Tove Jansson’s summer days
“Tooti and I wake up early, always simultaneously though we sleep in separate beds.”
Tove Jansson (1914–2001)
Tomorrow would have been the Swedish-speaking Finnish writer and illustrator’s 108th birthday, a good enough excuse for me to share a wonderful glimpse of her daily life found in the book Letters from Tove.
First, some context: Jansson is internationally beloved for creating the Moomins, a family of friendly trolls whose adventures she illustrated in nine books and a long-running daily comic strip, and who became the subject of a TV program in Sweden, an anime series in Japan, an opera in Helsinki, and a mind-boggling array of Moomin merchandise.
In 1970, Jansson turned her attention to writing fiction for adults, eventually producing five books of short stories and six novels. So far I’ve only read one of these books, 1989’s Fair Play, a slender, episodic novel about Mari and Jonna, a writer-artist couple who bear a very close resemblance to Jansson and her partner of decades, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, whom she called Tooti. It is an extremely charming portrait of two artists making a life together—and also, as Ali Smith writes in her introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, “often an excellent handbook of advice and rules for the workings of art.”
The following letter excerpt, from July 1964, captures Jansson and Pietilä’s daily routine at a rented cottage on Finland’s Pellinge archipelago, where they spent their summers. Here they are joined by Jansson’s mother, nicknamed Ham, a frequent guest.
Tooti and I wake up early, always simultaneously though we sleep in separate beds. I slither over and we lie close, close for a while, and she switches on the radio.
Then I let the cat out and observe the weather and put the coffee on. Clean my teeth and throw the contents of my tooth mug at Psipsina with a yell, it’s a ritual. The damn cat streaks off like a lunatic.
. . . After that I take coffee and toast to Ham in the guest room, serve Tooti and myself and read crime novels while I drink mine. Later in the day I move on to “a better class of book”. Then the cat comes in and howls so we go down to the beach for some fish from the cage. I’m very attached to these morning activities. Then it’s time for the washing up and bringing in wood and water. We rarely clean the house and only have the occasional wash, with much brouhaha and pans of hot water on the ground outside. Then we do our own private thing until dinner, which we eat sometime in the middle of the day, our noses in our books. We get on with our work.
After dinner Ham takes a nap—in the evening we have tea and then read, set out nets or play cards. We bring the cat indoors and I go in to light Ham’s lamp. Always the same. If we’ve any drink, we tend to have one around four. Or several, in fact. We don’t talk much. And so the days pass in blessed tranquility.
SHEILA HETI ON TOVE JANSSON
EATING AND READING
Jansson reading crime novels at the breakfast table reminds me of P. G. Wodehouse, who had the same habit: Sitting down each morning to toast, coffee cake, and tea, Wodehouse read what he called a “breakfast book”—a mystery novel by someone like Ngaio Marsh or Rex Stout, or a light, humorous book.
James Boswell followed a similar routine. In 1763, he described his morning meal in his diary:
The maid lays a milk-white napkin upon the table and sets the things for breakfast. I then take some light amusing book and breakfast and read for an hour or more, gently pleasing both my palate and my mental taste.
C. S. Lewis savored the very same combination. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, he wrote, “eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere.” I know just the one!
A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT PAID SUBSCRIPTIONS
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While I’m on the subject: Thanks to all of you who have become paid subscribers so far, your patronage means a ton! And thanks to everyone who’s been reading along these last two and half years; over the weekend, I passed 10K total subscribers, a happy milestone.
A NECESSARY, NEUTRAL INTERVAL
The letter above mentions that Jansson and Pietilä slept in separate beds in their summer cottage. In Helsinki, they carried this arrangement even further, keeping individual apartments separated by an attic that they would traverse for conversations, meals, and movie nights. In Fair Play, Jansson lends this same arrangement to their fictional alter-egos Mari and Jonna. Here are the first two paragraphs of the book’s second chapter:
They lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s-land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side. Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains. She could pause on the way to listen to the rain on the metal roof, look out across the city as it lit its lights, or just linger for the pleasure of it.
They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. 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.
I wish I’d found this description when I was investigating coworking artist couples in 2020—it’s a perfect realization of the separate-yet-together condition that so many have sought.
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