Letters From Tove

by Fiona McFarlane


There’s been a bit of heated discussion, recently, about the public role of a writer, some of it in response to an essay in the Atlantic: Meghan Tifft’s ‘An Introverted Writer’s Lament.’[1] Tifft’s piece questions the pressure writers feel to participate in writing and reading communities in order to promote their work – public readings! Festivals! Q&As! Book tours! Conferences! Social media! Interviews! And all the other, less easily classifiable commitments that arise from the very good fortune of having been published.

Tifft’s essay hovers somewhere between confession and complaint, and I admire her honesty. She approaches the issue as an introvert – and so many writers are introverts, perhaps because the act of writing requires so much solitude, although I imagine extrovert writers everywhere are thoroughly sick of this stereotype and are celebrating the fact that the internet allows connection and community even in empty rooms. What I find particularly relatable is Tifft’s distinction between the act of making (doing the work of writing itself) and the act of talking (talking about the work). For some writers, making and talking feed each other in stimulating and productive ways. For others, the talking depletes the making. Is more talking expected of writers in the age of social media? How can an introvert writer protect her making from her talking? And can’t art itself be the conversation the writer has with the world? I’m not going to answer those questions; I wrestle with them myself. I read Tifft’s essay with so much recognition that I winced at the negative online comments, even as I understood the frustration or incomprehension of many of the essay’s critics.

Not long after I encountered Tifft’s lament, I read a collection of stories by the Swedish-speaking Finnish writer Tove Jansson. I’ve always connected Jansson with the Moomins, the delightful Finnish trolls I loved as a child – I grew up with a copy of Finn Family Moomintroll, the first of Jansson’s Moomin books to be translated into English, but I also loved the comic strip and remember my younger sister watching the Japanese animated series in the early 1990s. The Moomins were adorable, certainly – I can see why they became so commercially successful they produced merchandise, spin-offs, and even a theme park. But they’re also strange, melancholy, formal creatures, full of hurt and ambition, who retreat to a lovely and somnolent valley to hibernate between adventures – complicated and beautiful, so I’m not surprised to discover that the first time Jansson drew Moomintroll he was her stand-in in an anti-Nazi comic.

But I only recently realised that Jansson also wrote for adults (I discovered this through the excellent New York Review Books Classics series, which is one of my favourite ways to encounter new-to-me books and writers, especially in translation – like a Criterion Collection for the bookshelf). She wrote six novels, the most well-known of which is The Summer Book, and five collections of short stories; NYRB Classics published The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, ‘the first extensive selection of Jansson’s stories to appear in English,’ in 2014. It’s a book of great beauty and good humour, but also of cruelty and surprise and strange kinds of attention. It ranges from the summer islands of Finland to a brilliantly consumerist post-apocalypse; from short fable-like tales about wolves and monkeys, to magical realist allegories involving doll’s houses, to Chekhovian portraits of ageing and despair.

Toward the end of the book, which is arranged chronologically, the stories become epistolary. Four of the final five stories have titles referring to the act of writing letters: ‘Correspondence’, ‘Letters From Klara’, ‘Letters to Konikova’, and ‘Messages.’ In ‘Correspondence’, a young Japanese girl called Tamiko Atsumi writes a series of letters to ‘Jansson san’, the author of Tamiko’s favourite books. We never read Jansson san’s letters, but we see from Tamiko’s replies that the writer is kind and careful, sending small gifts and making no promises. ‘Letters from Klara’ is made up of letters to various correspondents from a woman named Klara Nygård, whose personality seems abrasive until it also reveals both exhaustion and mischief. ‘Letters to Konikova’ is a series of letters to a beloved and absent friend written by an ambitious and untested young artist named Tove. And ‘Messages’ is made up of small fragments from different communications addressed to ‘Miss Jansson’ (or ‘Jansson san’, or ‘unknown fairy-tale auntie’) from friends, fans, students, publishers, makers of ‘Moomin toilet paper in pastel shades’, aspiring writers and critics, as well as casual, intimate messages from ‘Tooti’ (Jansson’s partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, was known as Tooti).

