Friday, 29 November 2013

Book Review: Fair Play by Tove Jansson the season suggests, on my tour around the European continent I’m moving today from Hungary northwards to Finland, the home country of Santa Claus and his reindeers. Every year millions of letters addressed to the white-bearded gentleman in red are delivered to Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi at the Arctic Circle where he resides according to legend. However, I’m not going to review a Christmas novel – not yet. Instead I picked a book by a writer belonging to the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland: Fair Play by Tove Jansson. The author’s international fame is based above all on her stories for children revolving around the Moomins, but she also wrote noteworthy novels and short narratives for adults like the work which I’m reviewing today.

Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki, then Grand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire, in August 1914. After her arts studies in Sweden and France she made her living as a writer, painter, illustrator, and cartoonist. In 1945 she brought out The Moomins and the Great Flood (Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen) which was the first in the series of Moomin novels, picture books and comic strips produced over 25 years. Then Tove Jansson‘s dedicated herself to adult fiction producing among others the novels The Summer Book (Sommarboken: 1972), Sun City (Solstaden: 1974), The True Deceiver (Den ärliga bedragaren: 1982), and Fair Play (Rent spel: 1989) as well as several collections of short stories like The Listener (Lyssnerskan; 1971), Art in Nature (Dockskåpet och andra berättelser: 1978; also translated as The Dollhouse and Other Stories), Travelling Light (Resa med lätt bagage: 1987), and A Winter Book (Meddelande: 1998). All along she was also a highly successful painter. Tove Jansson died in Helsinki, Finland, in June 2001.

The protagonists of Fair Play are Mari and Jonna, a writer-illustrator and a filmmaker-graphic artist in their early seventies, who are living somewhere at the Baltic Sea, presumably Helsinki and one of the small islands off the Finnish coast respectively depending on the season. They have been close friends – companions – since childhood and share their lives dwelling
“… 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.” 
A series of seventeen seemingly unimportant episodes as can occur on any ordinary day shows how the two women managed to work and live together for so long without losing respect, admiration and love for each other. From the very beginning it becomes clear that allowing each other space has a key role in it. It’s a prerequisite for them to thrive, to simply be themselves and to go their own artistic ways with the support of the other, yet without her unasked meddling.
 “And over the years, [Mari]’d learned not to interfere with Jonna’s plans and their mysterious blend of perfectionism and nonchalance, a mix not everyone can properly appreciate. Some people just shouldn’t be disturbed in their inclinations, whether large or small. A reminder can instantly turn enthusiasm into aversion and spoil everything.” (Changing Pictures) 
Mari and Jonna know the capricious nature of all creative urge. Between them there’s no need to talk about it, no need to explain sudden irascibility and unrest or the unexpected wish for retreat and solitude. They are familiar with each other’s habits and moods before, during and after the act of creating a new piece of art. They understand and do as bid because for both it’s best that way. After all, each one appreciates and admires the work of the other, its power and uniqueness, but also the thought and effort put into 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.” (Videomania) 
However, each one of the elderly women is a person of her own right and none of them is prone to submissiveness. So it goes without saying that they aren’t always of one mind and that they quarrel like every couple. In the end, they always sort things out one way or another. Life taught them that they can’t control everything and that sometimes it’s better to let go. They are painfully aware of getting older and of their dwindling strength. They go on living together and travelling together, but at the same time Mari and Jonna have each a life of her own, a life filled with friendship and love.

In Fair Play Tove Jansson produced a very fine and calm piece of literature about creativity and the life-long friendship of two women trying to reconcile life and art in their relationship. Fairness and playfulness are the essential qualities evoked from beginning to end. In a strict sense the slim book is a collection of seventeen vignettes, but the short stories are interweaved and combine to a character study of the two protagonists, a fact which makes it seem justified just as well to call it a novel. There’s no elaborate plot linking the stories and all things considered there isn’t happening much in Fair Play. On the other hand, the psychological conditions of the artist as well as the creative process itself get much room in it and form kind of a red thread. The author’s style is clear and unpretentious at first sight, but the stories use to have a philosophical dimension, too, which isn’t always obvious and which therefore may be less accessible to a quick reader.

For me Fair Play by Tove Jansson was an easy and light read in which I often recognized myself as an artist. I enjoyed the calm stories of everyday life very much and it was nice to see the relationship of two women depicted as true friendship instead of a never ending series of stupid intrigues. Consequently I recommend the book for reading.


  1. I'm so glad that you've discovered Tove Jansson - this is actually my least favourite of her books, and I still love it! I believe it was very autobiographical. My favourites are the short story collection A Winter Book and the slightly darker novel The True Deceiver.

    1. Actually, I would have liked to read The True Deceiver, but couldn't get it in any of the shops here. My choice was more or less limited to The Summer Book and Fair Play. Somehow it seemed a bit sarcastic to review a summer book at a time of year when snow is just around the corner - and so I came to review Fair Play.

      Certainly the stories have a very autobiographical touch, but Tove Jansson declared them to be fiction and I believe her. The challenge of writing (good) fiction is to use your own experience and put it into a plot which you could have lived in reality, but haven't in fact.


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