Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin, translated by Silvester Mazzarella

Tove Jansson by Boel Westin cover

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A queer, iconoclast, anti-fascist, anti-war comic artist, and joyfully adventurous woman, the Tove Jansson brought to life by Boel Westin’s considered pen is a complicated, innovative creative in resolute pursuit of independence—in both her art and romances.

Meticulously researched but rarely dry, this is a book for Moomin fans and art history lovers alike. It provides a deep look into both the personal life and recorded experiences of Tove Jansson, as well as the historical circumstances that gave rise to her singular artistic vision—which was, it turns out, far more oriented towards painting than illustration.*

While the book focuses more on literary-minded analysis of Jansson’s illustrations (including examining the events that inspired them, namely her formative experiences in the wake of the first world war and under the shadow of the second) than the technical aspects (past a chapter dedicated to her years at art school), its cross-sectional look at the cultures of the particular artistic milieus she inhabited during her life helps provide further insight into her inspirations.

There’s a sincere affection for her subject in Westin’s writing, but it never reads as overly fawning or glamorizing. Readers will feel like they’re walking through a gallery, looking through windows at an artist as she grows through painstaking practice and experience.

One of the loveliest things about biographies is that they remind us how we’re not alone.** Sometimes what becomes globally iconic starts off humble, and critically panned. Westin doesn’t shy away from Jansson’s early struggles, and it’s that grounding that makes what could easily become a fairytale-style homily to creative perseverance—she lived and worked in a literal tower for most of her life—into something much more real.

As a kid, I was obsessed with the Moomin books. The soft, rounded shapes were so tactile in my mind’s eye, and the stories had this sense of being about something bigger and just a teensy smidge darker than they immediately let on. Returning to that world decades later, I’ve found myself bookmarking some of the pages to revisit when I need a bit of a pick-me-up regarding my own aspirations. Westin’s elaboration of Jansson’s ambitions and struggles will likely hold meaning for modern creatives, illustrators in particular. The book does not shy from going into frank detail on Jansson’s need for financial independence to pursue her singular vision, and her later efforts to maintain control of how her art was presented, particularly once the popularity of the Moomin books brought an avalanche of possible licensing deals down on her doorstep. The descriptions of her fierce dedication to preserving her integrity as a creator are inspiring. Even as Jansson’s whimsy is celebrated here, so too is her ambition in equal measure.

In summary, this biography shines a light on the human behind the characters, and her love of compassionate, thoughtful, boundary-pushing stories on the page and in her own life. While it clocks in at nearly 500 pages, it’s well worth checking out if you want to read about:

  • Biographies of sapphic artists
  • Biographies of sapphic comic artists/illustrators
  • Biographies that humanize their subjects through detailed study
  • The history behind the Moomin books
  • The way art is both deeply individual and a reflection of the world the artist inhabits
  • Post-war European art outside of the more well-trodden English-French perspective: Next time someone asks me if I’m familiar with Francis Bacon, I’m asking them if they’re familiar with Tove Jansson.

You can now order the book from the University of Minnesota Press!

Footnotes:

*Reading this book gave me new appreciation for the 2020 biopic Tove, which focuses on her life and career just before the first Moomin books really took off. It’s a delightful homage to her passion for painting, too, as well as earlier romantic partnerships that this websites’ readers might not know as well as the one with Tuulikki Pietilä. It’s streaming now on Kanopy, for anyone interested.

**As Jansson’s diary entries reveal, it appears that queer horror-loving women are not a recent phenomenon!

Decadence and Decay: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary (March 5, 2024) is a considered, sorrowful, masterfully atmospheric story about mourning and the costs of surviving outside of society’s protective frameworks. It is also the story of two women in conflict with their inherited and inherent longings around family, companionship and intimacy—one from the past and one from sometime like our present.

Echoes of old-school gothic—in the vein of Rachilde or Poe—permeate Yuszczuk’s prose. And much like those bygone writers, her story is one that poetically captures the complicated moralities of relationships entangled in sociopolitical and material histories.

This is not a vampire romance in the modern sense. The seductions are married to viscera-spilling violence, the decadence marred by decay*, and a sense of bated unsettlement lingers over both the streets and lives our first narrator moves through in her quest for survival. Though she has centuries of experience, she is not immune to the same vices she exploits in others, and is in turn refreshingly slow to condemn them.

The second narrator is much less glamorous. A recent divorcee who’s barely coping with her mother’s terminal illness and hospitalization, our second narrator is struggling but refuses to admit that her white-knuckling isn’t sustainable. That she cannot go on as she always has, that relationships cannot continue in a state of suspended animation. While the past is punctuated by conclusive events and deaths, the present lingers—plastic flowers and medical equipment keep memories alive past well-meaning. We feel the narrator’s frustration, her alienation and desperation and heartache.

I enjoyed the narrators’ lack of hypocrisy and abundance of interiority. I also appreciated how the novel retains all of their dark and stylistic delight, without the aching inconclusiveness or censor-friendly endings of its pulpy and gothic paperback predecessors—even if the title and cover art are practically begging for an appositive colon.

It’s a clever title, and a colloquial pun. But Yuszczuk’s novel complicates the construction of lust as a base instinct on par with hunger or titular thirst. Lust, desire, eroticism and art are all defiant distractions from the inevitable, and their fulfillment requires the sort of communication and connection that those most basic activities do not.

The second half deals more with grief and more clearly reveals veins of Sheridan Le Fanu’s influence. Some of the scenes reminded me of reading Carmilla for the first time. The tension, the confusion, the delicate language building into bloody, sensual intimacy that is hardly explicit but unquestionably erotic.

Thirst is the sort of book that benefits from second reading or a slow first one. It’s not heavy-handed, but it would be a rich digestif to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 opus—and is more than a little likely to appeal to fans of that book. While most of the women’s anxieties are tangible and described in grounded detail, their phantastic responses (as well as the ways wealth, privilege, generational fears and architecture are represented) squarely situate this work within the gothic tradition. I also take this as a historical win— we’re past the period when “hysteria” was a valid diagnosis and when women had to veil lived traumas under layers of metaphor.

As with most translated literature, particularly ones that are heavily descriptive, subtly humorous, or in conversation with historical works, there is a chance that a little something may have been lost in translation. And while I haven’t yet read the original, I can attest that Heather Cleary’s translation maintains a lush, tactile lyricism that swept me into the history, even when the perspective was contemporary enough to reference the recent Coronavirus pandemic. 

The vibes were, to put it succinctly, immaculate.

Content warnings: violence, euthanasia

*Some might argue that the close juxtaposition of decay only heightens decadence by contrast. I personally feel that it’s more about how people seek out beauty and small pleasures even in dreary circumstances, but you do you.