Sometimes it's better to look at things than own them... owning means anxiety and lots of bags to carry around.
- Tove Jansson
Finland’s Tove Jansson is famous for her children friendly, the Moomin story. But she was also an artist too. The Finnish artist’s work was hugely influenced by her passion for the great outdoors – in particular the tiny island of Klovharun. Reading her book The Summer Book is a revelation of how one might commune with nature in self-sufficiency and solitude. It’s deeply moving read.
Of course writers have long been drawn to islands. Few have managed to express – and satisfy – that yearning like Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins. She wrote in her diaries: “If I could wish something good for someone, I would wish for them an island with no address.”
When Tove Jansson wrote those words sitting in her Helsinki apartment in 1962, the tiny cottage on the tiny island of Klovharun in which she would spend her summers for the next three decades was still two years away. The idea of genuine seclusion must have felt like a fantasy.
The popularity of the Moomins, the wise, bovine creatures she’d created at the tail end of the Second World War, was at its height and the global fame that went with it was proving to be as draining as it was rewarding. While she wrote three more Moomin books and still meticulously answered her fan mail she had in 1959 handed over the writing and illustrating of the daily Moomins syndicated comic strip to her brother Lars.
“I never spare them a thought now it’s over,” she wrote to a friend in 1962. “I’ve completely drawn a line under all that. Just as you wouldn’t want to think back on a time you had toothache.”
Retreat to an island seemed like the perfect way to stop the constant noise. A place of defined boundary, the sea making it all but impossible to have one’s privacy and solitude disturbed, an island, particularly a small one, holds a great attraction for writers.
Finns have a particular affinity for islands, not least because Finland has more of them than any country in the world except neighbouring Sweden. Roughly 188,000 islands and islets lie off the coast and in the thousands of lakes that leave roughly 10% of the country permanently underwater. The Finns have a highly developed cabin culture: one in five Finnish households, have a second residence, a mökki, a simple cabin or cottage by a lake or on an island to which they decamp for summer weekends and holidays, returning to nature for peace and solitude.
Islands have always drawn writers, from George Orwell on Jura to Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, from To the Lighthouse to Lord of the Flies, but few writers have both captured and been captured by the very essence of an island as Tove Jansson. The Summer Book deserves to be spoken in the same breath.
Helsinki-born, Jansson spent most of her childhood summers on different islands of the Pellinki archipelago with her sculptor father Viktor, illustrator mother Signe, known as ‘Ham’, and brothers Per Olov and Lars. The family were from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority and Ham had been an early member of the Swedish girl guides, keen to foster an appreciation of the outdoors in her own children.
As she grew up Jansson was determined to secure her own island space. She’d always hoped to find one with a lighthouse but when that proved impossible she rented one of the Pellinki islands with her brother that was used by the entire Jansson clan.
If she’d sought summer solitude the constant stream of visitors and parties wasn’t really conducive, so eventually with Pietilä, whom she’d met at a party in 1955, Jansson found Klovharun. Far enough from the shore to dissuade most casual visitors but still close enough to row for provisions, on the face of it it’s not a particularly bucolic spot.
In 1964, when she was in her 50s, the Moomin creator Tove Jansson settled on her dream island. Klovharun in the Finnish archipelago is tiny – some 6,000 sq metres – and isolated, “a rock in the middle of nowhere”, according to Jansson’s niece, Sophia. It has scarcely any foliage, no running water and no electricity. Yet for Jansson, it was an oasis. For 18 years she and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä spent long summers there, heading out from Helsinki as soon as the ice broke in April, leaving only in early October. The island meant “privacy, remoteness, intimacy, a rounded whole without bridges or fences”.
Klovharun encapsulates something of Jansson’s originality as an artist and writer – and her human presence. Her illustrated Moomin books, which began to be published just after the second world war, brought her phenomenal acclaim and devotion. The tales of amiable troll creatures have been taken to generations of hippy hearts; their pear-shaped faces have adorned a million ties. Their marketing triumph – in which Jansson enthusiastically participated – has overshadowed her other achievements as a painter, novelist, short-story writer, anti-Nazi cartoonist, and designer of magazine covers. Success may also have obscured how ambivalent she was, how often on the cusp of identities. She was brought up in Finland speaking Swedish, had male and female lovers, told her stories in pictures and in prose, lived on water as well as land. More and more she appears as a pioneer. Not least in her crystalline descriptions of the natural world.
