Tove Jansson, Fair Play

I’ve been feeling generally unenthused by most of what I’ve read lately; Fair Play made me love it and I feel like myself again. More quiet, queer romances with elderly women, please.

From this weekend’s column.


I spent a good part of last year rereading Tove Jansson’s Moomin books for the first time in far too long. The Moomins are a family of various-shaped creatures living in a valley in Finland who absorb into their circle anyone who needs to be absorbed, the books themselves are perhaps the most generous-spirited children’s books ever written. Jansson is less well known for her books for adults, though some of them (her novel The Summer Book among them) have been translated into English and are quite as fine as her work for children.

And then there’s Fair Play, which is either a novel or a collection of short stories about two women. Mari and Jonna are both artists, and they live and work on opposite sides of the same building with a long attic between them, except when they are in a tiny house on a remote island, or when they are travelling

It’s easy to read this as at least partly autobiographical—Jansson was an artist and writer herself, and lived for over four decades with her partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä (for Moomin fans, the inspiration behind Too-Ticky. The NYRB Classics edition (translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal) reinforces this connection further by choosing for its cover art a portrait of Pietilä by Jansson. At several points during my first read I found myself trying to work out who was who; which character was “meant” to be Jansson and which Pietilä. But I’m not sure that’s a useful way to read this book.

Very little happens, in the conventional sense, in Fair Play. Pictures are rearranged on the walls, arguments are sometimes had, movies are watched and grocery shopping planned, other people enter and exit the lives of these two women and sometimes their coming is an intrusion and at other times it is welcome. But through these quiet tales of ordinary life is built up the picture of a relationship that is real and deep.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of Fair Play is in the way it treats the process of ageing as normal. Women in their seventies speak of the relative youth of women in their fifties; men in their nineties dismiss women in their seventies. Mari and Jonna speak frankly of things of which they are no longer physically capable, and there is no panicked rush to hold onto what they have now.

Ali Smith, in her introduction to the book, speaks of work and love (Jansson designed her own bookplates with the motto Labora et Amare) and the way in which the two are intertwined there. The two women work separately, and when they are working seem almost to live separate lives. Space, both figuratively and literally (that long, empty corridor between their studios) is central to this relationship. “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”, says the narrator in “Videomania”. And the collection ends with Jonna’s being offered a studio in Paris and both women genuinely relishing the prospect of time alone. And it is a book about the process of art: of Mari’s photographs and Jonna’s tape recordings, of letters from fans, the valid criticisms of other artists and the frustration of living with a writer whose work isn’t going well.

A book so concerned with the process of producing art, Fair Play is also the result of that process. It grants to its characters the sort of space they grant each other, it leaves things unsaid, and perhaps one reason I’m reluctant to read it purely as biography is that that would be an intrusion.

I spoke above of the Moomin books and the sense of community within them. But beneath that community is a strong sense of individual characters as solitary figures in a vast universe. It’s in its recognition of this solitude, this part of us that is ours alone, that Fair Play becomes one of the finest love stories I’ve read.



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