An appreciation of Tove Jansson.
One day my mother—who immigrated from Hungary forty years ago—was visiting my apartment. She noticed that on the fridge my boyfriend and I had taped a large picture of Charlie Brown, which we had torn from the pages of The New Yorker. It was just Charlie Brown standing there with his hands at his sides. Upon seeing the picture she stopped and said, “What a nice boy! Who is it?” The remarkable thing wasn’t only discovering that my mother had strangely never encountered Charlie Brown, but that upon seeing him for the first time, she immediately liked him, felt sympathy and tenderness. Until that moment, I had not fully understood the power of comics: I had never witnessed so starkly what a perfect line can summon. A line drawn with love can make us as vulnerable as what the line depicts. Whatever cynicism I had about how commerce creates familiarity creates conditioned responses creates “love,” it crumbled in that instant. An artist’s love for what they create is what creates love.
The first time I encountered Tove Jansson’s Moomin strips, I had the same feeling as my mother: what a nice boy! (Or whatever sort of creature Moomin is—a creature from a tender dream.) There is such vulnerability in his eyebrows, in his little round tummy, in the way he doesn’t have a mouth, in the babyish slope of the bottom of his face.
It was strange, then, to learn that Jansson’s first drawing of Moomin was an attempt to draw “the ugliest creature imaginable” after a fight with her brother about Immanuel Kant. (She sketched this proto-Moomin on the wall of their outhouse at a country cottage.) The creature became plumper and friendlier in time and his world filled out in such warm tones that it is hard not to be wistful for the life of a Moomintroll: What a sweet, happy family Moomin has! A mother who takes care of people in a quiet sort of way, a father who loves adventure, and a girlfriend with an ankle bracelet. There are friends and odd creatures always coming and going. Money is sometimes a problem for the Moomin clan, but never so much as when they have too much of it.
Competing boy creatures can also pose a problem, as Moomin’s girlfriend sometimes falls in love with one, but she never loves them for any longer than a few consecutive strips. Moomin is open like a child, jealous like a teenager, and fretful like an old man. He is curious and trepidatious. And it is hard not to feel open and fretful and curious and trepidatious when moving through his puzzling (and yet ultimately safe) world.
Tove Jansson was the most successful Finnish illustrator and writer of children’s books of her day, and she was the most widely read Finn abroad. She began her life as an artist early—she had her first drawing published at fifteen. She drew political cartoons for the lefty magazine Garm and published three Moomin books between 1945 and 1948 (when she was in her midthirties), hoping to write something innocent and sweet to counter the despairs of World War II. Around this time, she broke an engagement with a man and fell in love with the (female) artist Tuulikki Pietilä, who would become her partner and artistic collaborator for the rest of her life. In addition to her children’s books and comic strips, which have been translated into almost fifty languages, Jansson wrote eleven novels and story collections for an adult audience. She continued to live and work in Helsinki, the city of her birth, her entire life, summering with her partner on the island Klovharu. She died in 2001, at the age of eighty-six. Pietilä outlived her by eight years.
One of my favorites of Jansson’s long strips—which she drew for a London paper in the late fifties, finally handing the strip over to her brother because the daily grind left little time for her other work, and which are collected in the five volumes of Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip—involves the Moomin clan visiting the Riviera, where all but Moominmamma fall in love with the high life. They temporarily become rich and everything feels glamorous. Mamma is the only one who knows that this is not a better life for them, and she makes a home within a four-poster bed, placing drapes around its sides, instead of letting them stretch out through the majestic hotel room; she then tries to convince them that the most suitable thing would be to live under a canoe, and sets up house there. A rich creature, a dilettante artist, is taken with their way of life and tries it out—“How wonderful! I’ve never before met REAL bohemians!”—and for a spell, he feels so free. But in the end, the chilliness of life beneath the canoe and the absence of warm coffee in the morning sadden him, and he returns to his wealth. “Anyway,” he says, “I have suffered for my art. How my friends will admire me.”
At last the Moomin clan heads home, with Mamma saying to her family, “Admit high life got a bit tiresome.” They agree but still reminisce about the finer moments. The beauty of this story is not in any high moralism, nor any insistence that one life (a bohemian one) is better than another (a life of luxury). Instead, Jansson suggests that everyone may have a life to which they are most suited, in which they can be most happy (maybe not completely happy, but happy enough) and that once they have found it, the only things that result from trying to be even happier are absurd and humiliating capers that return them exactly to where they were before. It’s a simple sentiment, and a beautiful and rarely spoken one, so at odds with either a stern asceticism or a giddy consumerism. More like: everyone lives in their own dream, and the happiest are satisfied with a dream that’s the right size.
It’s a sentiment she expressed differently in Garm with a cartoon of Adolf Hitler as a wailing, diapered infant being offered slices of cake by Chamberlain and other world leaders—the slices labeled with the names of luckless European states—in an attempt to stop his tyrannical tears. Hitler’s dream was wholly the wrong size. Kant-Moomin could have been peering unhappily from the corner.
It seems Jansson understood all babies—the innocent and the corrupt.
Jansson’s life remained pretty much the same from the age of fifteen on: she lived in one place, she did artistic work—just as she saw her parents do in the house where she grew up—she had one big relationship, never had children, and always summered by the sea. She carried Moomin with her for many years. But even if she did dream herself a life of exactly the right size, even if she hadn’t lived through World War II, it couldn’t have been a life without its complications.
Of course, everyone dreams that a simple life is possible—if not for oneself, then for other people. We all wonder why hassles and problems constantly arise. In this, the genius Moomin strip is highly instructive: problems arise because (a) people want to make improvements, (b) there is a lot to be scared of, (c) we sometimes want adventure, (d) friends and lovers can be too blithe and not care enough for your feelings, and (e) people make messes out of things about which they are too romantic. The Moomin strips are the opposite of a mess. Perhaps because Moomin began as the ugliest of creatures, Jansson could draw him lovingly, but without too much romance.
Sheila Heti is the author of six books, including the novels How Should a Person Be? and Ticknor. Her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, n+1, Harper’s, the Believer, the London Review of Books, the New York Times, and other places.
This essay originally appeared in Drawn & Quarterly 25: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels, which was published last month.