In the last decade nature writing has surged in Britain, and proved extraordinarily varied. Robert Macfarlane has caused us to look at paths as revealing “the habits of a landscape”. Tim Dee has reminded us to look up at the sky and listen to the birds; Merlin Sheldrake’s studies of fungi are making us consider what fusions are going on under our feet; Alice Oswald’s poetry can make you hear water moving as if it were the blood in your veins. These investigations have reverberated strongly in cities over the last year, with lockdowners thrilling to the idea of unreachable wide open space and to the miniature excitements of their own neighbourhoods, the individual blooms they can entice into their flats.
A painting by Tove Jansson for The Summer Book, a story about a family’s stay on a tiny Finnish island.
Tove Jansson’s writing is different. She has wonderful passages in which entire landscapes are made by peering at blades of grass and scraps of bark. Yet her main Moomin adventures are startlingly catastrophic. For all the light clarity of the prose – which is comic, benign and quizzical – these books show places gripped by ferocious forces, laid waste by storms and floods and snows. They speak (but never obviously) of characters resonating to the winds and seas around them. They include visions that now read like warnings of climate change: “the great gap that had been the sea in front of them, the dark red sky overhead, and behind, the forest panting in the heat”.
There is some relish in these extremes: Jansson loved a storm and her island aesthetic is distinctive. Anti-lush, sculpted by the elements rather than softly shaped by a human hand. This is not like living in a garden. Everything is provisional, prey to winds and fogs and being swept away. It is the outdoor equivalent of chucking out your chintz. What’s more, this is writing about nature that provides not only wonder and leisure but a living. Jansson and Pietilä worked hard to support themselves on Klovharun: they chopped wood, made fires, rowed boats, gutted fish. Their attitude reminds me of James Rebanks, the inspiring Cumbrian sheep farmer, who points out that while visitors look at the fells and hills and see beauty, his fellow farmers see sustenance, income and labour.
Tove Jannson and Pietilä lived in sparse conditions. Like the lighthouse that the author hymned in Moominpappa at Sea, they lived in a single hut.
Planning permission to build a cabin proved tricky to attain. Having embarked on the bureaucratic process Jansson and Pietilä would stay on the island in a tent pitched among the rocks. When a local builder told the couple it was unlikely permission would be granted at all, Jansson’s island dream looked to be in doubt. Then he told her that under Finnish law it was illegal to tear down a structure already built even without planning permission and advised them to start building anyway.
The cabin was ready for the summer of 1965 and the couple commenced nearly three decades of spending almost half of every year on their tiny outcrop. They could combine their artistic pursuits with the necessities of life without mod cons: chopping firewood, fishing and repairing the cabin roof after storms.
The challenges were part of what Jansson loved about the island. They had to row to the mainland for supplies and there was no electricity or running water. When heat was required it came from the stove. Oil lamps were the only source of light. When storms came there was nowhere to hide; the couple were at the mercy of the gales blowing into the Gulf of Finland from the Baltic Sea.
“The family got all worked up and took delight in disaster as usual,” she wrote of one storm that broke when the couple had visitors. “Lasse and I rushed round looking at the breakers, the usual waterfalls started up and the inlet turned into a torrent. Before we knew it the water was up to the sauna and there was the usual boat business, ropes tangling in all directions.”
Storms aside, the couple could settle into a routine that comprised a kind of sumptuous ascetism. Out on the island they couldn’t walk far and there was little to distract them yet they were surrounded by nature, with the combination of sea, sky, weather and light always shifting to make any glance out of the window look different from the last. The island may have been small but it was never cramped or claustrophobic: with horizons all around them Klovharun was the antithesis of dark winters in busy Helsinki.
“We rarely clean the house and only have the occasional wash, with much brouhaha and pans of hot water on the ground outside,” wrote Jansson. “Then we do our own private thing until dinner, which we eat sometime in the middle of the day, our noses in our books… And so the days pass in blessed tranquillity.”
The hut’s one room had windows facing in all directions so that Tove and Pietilä could watch the horizon from 360 degrees, and see the winds and storms coming and going. Seated at separate desks (in Helsinki they lived in separate apartments joined by an attic corridor), they “got a lot into the day”. While Jansson wrote, Pietilä drew, or filmed with her 8mm camera. Occasionally they had a joint project, constructing scenes from the Moomin books, with Pietilä making the 3D models and Jansson painting them. That was their play time.
