Monday, January 27, 2014

Fair Play, by Tove Jansson

During the many months I spent in Finland, I could not avoid images of the Moomins. They're on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and anywhere else you might expect to see the Finnish equivalent of Hello Kitty. Many Japanese, it turns out, are mad about Moomins and make a specific pilgrimage to 'Moominland' in northern Finland. When asked by an incredulous Finnish journalist why she had come all the way from Tokyo to visit a theme park dedicated to imaginary creatures, one Japanese woman exclaimed in what must be the loopiest justification for flying halfway round the world, "They're so cute!" And that is why I avoided them like the plague. I don't do cute.

When another equally sober reader told me I must read Moominland Midwinter and promptly handed me a copy of it, I gritted my teeth and capitulated. Cuddly appearances notwithstanding, the Moomins tackle some heavy issues, especially omnipresent in Finland -- the long, cold darkness of winter, loss, fear, and loneliness. This book was not cute. It sparked my appreciation for Tove Jansson and sent me in search of the fiction she'd written for adults.

In her introduction to Fair Play, Ali Smith notes that the distinction between Jansson's juvenile and adult fiction is nebulous -- all of her books are suitable for any age group.  Suitable yes, but the emotional currents in Fair Play might be rather lost on a young child.

What is Fair Play about?  It's not easy to say.  Ali Smith likens it to another of Jansson's novels, "her rich minimalist masterpiece The Summer Book (1972) -- a story, in typical Jansson mold, about nothing much and yet about everything...  Is it a novel? Is it stories? It's both; it breaks the boundaries of both forms, in a series of linked vignettes about two women who live and work side by side in an equilibrium that's at once slight and revolutionary".

Labora et amare (work and love) is the motto that Jansson incorporated in her own bookplates, and it infuses Fair Play.  It also permeated her life, which she shared with fellow artist Tuulikki Pietilä (the inspiration for the feisty little creature named Too-Ticky in Moominland Midwinter -- a "friend of the family, craftsman and practical philosopher".)  The vignette-chapters describe episodes in the two women's daily routines, both in Helsinki and on the island to which they retreated to recharge themselves. The mundane details invariably reveal larger truths.

The two women of Fair Play -- whom Jansson names Mari and Jonna  -- are clearly herself and Tuulikki.

In the introduction, Ali Smith mentions one of my favourite chapters, "Fog", in which the two women are out in their small boat, literally fogged in, Smith explains, "and lost, too, to the fog of an old, old argument. It becomes a story about what's not sayable, a story that admits some things are veiled, fogged, not resolvable."  While deciding to simply let the boat drift until the fog lifts, rather than motoring blindly and possibly in the wrong direction, Jonna reveals that Mari's mother had often borrowed and ruined her sculpting tools, and she could never quite forgive it. Tensions between the two sculptors were only exacerbated by the knowledge that the younger woman's carving was more skillful. For the first time, Jonna has verbalised the ambient friction with her "in-laws". The chapter ends simply, tellingly, when the fog lifts: "They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn't look the same."

Given that both women are artists, many of the stories explore creative tension as both Mari and Jonna struggle with their own work and try to establish the right balance of intimacy and space. They bicker, but they also give each other honest and constructive advice. They have a deep, abiding trust in each other which runs from the first story, in which Jonna takes it upon herself to re-hang all of Mari's artwork in a radically different arrangement, to the last, in which Mari joyfully realises (after pangs of anxiety had gripped them both) that some months apart while Jonna works in Paris thanks to a fellowship grant will be a creative boon: "She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love."

In the chapter titled "Viktoria", Mari and Jonna struggle to save Viktoria, their wooden boat, during a fierce storm. Although they've done everything they can think of to reinforce the boat and to moor it safely, they fear she'll be smashed on the rocks or sunk. As they stand in their island cottage, looking out at the wind and rain and fretting about the boat, Jonna and Mari reminesce about their own fathers, both named Viktor, their stories overlapping and interweaving, the intricate mosaic of conversation that develops between two people who know each other so well.
"He traveled a great deal," Jonna said.
"Well, yes, when he got grants."
Jonna said, "I'm not talking about your father. I'm talking about mine. He used to tell us about his trips. You never knew what he was making up and what really happened."
"Even better," Mari said.
"No, wait ... They were awful, terrifying things, including storms, although he'd never been to sea."
"But that can make them even better," Mari said.
"You're interrupting. And when he was talked out and didn't know how to end it, he'd just say, 'And then it started to rain and everyone went home.'"
"Excellent," Mari said. "Wonderful. Endings can be really hard." She went to get the cheese and the crispbread and then went on. "He didn't tell us stories. He never talked much at all, now that I think about it."
Jonna cut the cheese in pieces and said, "We used to go to the library, the two of us. Just Papa and me. It was like being in his pocket."
"I know. He knew where the wild mushrooms grew, and he'd take us there and light his pipe and say, 'Family! Pick!' But he preferred going alone. Then he'd hide his mushroom baskets under a spruce and take us back with him at night, with torches, you know. It was frightening and wonderful. And he'd pretend he'd forgotten which spruce it was ... And then we'd sit on the porch and clean mushrooms with the night all around and the kerosene lantern burning ..."
And after a night of wind and recollections, the storm finally wanes, and the fathers' namesake has survived: "The wind died toward morning. Freshly bathed and shiny, Viktoria lay at anchor as if nothing whatever had happened."

And there it is again -- the sense that nothing has happened, and yet simultaneously something very profound has.  Although Fair Play lacks the fantastic creatures of the Moomin books, they all have this in common:  you'll find the sacred in the ordinary if you only pay attention.


  1. LOL, you're so intellectual in your reading. I'm wayyyyyyyyy behind on that sort of thing. Last book: Terry Pratchett's Steam.

  2. I am not a big fan of 'cute' literature either but there is something existential about Moonminland Midwinter.


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