Of course, I’ve only read the Jansson stories selected for this particular collection – it may be that plenty of her early stories are epistolary too – but it seems notable to me that this trend seems to happen toward the end of her writing career. There are certainly autobiographical moments in earlier stories – characters are cartoonists and children’s book authors – but only these later stories are overtly metafictional. And these stories are, I think, Jansson’s response to the kinds of questions Meghan Tifft raised in her Atlantic essay. I’ve seen the look of dismayed resolution on a publicist’s face when I tell her I’m not on Twitter; but even before social media, writers were entering into relationships with the world that they couldn’t have predicted or understood pre-publication. Young Tove, writing to her dear, maddening Konikova, doesn’t envision an artistic future involving pastel toilet paper. I imagine that writers of children’s books – especially those that have become wildly successful – find themselves in particularly complicated relationships with readers, most of whom are children or people for whom childhood, in the form of a beloved fictional world, is at stake. What an extraordinary privilege, and what a responsibility.

Tove Jansson is wearing a large crown of flowers in almost every photo I’ve ever seen of her, including the one on the front of The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, in which she appears to be swimming naked in the sea. She seems very joyful. This, I suspect, is Jansson in summer, exposed and bedecked in blooms. But like the Moomins, she required hibernation between adventures. Toward the end of ‘Correspondence’, Tamiko announces that she has saved money for a plane ticket – she’s ready to meet her Jansson san. But her next letter reads:

Thank you for your very wise letter.
I understand the forest’s big in Finland and the sea too but your
house is very small.
It’s a beautiful thought, to meet a writer only in her books.
I’m learning all the time.[2]


Some critics of Tifft’s essay have suggested that her attitude betrays a kind of contempt for the people who pay money to buy her work and see her talk about it. That’s not the way I read it at all – she’s talking, really, about a conversation that’s more respectful, more illuminating, more intimate than a crowded public reading, and that is the one that takes place between a reader and a writer during the act of reading the writer’s book. But the fact remains that by creating worlds, writers are inviting readers to live in them, and for someone like Tove Jansson that can mean quite a crowd. Jansson responds not by talking, but by making – making ‘Correspondences’, making ‘Messages’. These stories are funny and at times surreal: ‘could you help us by saying in just a few words how you started writing and why and what life means to you and then a message to young people you know the kind of thing.’[3] But they’re also heartbreaking and compassionate. These voices were part of being the writer and illustrator Tove Jansson, whether Jansson liked it or not – they’re noisy and demanding and, even when affectionate and reasonable, take her away from her work (most of Tooti’s messages involve some task like heating the soup or cleaning out the fridge). Reading them, I’m reassured that yes, it’s possible – and very human – to lament something you’re endlessly grateful for.

In an earlier Jansson story, the creator of a beloved comic strip abandons his creation – exhausted by the never-ending stream of fan mail and merchandising, he simply puts down his pens and disappears. Jansson must have dreamt of doing just that, but never did. Rather than close ‘Messages’ with absurdity, she chose a warmth that’s also a kind of melancholy, particularly as it refers back to the Tamiko of ‘Correspondence’ who is ‘learning all the time’:

Dear Jansson san
Take good care of yourself in this dangerous world
Please have a long life
With love[4]

Photo credit: Tove Jansson in 1967, by Hans Gedda

You can find two of the stories referred to here online:

Correspondence: http://www.booksfromfinland.fi/1996/03/correspondence/

Messages: http://www.booksfromfinland.fi/2001/12/writing-letters/

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/an-introvert-writers-lament/400238/
[2] Tove Jansson, ‘Correspondence,’ The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, New York: New York Book Review Classics, 246.
[3] Jansson, ‘Messages’, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, 279.
[4] Jansson, ‘Messages’, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, 283.