The diet was plain: hard bread, butter, cheese, fresh fish, canned everything else. It was “almost camping”. Sometimes totally camping. While waiting for the house to be built, the women put up a tent, but when the house was ready “they liked the tent so much they decided that they would go on sleeping there, and let guests stay in the house”.
Still, Jansson was no hippy. “I’m feeling pretty cocky,” she wrote in her diaries when besieged by TV crews in the 1960s, “but also trying to maintain my image: gentle, cultivated, enraptured child of nature.”
Jansson created books that are unlike any others written for children or adults, though Roald Dahl was surely tipping his Scandinavian hat to her when he produced Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Nineteen years earlier, in 1945, Jansson had created a confectionery landscape in her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, with snow ice-cream, finespun sugar grass and chocolate-bearing trees. They are not anthropomorphic, or sentimental, or facetious. They are marked by the experience of war: by seeing houses reduced to rubble and families roaming through ruined landscapes looking for somewhere to settle. There is fear in them. Yet no moral cosh hangs over these books.
The island – “a sanctuary for someone with work to do, a wild garden for someone growing up, but otherwise just days on top of days, and passing time” – effectively becomes the world, expanding way beyond its physical confines. More than a setting, it’s a context, a presence, almost a character in itself.
“An island can be dreadful for someone from outside,” Jansson writes. “Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”
At the start of the 1990s island life was proving too much for the now elderly couple. A motorboat had replaced the rowing boat but it became clear that age and a remote island were not a safe combination.
“And last summer, something unforgivable happened: I started to fear the sea,” Jansson wrote in 1993. “The giant waves no longer signified adventure but fear, fear and worry for the boat and all the other boats that were sailing in bad weather.”
They bequeathed the island to Pellinge Hembygdsförening, a local heritage association, who organise guided tours and artists’ retreats there, maintaining and preserving the cottage and its contents. Inside it’s almost as if Jansson has just stepped out for a moment and will be back shortly with some apples and a cabbage in a string bag, inspecting the callouses forming on her palms with all the rowing.
Islands have a long history of inspiring writers and on Klovharun more than anywhere else it’s possible to feel why. Twenty years after her death, the contentment Tove Jansson found there is still tangible.
“I miss those quiet June days when you were piecing together your mosaic or whittling away at some knotty bit of wood and it was possible to listen, contemplate and explore how we felt,” Jansson wrote to Pietilä of their early years on the island.
There is a certain kind of wisdom to be found when one is bound on all sides by the sea. Islands create introspection, horizons demand contemplation. Some have the ability to tune in to both at exactly the right frequency, a very select few have the words and imagination to express them. The Summer Book is its perfect distillation.
Having a child is a long term commitment to a heavy, heavy responsibility which demands energy, attention, and time.
To have a child is to bring an entire person into the world. This person can not consent to this. This person is inherently vulnerable, hardwired to depend on you, and must be taught the skills neccessary to one day care for themself.
When you have a child, that child's well being is entirely on you. It's your job to keep them safe, to keep them fed, cloathed, and happy. It's your job to make sure they feel loved.
When you choose to have a child, you are signing up to spend years and years of resources on that child. That is your choice. The child was not alive and could not agree to your decision to drag them out of the void of nonexistence. The child was not asked if they wanted to experience an entire lifetime of conciousness, and all of the potential suffering and agony that comes with that.
That decision is entirely that of the parent who has made the choice to have a child.
You are not "granting the gift of life." You are not doing this hypothetical child a favor by having them. You are doing this for you, because you wanted to be a parent. You wanted to have the experience of raising a child.
This means that if you have a child, you owe that child. You owe them time, and love, and safety, and care. You asked for this, it is now your responsibly to follow through.
Children are not a toy. They aren't a fancy new car for you to parade to your friends. They aren't a fashion accessory for you to put on the shelf when you lose interest. They aren't a mini you. They aren't a magic cure-all to your trauma, and they aren't there to fill some void in your chest.
They are a vulnerable person who is easily abused and neglected and who will be at your mercy throughout much of their development period.
A parent owes their child. Failing to follow through with the responsibility they signed up for is a failing on the parent's part. Making the child feel guilty for the crime of existing is the fault of the parent. A child is never a burden.
Abusive and neglectful parents are failures as parents. They could not do the bare basics of what the job entails and then they blame the child for a crime that the parents themselves committed.