Biography & Memoir Tove Jansson: LIfe, Art, Words | Book Review Roundup | The Omnivore

Published on January 29th, 2014


Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin

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Blurb: The Finnish-Swedish writer and artist Tove Jansson achieved worldwide fame as the creator of the Moomin stories, written between 1945 and 1970 and still in print in more than twenty languages. However, the Moomins were only a part of her prodigious output. Already admired in Nordic art circles as a painter, cartoonist and illustrator, she would go on to write a series of classic novels and short stories. She remains Scandinavia’s best loved author.

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Tove Jansson’s work reflected the tenets of her life: her love of family (and special bond with her mother), of nature, and her insistence on freedom to pursue her art. Love and work was the motto she chose for herself and her approach to both was joyful and uncompromising. If her relationships with men were shaded by an ambivalence towards marriage, those with women came as a revelation, especially the love and companionship she found with her long-time partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she shared her solitary island of Klovharu.

In this meticulously researched, authorised biography, Boel Westin draws together the many threads of Jansson’s life: from the studies interrupted to help her family; the bleak years of war and her emergence as an artist with a studio of her own; to the years of Moomin-mania, and later novel writing. Based on numerous conversations with Tove, and unprecedented access to her journals, letters and personal archives, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words offers a rare and privileged insight into the world of a writer whom Philip Pullman described, simply, as ‘a genius’.

(Sort Of Books, 2014)

Kate Kellaway, The Observer 

“It is with respectful regard that Westin, a Swedish academic, approaches her biographical task … Westin does not step back to judge – the book is constrained by her deference. Even though Jansson died in 2001, the sense is that this biography is for, as well as about, its subject. But it’s crammed with factual interest and encourages one to read in the way Jansson liked readers to do – as imaginative assistants, filling in gaps.”

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James Lovegrove, Financial Times 

“Parts of the book read like a doctoral thesis, and at times the tone seems to straitjacket its subject matter. We get precious little sense of the whimsicality that’s to be found in the Moomin stories, nor the underlying sombreness. Westin could afford to lighten her analysis, to relax and let her evident love for all things Moomin shine through. That said, her biography – translated smoothly and unobtrusively by Silvester Mazzarella – is never less than engaging.”

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Sue Prideaux, The Guardian 

“Boel Westin, professor of literature at the University of Stockholm, has written an affectionate biography. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the Moomin world and knew Jansson. In the book, Westin compares her to Shakespeare, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, even “Chekov spiced with Poe”. Actually, Jansson needs no such comparisons: that she wrote well is self-evident from the enduring popularity of her surreal and prankish tales.”

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Katie Law, London Evening Standard 

“Westin, having previously written a PhD dissertation on Jansson’s “ideologies and philosophies”, was given complete access to Jansson’s huge archive of diaries, letters, illustrated notes, sketches and pictures — and for all its meticulous, scholarly research this 500-page book is too much the uncritical, sprawling thesis to catch the heartbeat. Westin herself has admitted she has had to be sensitive to family and friends who are still alive, that “Tove didn’t tell me everything and that there were things left out”, which is a shame but leaves room for another biography.”

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Helen Brown, The Telegraph 

“While Swedish academic Boel Westin’s overly respectful, chaotically organised and awkwardly translated authorised biography doesn’t always present an accessible portrait of its fascinating subject, Westin’s unparalleled access to the Jansson family archive throws up gems from diaries, letters and sketchbooks. The most striking artefacts include a photograph of her bohemian parents – Finnish sculptor Viktor Jansson and Swedish artist Signe Hammarsten – howling with laughter and covered in plaster as they worked together.”

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Helen Rumbelow, The Times 

“[An] overly detailed tome … This biography gets bogged down in the detail but all you need to know is Jansson’s own essay, “The Deceitful Writer of Children’s Books”, describing the author’s adult desires as a danger to children, “the risky but meaningful undercurrent is not incompatible with the child’s own inaccessible sense of mystery, tenderness, and cruelty. And fear.””

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Helen Davies, The Sunday Times 

“Boel Westin, a professor at Stockholm University, wrote her PhD on the “aesthetical and narratological perspectives in the Moomin books”, so you can guess the abstract drift of much of this biography. This painful symbolic analysis reaches its climax when she mixes Jansson’s tower studio and Virginia Woolf’s obsession with a lighthouse into some Freudian melange. Westin is a grindingly dedicated pupil; the book is written with the best, earnestly noble of intentions. Yet despite meeting Jansson for a week every year, from the 1990s until her death in 2001, she fails to bring this personal touch to the page. The result is a bleached version of Jansson. There seems to be colour missing.”

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