and then by date. This does result in a need for some cross-referencing if you want to follow events, but on my first reading I simply settled into the role of the recipient and lived through that part of her life with her. Re-living it via a different correspondent somehow never felt like a rerun, such was her very personable way of writing. Letters are long, often written over several days. There are periods of intense correspondence and others where it lapses. But always it is clear that, like any good writer, she only wrote when she had something to say.
I'm sure the letters will take me back to the books I've already read in due course, so that I can re-read them in the context in which they were written, but in the first instance, the interesting thing is that they've made me want to read the books that were not part of my childhood. Many of the emotions that Tove talks about (uncertainty, loss, love) struck very close to home while I was reading, so that I had to keep setting the book aside, but whenever I came back to it I was struck by her strength and her innocence – let us be clear to differentiate innocence from ignorance – she knew very well how the world worked, and was a shrewd businesswoman – but she still retained a childlike joy in simple things - and that above all made me want to go and explore the books that were not part of my childhood, to want to read the Moomin stories, which may have been written for children but which, by common consent, have something important to say to adults as well.
Editors Prof Boel Westin and Helen Svensson were both trusted friends of the author and they introduce each selection of letters by putting them in the context of what was happening in her life during the period in which they were written. Scattered illustrations include photographs of the correspondents, and sketches from the letters themselves.
It's a long book, but obviously it's not intended to be read at a sitting, or even straight through. I could tell you that you could dip in and out, or just read one letter at a time…but believe me, you won't want to. You will long for Tove's next letter, just as she often longed for letters from her friends and lovers. They are an insight into a person, but also into a time, and a place…albeit the time spans 50 years and the 'place' ranges from Helsinki to Stockholm to Paris and beyond, but is most captivating when she's on one of her beloved islands.
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