On Tove Jansson

Matthew Battles has a nice piece at the B&N Review on this year’s BTBA winner.

Jansson was Finnish, the daughter of a well-known sculptor and illustrator based in Helsinki. But she wrote in Swedish, the language of a culturally distinguished minority in Finland (other Swedish-speaking Finns include the composer Jean Sibelius and open-source software pioneer Linus Torvalds). Although in Europe, Jansson’s Moomins have loosed their own torrent of merchandise—from plush toys to bathroom tissue to a full-on amusement park in Finland—in the States they’ve avoided the kind of torturous, treacle-dipped domestication undergone by Dahl’s Mr. Fox, Sendak’s Wild Things, and (preeminently) Milne’s Bear of Very Little Brain (the latter currently appearing in his fifty-first animated feature; oh, bother). While Jansson’s creatures share something with the daydreamed denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, they substitute artistic passion and philosophical sangfroid for Pooh’s cloying naiveté. Absent the commercial clout of their better-known cousins, Jansson’s trolls are also free of the Freudian baggage of those authors’ paeans to childhood (read boyhood) lost. In much writing for children, every boy is a lord, even if only of his own flies. Jansson’s trolls, by contrast, aren’t lordly pretenders or demonic sprites. Rather they’re feral, a bohemian tribe at loose ends in the wilderness, dependent on one another for succor and inspiration. As G. K. Chesterton said of penny dreadfuls, these are stories on the side of life—only they treat the flicker of freedom as something to be nurtured, not defended with a wooden sword.

While her little forest creatures were earning her a troll’s hoard, however, Jansson turned to fiction for adults, writing a dozen novels and short story collections, half of which have been translated into English, including three titles put out by the North American champions of her fiction at the New York Review of Books—the most recent of which, Fair Play, a fiction-kissed account of Jansson’s life with her longtime partner, the artist Tuulilkki Pietilä, appeared in April, making a troika of NYRB Jansson titles with The Summer Book, which appeared in 2008, and 2009’s edition of her taut, riveting novel The True Deceiver.

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