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Tove Jansson’s Fair Play: A Pocket Masterpiece

Written by: Mike Leader, Special to CC2K

ImageTove Jansson is one of the best known Finnish writers internationally. Her most enduring (and successively reprinted work) is her series of tales and picture books based around the Moomins, a family of troll-like creatures who live in a picturesque valley and have many adventures. The relaxed, pastoral atmosphere, coupled with easy wisdom and gentle humor have led to critics' praise and readers' affection for generations, and the books have enjoyed many successful television adaptations.  However, Jansson mostly stopped writing Moomin books in 1970, writing primarily for adults until her death in 2001. Unfortunately for the English reader, the majority of Jansson's later books are hard to find, out of print, or simply untranslated from the original Swedish. A small UK publisher, Sort Of, has in the last few years reprinted some of these books, including The Summer Book (Sommerboken, 1972), and Fair Play (Rent Spel, 1989). These books reveal a unique voice, not alien to the Moomin tales, but covering decidedly different themes.

Fair Play, which I will focus on, is a real masterpiece. It is short, barely surpassing 100 pages in my edition (even with more-than-liberal page borders and font sizes). What struck me, after the more pastoral textures of both the Moomin stories and The Summer Book, is that Fair Play mixes this familiar palate with urban artistic and international attitudes. Jansson, as with a lot of the best and most lauded artists from the Nordic countries, communicates the unique aspects of the region's landscape. This has almost become a stereotypical response to Nordic art: even though the genius is acknowledged, it is nonetheless a way of abstracting the non-Nordic reader or patronizing the artist in question. Fair Play manages to work within this tradition, but very effectively moves beyond it

The book is told in short chapters, leading some to call it a short story collection (though the title page defiantly proclaims it a novel). This episodic structure, which creates a space between short story collection and novel, allows Jansson to gently move through different contexts and situations. Like The Summer Book, this is primarily about the relationship between two central characters, in this case two women in their autumnal years. The companionship between the two women mirrors Jansson's real-life relationship with Finnish artist Tuulikki Pietilä, who lived a reclusive life of creativity. Mari, an illustrator and writer, and Jonna, a filmmaker and artist, live together in the same building. Each chapter hinges on their shared experience, at times at odds with the social expectations of the world around them. They watch movies, critique each others work, travel around Finland and elsewhere and converse with each other about family, love and work.

This sense of voluntary seclusion – not necessarily against the world, but apart from it – coupled with an intimacy, is one of Fair Play's most immediate themes. From the beginning, this is apparent. The second story, titled "Videomania," finds Jonna and Mari declining an invitation for dinner with a friend because "Fassbinder's on this evening… [and] we have to be here to cut out the commercials." Great detail and care is given to this scene, as Jansson seeks to communicate Jonna's enthusiastic, creative obsession with recording, labelling and watching various films ("They had waited this way for meetings with Truffaut, Bergman, Visconti, Renoir, Wilder"). Again, Jansson's direct, easy humor is found in this story. After Jonna has told their friend Alma they will not be attending her dinner, this exchange occurs:

"'Was she mad?' Mari asked.
'Oh, you know. Apparently the woman hasn't a clue about
'Should we unplug the phone?'
'If you want. Nobody's going to call. They know better. Anyway, we don't have to answer.'"

Image Jansson's prose (well rendered in English by Thomas Teal) invites the reader into the private space created by Jonna and Mari. Indeed, one thing to take away from reading the novel is this notion of companionship. All of the thematic concerns of the novel do relate to this very central relationship between two women. A quote from the original edition, from Jansson, describes the book as "a novel of friendship, of rather happy tales about two women who share a life of work, delight and consternation. They are very unlike each other, but perhaps that is why they manage to play the game successfully, with patience and, of course, a great deal of love." In her introduction for this edition of the book, Ali Smith calls the work "discreetly radical." The focus should be on the word discreet, as Jansson's work mostly falls into the subtle and gentle side of the spectrum. The boundaries between vignette, short story and novel are easily blurred; the exposition of character and context is not explicit. Equally, the relationship between the two characters, perhaps homosexual in an albeit platonic form, inhabits a plain beyond simple romance and physicality, and as such it is undeniably interesting. It is here where reality can too easily stamp an interpretation on the gracefully subtle fiction: Jansson and Pietilä were two of the first openly gay public figures in Finland.

As the book progresses, the reader becomes more aware of the necessary space within this very close-knit relationship. The book ends with two stories: one occurs over a period of months, where the two characters barely see each other, and the final chapter ends with Jonna being offered a year's commission in Paris. This ending allows Jansson not only to break the couple apart – effectively offering a moment for conclusion – but also to impart another maxim for living. Time is revealed to be a giving phenomenon; the discussions of age and mortality are never gloomy in Fair Play, and the amount of new experience given to these old women in the book show a definite lust for life. The final paragraph shows Mari's revelation that intimacy is only one aspect of life partnership;

"Mari was hardly listening. A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love."

Fair Play shows a playful, wise author growing older, turning her attentions away from Moomin Valley towards the real world, where she finds just as much inspiration. The result is a work with just as much energy, enthusiasm and genius as her work for children. It is a direct, bite-sized work. A pocket masterpiece.

Author: Mike Leader, Special to CC2K

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