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Rereading: Fair Play by Tove Jansson

Fair Play by Tove Jansson


Tove simmar på Klovharun

Photos: 1. My own. 2. Klovharu, or Haru, Tove & Tuulikka’s atoll-shaped island on the Gulf of Finland. Photo: Per Olov Jansson © Moomin Characters™. 3. Tove Jansson. Photo: Per Olov Jansson © Moomin Characters™

 “Jonna had a happy habit of waking each morning as if to a new life which stretched before her straight through to evening, clean, untouched, rarely shadowed by yesterday’s worries and mistakes.”

I‘ve wanted to re-read Fair Play ever since I read Denise’s beautiful response to it at the start of the year (you can read my original thoughts from back in 2007 here). And, as I knew it would be, it was an afternoon well spent. Reading Tove Jansson is like drinking a glass of the clearest, iced water: purifying, refreshing, invigorating.

Fair Play is a book about art and love, and how to bring those two together to make a life. Except in Jansson, art is always given its due as both work and play: there is no art without work. Famous for her children’s books about the Finn Family Moomintroll, Jansson turned to writing for adults when she was in her 50s. Fair Play was her ninth work for adults, first published in 1989 when she was in her mid-70s; Sort Of Books brought out Thomas Teal’s English translation in 2007. In Jansson’s own words,

“Fair Play could in fact be called a novel of friendship, of rather happy tales about two women who share a life of work, delight and consternation. They are very unlike each other, but perhaps that is why they manage to play the game successfully, with patience and, of course, a great deal of love.”

Fair Play original cover copy by Tove Jansson

It’s a slim book — 128 pages — of seventeen vignettes about Mari and Jonna, life companions and artists, who live at opposite ends of the same apartment block in Helsinki and spend their summers together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. The book reflects Jansson’s own relationship with the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, her companion of over forty years. It feels like the distilled wisdom of a life spent working creatively, shot through with reflections on how such a life can be shared with another.

“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.”

Mari and Jonna watch movies — Fassbinder, Truffaut, Bergman, Visconti, Renoir, Wilder & B-Westerns — they work, they argue, they travel together, and contemplate aging and approaching death together. Not much happens in the conventional sense, but yet everything happens. Mari and Jonna get lost in the fog on their boat and restart an old argument about their mothers. When the fog lifts they find they’ve drifted towards Estonia. Jansson, with typical restraint, finishes the chapter with the line, ‘They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.’

And here is Jonna, helping Mari with a short story,

“Read slowly […] Real slow. We need to pay attention. Every time it seems wrong, we stop. Every time we get something like an idea, we’ll stop. Are you ready? Read.”

In an essay on Jansson’s work in The Millions, Sonya Chung points out that ‘a deft shift from third person to first person’ is ‘a fascinating and somewhat frequent feature in Jansson’s fiction’. Here, from the same chapter, ‘Killing George’, is one of these seemless transitions, third to first and back again,

“Jonna filled the teakettle in the bathroom. Looking in the mirror, looking at her own face, she thought with sudden bitterness that it couldn’t go on like this, these short stories that were never finished and just went on and on getting rewritten and discarded and picked up again, all those words that got changed and changed places and I can’t remember how they were yesterday and what’s happened to them today! I’m tired! I’ll go in and tell her, now, right now…For example, I wonder if she could describe me well enough to give people a quick, convincing picture. What could she say? A broad, inhospitable face, lots of wrinkles, brown hair going grey, large nose?

Jonna took in the coffee and said, “Try to describe what I look like.””

And Mari’s response, the answer that gets Jonna fired up to start helping her again? “I’d try to describe a kind of patience. And stubbornness. Somehow bring out the fact that you don’t want anything except…well, except what you want.” One of the pleasures of the book is its depiction of such a long-standing relationship, with all its idiosyncrasies and disagreements, but its firm basis of love.

Jansson’s books are like icebergs: we know that what goes on beneath the surface is far bigger than what we see. Reading her is a lesson in space and editing, in what is left out and what goes unsaid. As Ali Smith observes in the introduction, Jansson writes in ‘a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency’. And what a gift that transparency is, allowing us to see straight to the heart of things, to the everything that lies beneath the nothing much.


Tove Jansson was born in 1914; there is a website to mark her centenary here. I also highly recommend The Summer Book and The True Deceiver, but I see that Sort Of Books has brought out more of her work — so good to have more to explore. In the US, her books are available in beautiful looking editions from NYRB Classics.


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this wonderful book and these endearing characters. You know how I feel about them. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

  2. My first comment disappeared, so I’m going to try again …

    Denise’s blog post prompted me to hunt down the book, and I loved it, copying down in my notebook some of the same passages that you share here. I’m curious about The Millions’ article you reference, and am going to hop over and take a read.

    P.S. Thank you for sharing the photo of Tove Jansson swimming. An inspiration to aging!

  3. I read The Summer Book while stuck in hospital with my son the last two days. How timely to read your post on Fair Play…it’s been a while, might have to find it on the shelf and give it a reread.

    As always, I love to peek into your reading life, Sarah.

    • Thanks, Amanda — I hope all’s well (or at least heading that way) with your son now. Hospital reading is hard, but The Summer Book sounds a good bet. And, yes, do look out Fair Play again — she manages to sneak in so many lessons about writing & creativity that I needed to be reminded of!

      On 9 November 2014 21:46, edge of evening wrote:


  4. I’m familiar with her children’s work, but have never read any of her adult books, so thanks for inspiring me to get hold of a copy!

    • You’ll have to let me know how you get on…and I need to read more of her children’s books — I loved Tales from Moominvalley when I read it, but I’d love to read more of her Moomin books.

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