Games in the Dark: The Shades of Tove Jansson
“We won’t need to work,” the female character in Tove Jansson’s story “The Gulls,” says to her ageing companion as they plan to move to an island. “No demands . . . We’ll play. We’ll play at something totally silly . . . with the birds.” It is an image that perfectly mirrors the cover photograph on Jansson’s new selected stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: the author in her later years, sporting a neat silvery bob and a “birthday garland,” treading water in utter bliss beside the Nordic cottage on Klovharu Island, her home of twenty-four years. It suggests an abundance of spirit, a life force that simply could not be contained.
Being greeted by such a friendly face on the cover of a book would seem nothing but inviting, but Jansson may be counted among those artists who often arouse suspicion: artists who work in multi-hyphened mediums. Encountering such a writer-painter-cartoonist-lyricist gives people pause. Perhaps it’s due to an incredulity of how an individual could be a “master” of more than one thing—all that dabbling must diminish the quality of the work in any single format. Plus it’s just not fair for the rest of us.
And yet Jansson’s affable, trusting visage does not belie an oeuvre any less trustworthy. She’s a wholly suspicion-less, and wholly multi-talented, artist, one of the few of her kind who can be genuinely called a master of several genres—literature, visual art, drama, and even music—without a shred of disingenuousness. Reading just one sentence from her published works for adults and children highlights how Jansson’s illimitable energy propelled her to create in so many genres.
It feels unfair to privilege any one of Jansson’s gifts, but her visual art and cartoons have brought her the most recognition, both in her native Sweden and around the world. She began publishing drawings as a teenager, and after formal instruction in Stockholm, Helsinki, and Paris caught the public’s attention with her satirical cartoons and the birth of a character called Moomintroll. Simple and blithe-looking, this hippo-like creature and his family, who live in Moominland, came to inhabit an entire world of innocent fun and adventure. Jansson would write nine Moomin-based novels for young adults and twenty-four comic books during her life. She drew weekly strips as well between 1954 and 1960, which eventually ran in more than a hundred newspapers around the world. And although Moomintroll’s audience is primarily children, his aesthetic can be seen across of Jansson’s work, visual and literary, adult and juvenile: whimsical and bright, and every bit as imaginatively idiosyncratic as Jansson’s donning a flower garland on her head while taking a swim.
The artist’s personal reaction and feelings toward the Moomins, however, tell quite a different story that largely informs her writing and indeed her other works of art. The celebrity that came with the strip, and the demands it made of her time, caused Jansson such unhappiness that she gave the task to her brother, Lars, who drew from 1960 until 1974. She subsequently moved to her island home on Klovharu with her partner to focus on writing and painting. In the following years, she turned out eleven books for adults alongside numerous paintings. It was only thanks to her physical isolation that she could deal with her responsibilities as a public figure, which we see in the form of sometimes funny, but more often disturbingly overwhelming voice mails in the story “Messages” that concludes this Selected volume. Although they’re fictional, the messages that her artist-protagonist, named Tove Jansson, receives on her answering machine at home are undoubtedly taken from her real life: “We look forward to your valued reply soonest concerning Moomin motifs on toilet paper in pastel shades”; “Hi, I’m thinking of becoming a writer, can you help me with a little information? . . .What steel pen do you use to draw your comic strips? . . . Can you give me a copy of the usual contract and I’d also very much like to know a little more about world rights”; “Can’t you draw me a Snufkin that I can have tattooed on my arm as a symbol of freedom”. The last thing we read in the story, and this collection, is from an obsessed teenage girl from Japan: “Dear Jansson san / Take good care your yourself in this dangerous world / Please have a long life / With love.” For Jansson, the very people who have given her her livelihood and who clearly adore her are what constitute her “dangerous world,” a powerful note to having ringing in our heads upon turning the final page.
