‘Fair Play’ by Tove Jansson

For many, many years, Scandavian artist Tove Jansson’s internationally popular children’s books, the Moomin books, included the biography that Jansson lived alone. In truth, she lived with her lifelong companion and mate, the filmmaker and artist Tuulikki Pietila. Here are two women who lived Jansson’s steadfast motto–labora et amare; work and love–to the fullest every day. The art on the cover of this translation from the New York Review of Books is a painting of Jansson’s that may say it all–a short haired woman in plain clothes, with thick glasses on her face, studying a drafting table, the walls crowded with prints. The painting is titled Portrait of Tuulikki Pietila, Paris, c. 1975. Jansson did not come to write fiction for adults until her later years, but in Fair Play (NYRB Classics), she turns her satisfying minimalist prose to the life she and Tuulikki were able to create for themselves.  Beautiful attention is given here to the unsung relationship, to growing older, and of course, to the marriage of love and work.

In seventeen tightly knit vignettes, we meet Mari and Jonna, a pair of artists who live across from each other on the same apartment floor. With dialogue that feels nearly theatrical, considering the amount of grace and weight it communicates, each story reveals Jonna and Mari, as characters and as partners. Even in conflict, Mari and Jonna know each other deeply. The stories are a beautiful homage to the intimacy of space–living space, work space, outdoor space, and emotional space.

It’s a gift to slow down time to the moments Jansson chooses to distill in these stories. The scenes we find Mari and Jonna in are seemingly benign, but packed in consideration and companionship. They choose a movie to watch in the evening. They worry about the cat having enough food on the island where they’re summering. They argue about the structure of a story Mari is writing. In a literary world where fast pace, meta chronology, and page-turning drama rule the day, Jansson’s simple, moving portrait of love and conflict every day is a revelation. You can almost hear the quiet that accompanies these women’s days and adventures. Yet in this quiet, Mari and Jonna’s lives are made so real and so down to earth that they become quite unforgettable.

The tension and pull of Mari and Jonna’s conversations reveal a life and a love unlike much we’ve seen in queer contemporary literature. While there is bickering, and some confession, there is rarely doubt. And Jansson is a master of slipping from present dialogue to the thoughts of one woman or the other, so the reader is always caught up in the women’s companionship. While they are caught rowing through a quick fog, Jonna notices Mari is cold and tells her to row a little to keep warm. When Mari is chided for judging Jonna’s love of B Western films, she goes to bed, and concedes by asking Jonna if she can watch a B Western with her sometime. Resolution is so subtle and human in these stories. It’s a beautiful sight to behold.

All the while, there lies labora et amare, the thread that runs through all one hundred pages of the slim collection. When discussing the lives of their fathers (both named Viktor), Jonna remarks, “We never asked, never tried to find out about the things that were really important. We didn’t have time. What was it we were so busy with?”

“Work probably,” Mari answers. “And falling in love–that takes an awful lot of time.”

Fair Play
by Tove Jansson
NYRB Press
Paperback,9781590173787, 120 pp.
March 2011