This special issue marks the centenary of the Finno-Swedish author Tove Jansson (pronounced TOO-vee YAA-nsson), best known internationally as the creator of the Moomin figures, but also a renowned novelist and short-story writer, painter, and cartoonist, one of the most prominent twentieth-century cultural figures in Finland.
When you travel from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, the last Finnish town before you cross the border is called Hamina. Perhaps you have lunch at the town hotel, Seurahuone. You go upstairs to the splendid Marshal Hall to see a huge mural painting by Tove Jansson. It is a peaceful, decorative painting showing the life of ordinary people in the little garrison town where thousands of young men of Finland were trained to become officers in the Russian Czars’ army at the time when Finland was the Czar’s personal Grand Duchy, formally not a part of Imperial Russia.
When you cross the border into Russia, you enter the beautiful landscape of old Karelia, which Stalin forcibly annexed from Finland. This is the magnificent landscape that Sibelius evokes in “Alla marcia” in his famous Karelia Suite. Then you continue through the squalid city of Viborg, once the legendary, affluent second-largest city of Finland. Finally, you arrive in one of the world’s most illustrious cities, St. Petersburg.
You will have thus experienced Tove Jansson’s world and the story of her life. The mural at the hotel in Hamina is a reminder that, although she certainly was a decent painter, her name would hardly have become known outside Finland if she hadn’t developed her art as a cartoonist and created the ingenious world of the Moomins.
Finland’s young military trainees in Hamina, Alvar Aalto’s internationally acclaimed Modernist library building in Viborg, and the literary heyday in Czarist St. Petersburg, all remind us that Tove Jansson’s background is not just a small country far away in the north. This country was culturally a part of one of the world’s largest empires, and this heritage differs from [End Page v] what we find in the other Nordic countries. Finland shared the same cultural bonds with Western Europe, but it was also influenced by the radical Russian culture in the beginning of the twentieth century. Literary modernism thus entered Finland earlier than the rest of Scandinavia.
The ancient Swedish speaking minority in Finland constitutes merely 300,000 of the country’s population of five million, but it has played a significant role in its history. Most of the Finno-Swedes do not differ socially from the rest of the country’s population, but of tradition the economic and cultural elite had its roots there, and to a certain extent it is still the case. Tove Jansson’s mother was an artist, and her father was a famous sculptor.
When Tove Jansson was born, Finland still belonged to the czar. During her lifetime, she experienced the Finnish renaissance as an independent republic, followed by two wars when everyone knew that loss implied the same dreadful fate as the three Baltic states: terror, dictatorship, mass deportations—including young children—to Siberia, and extermination of the country’s intellectuals. The author of the idyllic Moomin books lived through five years of this concrete threat over her and her people. Misery and war sometimes provide good soil for the creation of an idyll.
After the war, Finland observed the economic catastrophe of its closest neighbor, Estonia, while Finland itself gradually joined the wealthy Western Europe.
All this was a part of Tove Jansson’s life experience.
Many Swedes of the older generation first encountered the Moomin world through comics, which were published both in major newspapers and in those of small provincial towns. Tove Jansson, the painter, placed her characters in a seemingly simple, but in fact sophisticated visual world that conquered country after country and paved the way for her books.
Moomin Valley is accessible through the world’s major languages. Yet Tove Jansson’s versatility as a verbal artist is perhaps easiest to perceive for Swedish-speaking readers. The Exploits of Moominpapa (1950), for instance, is full of linguistic playfulness that not even the most...