The Complicated Artist Behind the Moomins

TOVE JANSSON: Life, Art, Words, by Boel Westin. Translated by Silvester Mazzarella.

Tove Jansson longed to be alone. As a child, she slept on a high shelf in her family’s home in Helsinki. Her mother, a successful illustrator, piled books from floor to ceiling and her father, a sculptor, kept a studio that dominated the majority of the space.

The Janssons were part of the relatively affluent Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, a group stereotypically regarded as artistic. Magazine and newspaper articles were written about the Janssons’ bohemian home.

“I want to be a wild thing, not an artist,” the young Tove wrote in her diary. But she was an artist, ineluctably, just as her father had hoped she would be. She didn’t create out of a desire for notoriety — when fame hit in her late 30s, it only made her shyer, as Boel Westin, an emeritus professor of literature at Stockholm University, points out in her biography, “Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words.”

The first comprehensive biography of a creator whose reputation has only grown with time, Westin’s work, translated by Silvester Mazzarella, is thorough and well researched. While one might wish for more insight into the subject, this is still a boon to fans of the enigmatic Jansson.

Tove Jansson, it is clear, created out of a need to capture her ever-changing self in ever-changing forms. At 13, she made her own magazines to sell in school, boiling the glue to bind the pages. In the diaries she kept in art school, she wrote through alter egos, attributing to “Fernanda” the episodes from her daily life, to “Dulcinea” her thoughts and to “Ellen” her more poetic phrasings.

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