I Long to Read More in the Book of You: Moomins Creator Tove Jansson’s Tender and Passionate Letters to the Love of Her Life
By Maria Popova
“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured,” says Too-ticky, trying to comfort the lost and frightened Moomintroll under the otherworldly light of the aurora borealis.
A decade after Tove Jansson (August 9, 1914–June 27, 2001) dreamt up her iconic Moomin series — one of those works of philosophy disguised as children’s books, populated by characters with the soulful wisdom of The Little Prince, the genial sincerity of Winnie-the-Pooh, and the irreverent curiosity of the Peanuts — she dreamt up Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley, warmhearted and eccentric and almost unbearably lovable.
Too-ticky came aglow in Jansson’s artistic imagination from the same spark that galvanized Emily Dickinson’s poetry — her adoration of the woman who was already becoming the love of her life.
At the 1955 Christmas party of Helsinki’s Artists’ Guild, Jansson found herself drawn to the record player, impelled to take over the evening’s music. Another artist — the Seattle-born Finnish engraver, printmaker, and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä — was impelled to do the same. They shared the jubilant duty. I picture the two of them at the turntable, sipping spiced wine in rapt, bobbing deliberation over which of the year’s hits to put on next — the year when rock and roll had just been coined, the year of Nat King Cole’s “If I May,” Elvis’s “Baby Let’s Play House,” and Doris Day’s “Love Me or Leave Me.” I picture them glancing at each other with the thrill of that peculiar furtive curiosity edged with longing, having not a glimmering sense — for we only ever recognize the most life-altering moments in hindsight — that they were in the presence of great love, a love that would last a lifetime. Tove was forty-one, Tooti thirty-eight. They would remain together for the next half century, until death did them part.
The tender delirium of their early love and the magmatic core of their lifelong devotion emanate from the pages of Letters from Tove (public library) — the altogether wonderful collection of Jansson’s correspondence with friends, family, and other artists, spanning her meditations on the creative process, her exuberant cherishment of the natural world and of what is best in human beings, her unfaltering love for Tooti. What emerges, above all, is the radiant warmth of her personhood — this person of such uncommon imagination, warmhearted humor, and stubborn buoyancy of spirit, always so thoroughly herself, who as a young woman had declared to her mother:
I’ve got to become free myself if I’m to be free in my painting.
In a soaring letter penned in the first days of their first summer together, while Tooti was on mainland Finland for a residency and Tove was home on the small island in the Borgå archipelago where she spent her summers, she writes:
I miss you so dreadfully. Not in a desperate or melancholy way, because I know we shall soon be with each other again, but I feel at such a loss and just can’t get it into my head that you’re not around any more. This morning, half awake, I put a hand out to feel for you, then remembered you weren’t there, so I got up very quickly to escape the emptiness. And worked all day.
After sharing the mundanities that make a shared life — mundanities radiating her sweetness of spirit: reports of bringing home some mud for the swallows from the nearby bay, reports of using up all the raisins, “all our raisins,” on a batch of the home-brewed Finnish kilju — she loops back to the bittersweetness of Tooti’s absence:
It was a fine night, calm and quiet, and I still couldn’t take it in that you weren’t here, kept half turning round to see what you were doing or to say something to you.
Wherever I go on the island, you’re with me as my security and stimulation, your happiness and vitality are still here, everywhere. And if I left here, you would go with me. You see, I love you as if bewitched, yet at the same time with profound calm, and I’m not afraid of anything life has in store for us.
The following day — a gloomy, rainy day, with the encircling sea “grey and austere” — Tove tells Tooti that while hauling stones to build a fire terrace, she began conceiving of a new Moomin story — “a story about the sea and different sorts of solitude.” A decade later, that idea would become Pappan och havet, literally translated as “the father and the sea,” but published in English as Moominpappa at Sea — the most soulful and contemplative of the Moomin stories. (How much of the history of art and science is strewn with the private storms and solitudes of its creators, invisible to the eye that beholds the resulting creation — the echoes of Herman Melville’s unrequited love in Moby-Dick, the shadows of Ernst Haeckel’s staggering loss in his scientific obsession and its artistic halo, the ruddering role of Rachel Carson’s love for Dorothy in the making of the environmental movement.)
But even this grey solitude is aglow with Tove’s love for Tooti. In a passage from the same letter that begins with a poetic piece of koan-like logic, she writes:
It always tends to be easier to go than to stay — even if you’re happy being with the one you are leaving.
Waiting is a sheer pleasure when it’s for you — and the calm awareness that all I have to do is add together a number of days, and we’ll see each other again.
After a disarming veer into the pragmatic thoughtfulnesses that sweeten a shared life — “Thank you for the fly swatter my darling, it seems extremely effective.” — she adds:
I’m so unused to being happy that I haven’t really come to terms with what it involves. Suddenly my arms are heaped full of new opportunities, new harmony, new expectations. I feel like a garden that’s finally been watered, so my flowers can bloom.
A week later, as Tove patiently awaits her beloved but misses her more and more achingly, she echoes philosopher Simone Weil’s observation that “those who do not love each other are not separated” and writes:
Summer is moving on through its stages and sometimes I feel so melancholy that you aren’t here. But perhaps it’s good to have a bit of distance between us. I know now that I couldn’t possibly be more attached to you, in a harmonious and happy way that can only grow stronger and more tender.
But I’ve known that all along.
The following week, she composes a gorgeous letter aglow with the sentiment at the heart of every marital vow:
Now my adored relations have finally gone to sleep, strewn about in the most unlikely sleeping places, the chatter has died down, the storm too, and I can talk to you.
Thank you for your letter, which felt like a happy hug. Oh yes, my Tuulikki, you have never given me anything but warmth, love and good cheer.
Isn’t it remarkable, and seriously wonderful, that there’s still not a single shadow between us? And you know what, the best thing of all is that I’m not afraid of the shadows. When they come (as I suppose they must, for all those who care for one another), I think we can maneuver our way through them.
And then, in one of those touching Toveisms, she pivots on a happy heel from the breathtakingly romantic to the pragmatically, affectionately blunt:
If you write in Finnish, please could you be a dear and use the typewriter; your handwriting’s a bit tricky sometimes.
Then, just as nimbly and joyously, she pivots right back to the romantic:
I miss those quiet June days when you were piecing together your mosaic or whittling away at some knotty bit of wood and it was possible to listen, contemplate and explore how we felt.
Tuulikki, I long to read more in the book of you. I long for you in every way, and I’m more alone with all these people around me than when I was wandering about on my own, thinking of you.
She ends the letter with the first tentative drawing of Too-ticky, which she describes to Tooti as “a new little creature that isn’t quite sure if it’s allowed to come in!” before signing the letter “Your Tove.” The strange and wondrous creature did come in — into Tove’s heart, into the Moomin universe — and never left.
Complement this fragment of the thoroughly delightful Letters from Tove with other masterpieces from the canon of great love letters by luminaries of creative culture: Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert, Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokova, Iris Murdoch to Brigit Brophy, Hannah Arendt to Martin Heidegger, John Cage to Merce Cunningham, Kahlil Gibran to Mary Haskell, Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Oscar Wilde to Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.
Published June 12, 2020