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Tove Jansson: Work and Love Hardcover – 27 Nov 2014
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The fascinating back story of a beloved Finnish author (Economist)
Tuula Karjalainen's biography Tove Jansson: Work and Love would make a wonderful Christmas present for any Moomin fans out there. It's a beautiful book, densely packed with high-quality photos and illustrations, and provides fascinating context for the work of an artist/writer loved the world over for her timeless children's classics. (Independent)
It is highly readable, focused on human interest and generous with background information. Karjalainen writes a great deal about the loves in Jansson's life (Hufvudstadsbladet)
Tove Jansson: Work and Love is incredibly well written, and such care has been given to its translation. Lovely photographs and beautiful specimens of Jansson's art, all in beautiful colour, have been interspersed throughout. Karjalainen adds new information and thoughtful musings to the impression previously given of Jansson's life and work. (Nudge)
In the biography Tove Jansson: Work and Love art historian Tuula Karjalainen writes about the unique courage Tove Jansson showed (YLE)
About the Author
Dr Tuula Karjalainen is a Finnish art historian and non-fiction writer who has previously worked as a director of the Helsinki Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki. As the author of Tove Jansson's biography, Karjalainen has become an expert not only on Jansson's writing and art but also on her decades of personal correspondence and journals.
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At first, it all goes swimmingly, Jansson's parents, birth, childhood and siblings written about informatively but concisely. Her early life in painting is discussed at depth and with detail and purpose; then the Second World War is treated, also clearly. Then, however, the book descends into a meandersome free-for-all of material, subject matters and half-finished discussions of works. Ms. Karjalainin's rather odd decision to handle things both chronologically and by subject matter results in a blurry cross-over of the two, and a 'back-and-forth' narrative, with much repetition; for example in sections concerning the contemporary reaction to homosexuality; to Jansson's and her artistic circle's attitudes towards abstract painting; to the mentality of the Second World War; and to Jansson's relationships with her mother and father and their places in family life.
Further because of this mode of attack, Ms. Karjalainin often makes references to people, things and events that have not been properly introduced yet, and then takes a considerable while to do so. In Chapter III, for example, a picture is given of a monkey sitting on a mound of sand in the sea, with a caption that reads: 'The monkey in the sea at Pellinki'; but it is not explained in the text what relevance the monkey has to Tove Jansson or the circumstances of the monkey coming to be there. It is in fact revealed much later in Chapter VII. More seriously, references are made in the first six chapters to Tuulikki Pietilä, as though the reader should know who she is, but this is not explained properly until Chapter VII. One gets the overall impression that Ms. Karjalainin did not feel compelled to look over and revise her manuscript a great deal.
There is also a certain sense of 'un-objectiveness', particularly in regards to Jansson's paintings. One gets the impression that Ms. Karjalainin is trying to like them; that her respect for them is sincere, though her admiration not quite. (Jansson's painting itself is generally unremarkable; technically adept but rather forgettable, lacking a certain quality of personal spark that her best writings have in abundance.)
Incidentally, it is in the discussion of the painting that perhaps Ms. Karjalainin's poorest writing trait comes to the fore: mere description without insight. She often (but not always) gives very precise descriptions of the paintings, but then fails to make any point. This is not helped by the fact that many of the paintings she describes are not reproduced. One is left hanging mid-air, so to speak, not knowing what to do with the information provided.
Ms. Karjalainin does attempt to give psychological insights at various points throughout the book, but these are scattered, often feel amateurish, and lack depth; and when they do present some interest - as in those given concerning the various characters of the Moomin world - they are disordered. For example, Ms. Karjalainin will discuss Snufkin's place, inspiration and 'meaning' in the Moomin world, then move to (say) the Hattifattners, then move to (say) the Hemulens, then move back to Snufkin.
Further evidence of poor writing is detectable throughout: statements and descriptions that, if not strictly contradictory, are nonetheless weirdly juxtaposed; sections ending with remarkable abruptness; sentences that stray the boundaries of grammatical senselessness; rather desultory treatment of some books, e.g. The Dangerous Journey, against highly detailed treatments of others, e.g. The Moomins and the Great Flood and Moominpappa at Sea; and, worst of all, a lack of any referencing system.
With much of the information given in the book, one often has to ask - 'So what?' Much is made of Jansson's control of line in her book illustrations. Why? It seems that Ms. Karjalainin simply doesn't know what to say about Tove Jansson and her work, except that it was very varied and brought a lot of happiness to children. But a life as far-ranging and, in many ways, truly new (e.g. in her homosexuality, her questioning of familial roles, her embracing of Leftist politics) as Tove Jansson's really demands more of a definitive statement; certainly the book would have been much more interesting for it. It might be properly put down to this: with the absolute swamp of information that Ms. Karjalainin has at her fingertips, she simply doesn't know what to do with it all. Even the book's title, Work and Love, seems an indicator of its often bland and uninspired tone.
Overall, despite a wealth of generally interesting and occasionally amusing information and anecdotes, and some genuinely interesting discussions of aspects of Jansson's life - particularly her own attitude towards her homosexuality - the book feels something of an uphill slog. Ms. Karjalainin is obviously passionate about her subject and has obviously immersed herself greatly (almost obsessively) in Jansson's world, but the writing feels sloppy, often imprecise, often too precise (as in the exhaustive but pointless list of when the Moomins books were translated into Finnish); and the repetitious and somewhat fawning nature of the writing can get tiring too quickly (the two (very lengthy) chapters on the Second World War spring to mind here). The book is simply too long.
I wish I could be more positive about the book. As someone who has a great love for the Moomins and their world, I approached it with enthusiasm. It is generally an easy read; it certainly shows that Tove Jansson's work was wide-ranging and interesting; and a particular bonus is the fantastic wealth of photos and illustrations, showing many of Jansson's works that one would never find elsewhere (her political drawings for the social magazine Garm, for example). But its faults are far too evident. It is really a matter of faith and commitment. If one does manage to get all the way through it, one will probably have enjoyed the trip along the way, and one will certainly be able to show off one's knowledge of Jansson's life and work to fellow Moomins-lovers. Nonetheless, I heaved a marked sigh of relief upon turning the last page.
Rating: 6 / 10
'Tove Jansson: Work and Love' is a beautifully presented book and Dr Tuula Karjalainen certainly projects her enthusiasm for her subject's artistic and novelistic abilities. However, although the author shares with the reader certain details of Tove's personal life and of her lasting relationship with her female partner, Tuulikki Pietila, it is not a detailed biography in the fullest sense of the word - the book totals less than three hundred pages and almost half of those pages are devoted to a wonderful variety of photographs and illustrations - and, as an art historian, Karjalainen understandably focuses more on the paintings and illustrations than on the woman behind them. That said, the photographs are beautiful, I enjoyed reading about Tove's art, I learnt things about this talented woman that I did not know, and I shall be putting this book back onto one of my bookcases to refer to again at some point in the future.
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