Tessa Shaw is the co-founder of the bookshop [email protected]. She also happens to know a lot about Tove Jansson – the author we are celebrating this month. So, rather than our regular book review (usually written by Tessa’s co-founder, Betsy) we have a brief introduction to the extraordinary life of Tove and to The Summer Book – a piece of writing that inspired our spring campaign. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*
First, a confession: I am a fan of Tove Jansson. She is probably Finland’s most famous export, mainly for her quirky, hippo-like, imaginary characters, the Moomins. They began as anti-fascist cartoons, her first one apparently drawn in the loo to look like Immanuel Kant, but they soon developed into a worldwide phenomenon. Disney saw the potential but Tove and her family resisted. It is this unconventional bohemian independence (the essence of the Moomin spirit) that sums up Tove’s artistic philosophy.
She was born in 1919 in Finland to Swedish-speaking artist parents. They encouraged Tove in her art and from an early age she helped her mother with her political cartooning. Tove went on to study art in Stockholm, Paris, Rome and Helsinki and was holding exhibitions long before the Moomins took over her life. It was her third Moomin Book, Finn Family Moomintroll, which propelled her into the limelight. The London Evening News commissioned her to produce a regular cartoon strip that was syndicated worldwide, making her and her characters into household names.
Yet this fame was something that Tove would come to find deeply destabilising. At heart Tove was an extremely private person with a pure love of painting and creating – simple values that were difficult to reconcile with her celebratory status. Her escape came in the form of an island.
It is customary in Finnish culture to withdraw from the city in the summer, and to spend the warmer months amongst the islands in the Gulf of Finland. Tove herself had spent much of her childhood on her own family’s island in the Pellinki archipelago, pottering by the sea, creating art and playing make believe. So, when the outside world became too much, Tove and her partner Tuulikki (whom she was with from 1956 until her death in 2001) found Klovharun - a remote spit of rock with not even a tree on it, nor water or electricity, some 40 minutes from her usual summer retreat. A one-room hut was built, with a basement sauna and for 28 years the pair continued to live there during the summer months. It was their den in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by sea and sky, to work in and be themselves. It was (and still is) an extraordinary beautiful space.
I know this because last summer I stayed on her island with my family. When Tove was there she raised a flag. Today, if you are lucky enough to stay, the tradition continues. A key is placed outside her hut and if you land on the island you can have a look inside; on her desk are glass jars filled with the shells she collected, her books are on the shelves, the wind still blows and the birds nestle under the eaves. And if you are staying there when guests arrive, you must welcome them with true Moomin openness.
When Tove’s mother died in 1971 she was so grief stricken that she took off around the world and started to write adult fiction, the most famous of which is The Summer Book – a Scandinavian classic. She had been incredibly close to her mother and The Summer Book reflects her musings on life and death. It is the story of a young girl and her grandmother spending the summer on Tove’s childhood island. The grandmother is irascible, bloody-minded and naughty; the granddaughter is demanding of adventures. Through their relationship you observe the minutiae of the long island days, the games they create, and the mischief they make.
“When are you going to die?” the child asked.
And Grandmother answered. “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”
“Why?” her grandchild asked.
She didn’t answer. She walked out on the rock and on towards the ravine.
“We’re not allowed out there!” Sophia screamed.
“I know,” the old woman answered disdainfully. “Your father won’t let either one of us go out to the ravine, but we’re going anyway, because your father is asleep and he won’t know.”
It’s a book to have in your cupboard, to return to when you need to slow down and appreciate the true value of relationships, to think about how we live and spend our time, a chance to reflect on what it is all about….
*All who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win one of our new tote bags.
Read more reviews from the TOAST Book Club or search for your local bookshop here.