Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known for her series of children's books about little hippopotamus-shaped trolls called Moomins. Jansson created the Moomins as a form of escapism while she was working as a cartoonist for an anti-fascist magazine during World War II. Several books featuring the adventures of the Moomintrolls followed between 1945 and 1970. After her mother died in 1970, Jansson set aside the Moomins and turned to writing novels for adults in which the loss of her mother continued to resonate.
In her novel The Summer Book (1972), also published by New York Review Books, a child who has recently lost her mother spends a summer with her grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The novel beautifully depicts the relationship between the small child, Sophia, and her loving but often astringent grandmother. Loss permeates the book—both the mostly unspoken loss of Sophia's mother and the loss of youth and time that the grandmother increasingly feels.
"It all seems to shrink up and glide away," the grandmother says.
Summer on the island becomes a symbol of loss and loneliness and the shortness of time, but Jansson's touch is light and whimsical enough that the sadness and symbolism never weigh the story down. Her cover illustration for the book is perfect: the dark island, with two dark figures alone on the point, floats weightlessly above its dark reflection in an sea of pale yellow and blue. In the middle of the island, among the dark trees, a square of yellow light glows in the window of the house.
In one chapter in the middle of The Summer Book, Sophia sleeps out alone in a tent and, waking to the profound darkness, ventures out into the night to find her grandmother:
When we go through a period of darkness, Jansson implies, we begin to notice things we haven't noticed before: subtleties of the darkness, the light that waits for us, the complicated texture of the ground beneath our feet.She really listened for the first time in her life. And when she got out in the ravine, she noticed for the first time what the ground really felt like under her toes and the soles of her feet. It was cold, grainy, terribly complicated ground that changed as she walked—gravel and wet grass and big flat stones, and every now and then some plant as high as a bush would brush against her legs. The ground was dark, but the sky had a faint, gray light. The island had grown tiny, floating on the water like a drifting leaf, but there was a light in the guest room window.
In The True Deceiver (1982), Anna Aemelin is, like Jansson, an illustrator of children's books. She creates meticulously detailed paintings of the forest floor, then populates them with floral bunnies. Her life, in the family villa known to the locals as the bunny house, is quiet and well-regulated. She spends the winter answering letters from children, and when the snow finally melts she returns to the forest to paint. But everything changes when the ruthlessly pragmatic Katri Kling comes to live with her and starts to reorganize her life.
As in The Summer Book, the time and place—deep winter in a small coastal village—become a dominant presence in the novel, and deft symbolism is joined with deep psychological insight. Katri is both honest and calculating. She has no illusions about other people. She sees only self-interest at work, and is ruthless in exposing dishonesty and falsehood. Anna, on the other hand, lives in a kind of sentimental dream world, idolizing her late parents and painting floral bunnies. Although she is the older woman, she has, in a sense, never grown up. The conflict between Katri and Anna, between the jaded and the rose-colored view of the world, lies at the center of the novel. Is a certain amount of deception, self-deception and the hiding of truth from other people, necessary for happiness? Is there more to honesty than a scrupulous keeping of accounts?
Katri convinces Anna that Anna has been cheated by everyone from the local shopkeeper to the toy companies who contract with her to create and market toy versions of her signature floral bunnies. Katri insists on going carefully through the accounts and contracts with Anna, figuring out percentages and profits. Katri is all business, but Anna insists on making the business into a game—a game that moves from the real numbers in Anna's account book to entirely made-up sums. Katri is uncomfortable with the shift into fantasy, but Anna still needs some element of make-believe to make the real world bearable. Anna is an artist, and art, after all, is a form of make-believe, a kind of deception, a insistence on something made up. But should art be purely escapist, or should it make us look more penetratingly at reality?
Here's a wonderful photograph of Tove Jansson, surrounded by Moomintrolls, her mouth set at a wry angle, her eyes wide and hard and penetrating, looking past childish things at something more complex out there in the dark.