These darker shadows lurking in the otherwise bright and crisp rooms of Jansson’s artistic house are what lend nuance and disquietude to the stories, selected from six collections and fluidly translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella, in The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. In her masterly way, she crafts dramas that stem from isolated, unusual scenarios that nonetheless highlight her characters’ idiosyncrasies and often troubled histories and mental states. A fair number of the protagonists are older people faced with impending death and an overwhelming desire to escape the uncertainties and unfamiliarities of the present with comforts of the past. The eponymous act of “borrowing memories” is a thematic salve for the wounds of our mortality, wounds that silently accrue while we live in the real world, presumably playing with birds and having fun. And yet, those memories are all the more painful to encounter when one realizes the world that we once enjoyed is now irrevocably gone. Confronting someone else’s past—a borrowed memory—or even the past of a self no longer present is a deft and subtle way to deflect that pain. In the story “White Lady,” for instance, an older woman named Regina is entranced by the young people at a party, exclaiming “Just look at these beautiful faces! I haven’t seen such beautiful faces since I was in Venice!” But in reality, Jansson tells us that “The young people got up to dance, as if on some common signal. The music was deafening, thudding, without melody. They danced solemnly. Unreachable,” like Regina’s past,” they moved with exquisite self-control.” Like these beautiful faces, things are so often called “lovely” in the collection that the word more powerfully comes to indicate how un-lovely what’s going on really is.
Opening this volume are two stories from the collection originally titled The Listener that together highlight the aesthetic through which Jansson balances such joys and terrors, lights and darks that are life itself. In the first, “The Listener,” we meet an ageing Aunt Gerda, whose letters to her family were “exciting, like reliving one’s own experiences, only this time dramatized and clarified on a wider stage, with a Greek chorus observing and underlining the action.” This keen exuberance—her “essence—the expression of her most beautiful quality”—is fading, though, and as the “enemy” time takes her farther from her old self she decides to draw a map of her life as a visual aid. The project appeals to her perfectionist (a “sharp, lovely word”) attitude, until she realizes its futility: no matter how exact the lines she draws or how thick the paper she uses, nothing will last. She subsequently leaves instructions for the map to be burned upon her death, and we glimpse “several specks of glitter [that] had fallen on the rug and glowed there as blue as the night outside.” Her legacy and its destruction are not lacking in scintillation, but the fleeting nature of light hurts more in the long run than it helps in the present. Recognizing what others have been noting for years—her slow descent into senility—she choses to use the “specks of glitter” remaining of her inner light as a conduit of sorts to the darkness awaiting in the “blue night outside.”
“Black-White” (subtitled Homage to Edward Gorey, an American illustrator and contemporary of Jansson’s) follows this metaphoric fading of a person’s light in the story of a couple—the main male character and his wife, Stella—whose opposing personalities compete in tandem with a discussion about the husband’s line drawings. The darkness and lightness of his penwork echoes through all he encounters in the narrative: the shadowing of the house where he retreats to work, where he works “in a vague and shadowy gray that felt its way inward, seeking darkness” and whence he writes to Stella, “It’s much more important to suggest than to portray. I see my work as pieces of reality or unreality carved and random from a long and ineluctable course of events—the darkness I draw continues on endlessly.” That this artist represents the “vague and shadowy” qualities of “suggest[ion]” with an increasing darkness—a move away from the standard gray area that defines ambiguity—is not only a nod to Gorey’s work but to Jansson herself and her means of achieving artistic fulfillment. Gorey was known for macabre illustrations (think The Nightmare Before Christmas), yes, but Jansson possessed an equal affinity for entering the depths of darker matter via art. It’s only in the darker modes that her characters find their way: the husband of “Black-White” is only able to embrace the starry light of his wife alone, and in the dark; or the woman in “The Squirrel,” who is obsessed with tracking the eponymous rodent on the island where she lives and makes a nightly ritual of scaring it out of her house by turning on every light imaginable, after which she
began walking around the island, very slowly, right at the water’s edge, and the whole time she turned her face toward the wide-open darkness of the sea. Only when she’d walked around the entire island and had come back to the point would she turn and consider her illuminated cottage. Then she’d walk straight into its warmth, close the door, and be home.
The juxtaposition of illuminated houses versus their dark exteriors motivates several other stories of artists. One can’t help but note that only a painter’s eye—an eye like Jansson’s—would be so attuned to the way that light affects a mood or scene, and how an artist’s fidelity in capturing light reflects his or her skill as well as the qualities of the work itself. Among such stories are “The Doll’s House” and “The Cartoonist,” where artists struggle to engineer the right kind of light for their creation, that which will “make it sing.” It’s in these symbolic gestures, rendered less cliché given the appropriateness of the meta-artistic discussions at hand, that Jansson demonstrates the consistency of her own aesthetic. Whether writing about visual arts or drawing cartoons—which utilizes a pen and a steady hand just as much as writing words does—she’s consumed by the meaning of dualities, and how strong contrasts can force an individual to confront the more troubling areas in between.
