They lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side. Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains. She could pause on the way to listen to the rain on the metal roof, look out across the city as it lit its lights, or just linger for the pleasure of it.
They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.
—Tove Jansson, “Videomania,” Fair Play
There are not many really good books that portray functional relationships. Certainly not the relationships of artists. Well, that’s not a shocker—happy families, as we are told, are all alike. Fair Play, Tove Jansson’s 1982 portrait of a partnership, is an exception.
Fair Play is based on Jansson’s relationship with the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she shared a life, and a home, for some forty years. If you have read Jansson’s classic Summer Book, certain things about Fair Play will be familiar: the island setting, the spareness, the less-is-more portrait of human connection. These things will be familiar even to those who only know Jansson from her most famous works, like Finn Family Moomintroll. (Indeed, Pietilä was the inspiration for the competent Moomin character Too-Ticky.)
Fair Play deals with the creative process as well as anything I’ve ever read, but it’s not concerned with the drama of creation. Well, no more than with any other quotidian human drama: while the creative drive and the women’s respect for each other as artists is a motivating factor, the book takes these for granted. Creating is what they do; it can be challenging; they deal with it.
Things happen, sure—storms, quarrels, passive-aggressive silences. But these pass. The pair whittles. They fish. They feed the cat. They watch a lot of videos. And this isn’t to indicate that they are bored with each other and tragic and living lives of quiet desperation; they just like watching videos. That this feels quietly revolutionary is itself a comment on something.
I know what you’re thinking: with separate apartments and an attic between them, anyone can live in harmony. But the fact is, when they aren’t living this real-estate idyll, the two cohabit in a tiny cabin on an isolated island. If you look at images of Jansson’s home on the island of Klovharu in the Pellinki archipelago, you’ll see just how very small it was. And yet Fair Play never feels claustrophobic. Here’s how one tense episode between the women ends:
“Mari,” said Jonna, “sometimes you’re really a little too obvious.”
“Do you think? But once in a while a person just needs to say what doesn’t need to be said. Don’t you think?”
And they went back to their reading.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.