The painter who wrote: Tove Jansson’s letters


Tove Jansson was born 102 years ago today. Her letters were published in the original Swedish for her centenary, and you can read extracts in English translation by David McDuff at the Books from Finland archive. They are a treasure trove, not least because of their illustrations, like this one to her friend Atos Wirtanen, showing her plans for an artists’ colony in Morocco.

When I read the letters in Jaana Nikula’s Finnish translation, I was delighted that we didn’t just share a birthday. Tove wrote to her partner of 45 years, Tuulikki Pietilä, that they really should make more effort to speak Finnish; perhaps they should have a fixed day of the week for that? That was in the 1980s, as I remember…

Here’s an extract of McDuff’s translation of one of Tove’s letters to Tuulikki from their island summer cottage:

“Late at night I brewed kilju [moonshine] in the ‘best’ water bucket and augmented the recipe with all our raisins.

It was a wonderful night, calm and breathless, and I still could not believe you were gone, I kept constantly half turning round to see what you were doing, to say something to you.

Today a strong south-westerly is blowing, and we would have found it hard to get into the Bay. You are probably far better off deep in the city’s universal hub and rushing about in heat and irritation to get everything organised before you set off.

That first day in town is usually such a nasty contrast to the island life out here. Everything that has been lying in wait comes crashing down on one like a shock, and in the evening one misses the sound of the sea and feels quite disoriented.

Wherever I go on the island you are with me like a reassurance and a stimulus, your joy and vitality remain everywhere. And I if I went away from here you would come with me. You see, I love you simultaneously enchanted and with great calm, and I am not afraid of anything that may be in store for us. This evening I filled the tub with water from the big vat and tried to pick out that dreadful Sea Eagle Waltz on the accordion. You will hear! Now I’m going to read Karin Boye and then go to sleep – goodnight, beloved.”

In a photo from the moomin website, here they are together on that very island.


Translator, editor, writer, reader

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Posted in Illustration, literature, Tove Jansson Centenary, translation

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