What’s curious as one moves deeper into The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is Jansson’s more direct portrayal of individuals’ psychologies in the face of uncertainty: that is, not filtered through their art or a third-person narrator. Several of the stories written in the first person illustrate with bald-faced honesty the way someone left to explore the unknown reaches of his or her mind will ultimately crumble. The effect is a paradoxical distancing from the narration, which in and of itself might be part of Jansson’s representation of the (in)stability of the self. “The Locomotive,” for instance, is told by an “expert mechanical draftsman” who declares at the outset that he has a “single-minded devotion to objectivity,” a statement that grows increasingly ironic as his unreliability manifests itself. Shifting between first and third-person in order to reject his own subjectivity, he nonetheless succumbs to it. The prose loses grammar and coherence: “Why should I / I have lost my train of thought. / New section,” he writes. Likewise, when he reflects on his melancholy solitude he does so most powerfully in his work:
I will try to explain my illustrations. I gather all the strong colors in the locomotive—deep Prussian blue, coal black, and in the black hints of red-and-white fire, the machine’s splendid wide-open eyes that nevertheless carry no hint of threat, the locomotive is utterly indifferent to whatever comes in its path and to everything that coils along behind it, those anonymous cars forever filling and emptying and filling again, of no interest whatsoever, like women.
For this narrator, then, the only way to confront his true self is through depersonalization. He turns to self-nullifying pronouns and his dehumanized, “utterly indifferent” work, rendered in dark hues juxtaposed with bright light, for the manifestation of his interior self. As disheartening as it may seem on the outside, creator and creation become a single entity in this moment, and it’s only through the act of creation that both parts of this whole can be understood.
Technology ushers in the same kind of self-denial in “A Foreign City,” a story about a woman plagued by shameful memory loss, the fact that her “words disappear as easily as hats, as easily as faces and names.” When she takes a plane trip to visit her grandson and his wife the modes of transportation—the plane itself, the taxi from the airport—send her into a panicked tailspin of forgetfulness. The story is more pitiable than sympathetic, and the way the straightforward I-voice makes her desperation so much more immediate is especially limiting. Because the woman can only see through a tiny pinhole of a lens into her own experience, the reader is similarly restrained, and the story can’t benefit from any sort of illumination, internal or external. When she explains, “When I get tired, everything slips away from me. I want to be attentive, aware, decisive, not slow down and lose my way. And not repeat myself . . . I know at once when I’ve been repeating myself. Unfortunately, just the tiniest bit too late . . . But I’ve already said that,” we feel we already know this; we even see it happening in this very passage and cringe at her own enfeebled recognition of her problem. Thus, although she takes the trip on the pretense of “get[ting] away from the cold and the dark,” that same coldness and darkness prove inescapable and all-consuming. She tells us from the opening how “It was already dark when we landed for my stopover.”
In the collection’s title story, “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories,” Jansson suggests an alternative and surprisingly obvious middle ground between the thriving and deteriorating self as a cost of art. Stella, a now-famous painter, has returned to visit her friend Wanda in the small town of her origins. So much has changed in an unpleasant way, including Stella herself: Wanda asks “Where did you lose your starry eyes? . . . Stop trying to remember the way things used to be: you just get sad and confused.” With her own inner light extinguished, and yet unwilling to be subsumed by the dark pain of no-longer-here memories, Stella resolves instead to live in the moment. She leaves Wanda’s strange company and at the end of the story and plunges into “a thick fog [that] had descended over the city, the first spring fog. A good sign. It meant that soon, little by little, the ice would go.” Reassured by the hope of the present—the vague fog itself as a “sign” and suggestion, rather than the spring to come—she takes a stand in the middle ground between past and future, dark and light or, for some, light and dark. For as Jansson illustrates in her own considered life in art, it’s in our present actions where one can find that a darkening fog will not only be fearful, but will also elicit a glinting wink from melting icicles in a warm stream of sunlight. The extremes of experience are not to be avoided but celebrated as moments of tellingly finite poignancy—and should they bear any warning worth heeding, it’s the message that we should not take for granted the world we’ve been given no matter how dangerous it seems. For all her quirky displays of imagination, Jansson must be taken seriously as a keen observer and reverent tributary of the marvels, terrifying or cheering and always exuberantly so, of our brief lives.
Jennifer Kurdyla is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf in New York.