“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”
This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”
Tove Jansson is most often recognized as a children’s author and illustrator—the visionary behind those delightful marshmallow hippos called “Moomins.” Her adult novels, which she didn’t begin publishing until she was nearly 60, have until recently remained very much in the shadow of the Moomin legacy. Fair Play is the most recent of Jansson’s ‘adult’ novels that New York Review Books has brought into English translation, following last year’s True Deceiver and 2008’s The Summer Book. The collection picks up two of the major thematic elements that run through each of its predecessors, namely the relationship between two women, explored against the back drop of a remote, idyllic setting. (True Deceiver was set in a snow-bound mountain village; The Summer Book on a small island in the Finnish gulf.) And as with the previous NYRB titles, Fair Play also draws on autobiographical inspiration: in this case, Jansson’s lifelong relationship with her partner, a Finnish artist and scholar named Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived for the better part of 40 years.
Each chapter in Fair Play serves as a snapshot, a brief window into the relationship between the frank and opinionated Jonna and the reserved and introspective Mari. Their day-to-day lives are quiet and happily mundane: they watch Fassbinder movies instead of going to dinner at a friend’s in the evening (with all its “pointless chatter about inessentials”). They re-hang pictures. They travel frequently, though their points of destination are often less than glamorous. On one trip through the American southwest, they spend a few nights at a local bar in Phoenix, Arizona; while in Corsica, one of their main destinations is a cemetery. They bicker frequently, and aren’t above childish jealousy or the occasional resentment. But mostly, they work, comfortable enough with the constancy of the other’s presence and support to spend the majority of their days writing and painting alone.
In “Videomania,” we’re told that Jonna and Mari “. . . 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 . . . 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.
It’s in the couple’s companionable solitude that Jansson defines her ethos of artistic creation, a deeply felt belief about the importance of maintaining one’s personal life without sacrificing her creative work, and the substantial space that is required to successfully balance both spheres.
Despite the quietude of Fair Play, it is nevertheless a work of remarkable courage. Jansson’s is not the flashy sort of artistic boldness that proclaims itself by way of constant transparency and self-revelation. Rather, she is brave enough to occasionally withhold information, to provide confidential glimpses into her characters’ lives, while still maintaining a distance from them—a sort of respectful privacy. She doesn’t outline the women’s romantic lives—we don’t find them in bed together, or even see them embrace. Jonna and Mari don’t articulate their love for each other directly, although they certainly reflect on their feelings internally.
Fair Play is after all, a book about separation and space as much as it is about intimacy. “We need distance,” Jonna tells Mari, “it’s essential.” The reader is allowed a closeness to these remarkable women, but in the end, their relationship is like any one in real life: private and fully known only to those who are within it.