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The Tove Jansson Centennial Conference

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Issue number: 2015:1


The Tove Jansson Centennial Conference:

Multiple Aesthetics, Passion, Politics and Philosophy

by Silvester Mazzarella

The Tove Jansson Centennial Conference, held in Stockholm on 27 and 28 November 2014, was organised and moderated by Boel Westin, Professor of Literature and the History of Ideas in the University of Stockholm, and writer of the authorised biography Tove Jansson: Ord, bild, liv, Bonniers 2007; published in English translation by Silvester Mazzarella as Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, Sort of Books 2014. Supported by the Foundation for Research in Humanities and Social Sciences of the National Bank of Sweden, the Conference was held in the Aula Magna of the University of Stockholm, and opened by the Vice-Chancellor of Stockholm University, Astrid Söderbergh Widding. The proceedings were held entirely in English.

Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson


A brief general introduction by Professor Westin was followed by the first morning’s papers, starting with Mayumi Tomihara (Professor of Philosophy in the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo and author of six books on Tove’s work), who was assisted by the publisher Hiroko Yokokawa in introducing Garm the People’s Watchdog, her pioneering study of the satirical periodical in which Tove Jansson developed her skill as a cartoonist in Finland during the politically troubled 1930s and 1940s. Next Joachim Schiedermaier (Professor of Modern Scandinavian Literature in the University of Greifswald, near the Baltic sea in north-eastern Germany) took a Freudian look at the Moomin world’s ‘Desire for Disasters and Catastrophes’, before the first morning’s proceedings were completed by Hugh S. Pyper (Professor of Biblical Interpretation in the University of Sheffield), who examined the Biblical foundations of the twin poles of anxiety and comfort in the Moominland narratives.

After a light lunch no less healthy than it was delicious, also in the Aula Magna building, Rikke Platz Cortsen (working at the University of Copenhagen on time and place in contemporary Nordic comics), drew attention in her ‘Whither the Moomin Valley – Sense of Place in the Moomin Comic Strips’ to the preference in the strips for long stories rather than four-picture episodes, using a variety of narrative techniques – not just dialogue ?– to convey action. She was followed by Elina Druker (a Stockholm University specialist in children’s literature) who concentrated in her paper, ‘The Tail Outside the Frame: Margins and Frames in the Moomin Comic Strips’, detecting a possible forerunner for Tove’s creative use of margins and frames in the seventeenth-century Flemish baroque painter Frans Francken.

Also interested in visual influences from the past was Sirke Happonen (University of Helsinki), noting among other things, in her ‘Perceptions of Nature in Tove Jansson’s Work’, traces of the nineteenth-century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich in Moominpappa at Sea, and the effect of Elsa Beskow and Walter Crane on Tove’s drawing of flowers. The first day’s programme was then completed with a presentation and screening by the Finnish film director Charlotte Airas of her 100-minute documentary Prisoner in Moomin Valley which concentrated on Tove’s extensive and often undervalued non-Moomin artistic work. The 45 or so official delegates then adjourned for a delicious dinner at a restaurant in Kungsholmen, the menu decorated with a sketch of Little My sitting aggressively on what looks like an unremarkable slice of cheese on a plate.

To start the second day Sophia Jansson, daughter of Tove’s brother Lars and now Creative Director of Moomin Characters Ltd of Helsinki, presented a series of photographs and paintings showing Tove in a family setting at various times in her life. Then Ulf Stark, one of Sweden’s best-known current writers for children, in ‘Hattifatteners – The True Story’, meditated loosely on what Moomin describes as ‘small white sausages filled with nothing’, the drifting mass of curiously impersonal creatures, without feelings or gender but animated by electrical force. Then Janina Orlov (a specialist in children’s literature at Stockholm University, literary translator from Russian, and wife of Ulf Stark) in ‘Laws are Always a Bother’ examined conflicts between law and justice in the Moomin stories, including the law of the jungle and the formal trial scene in Finn Family Moomintroll.

Angelika Nix (sometime lecturer in the Scandinavian Institute at Freiburg University, Germany, and now working in the Netherlands at The Hague), described in ‘All Ages in Moominvalley: the Concept of Age in Tove Jansson’s Moomin Books’, how in the Moomin world no one grows up or ages and there is no sex or death. She traced parallels in the ‘improving’ children’s stories of an earlier generation that aimed to reassure children while at the same time instructing them, and also traced links with more recent feminist and post-colonial writing. To complete the second morning MaijaLiisa Harju (McGill University, Montreal) a Canadian of Finnish ancestry, described in ‘Longing at the Borders of Childhood and Adulthood: Tove Jansson and Crossover Culture’ how her own background had inspired her with a particular interest in the many kinds of borders and crossovers in Tove’s work. She claimed that Tove wrote for no particular age or audience, and that the resulting cross-reading of her work by both children and adults encourages self-knowledge, empathy and a search for personal identity.

Then, after a light lunch the equal of that of the previous day, Björn Sundmark (Professor of English Literature in the University of Malmö) recalled the powerful effect on him in childhood of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit in the now little-remembered 1962 Swedish edition illustrated by Tove Jansson. Though well reviewed at the time, this soon went out of print, possibly because a change of fashion in the perception of fantasy literature demanded a different style of illustrations. Next Juhani Tolvanen, an expert on comics from Helsinki, in ‘We are Going to be Enormously Rich – Moomin and the Conquest of the World’, looked at the financial success of the strip cartoons drawn by Tove and later by her brother Lars, and also at the subsequent huge international popularity of Moomin merchandise.

Three translators who have all translated books by Tove into their own languages – as well as Boel Westin’s biography of Tove – discussed relevant problems they had met, guided by Janina Orlov: these were Anelya Petrunova from the Univerity of Sofia in Bulgaria, Jaana Nikula from Finland, and Silvester Mazzarella from the United Kingdom. Helen Svensson, for ten years Tove’s editor at Schildts (her Swedish-language publishers in Helsinki), discussed the publication of Tove’s letters with Boel Westin and Janina Orlov. The nine-hour official proceedings of the second day were completed with a presentation and screening by the Scottish writer and film director Eleanor Yule of her 2012 BBC film Moominland Tales, the Life of Tove Jansson. It was interesting to learn that this beautiful film with its extremely powerful sense of place and atmosphere was restricted to Tove’s life in Helsinki and the Pellinge Archipelago in Finland, only because the BBC’s budget would not stretch to filming in the many other countries where Tove travelled and worked.

The Conference then moved to another part of the campus to round off two inspiring and delightful days over a generous ‘Italian buffet’ in the home of the Stockholm University Department of Literature and the History of Ideas.

It has not yet been decided whether it will be possible to publish a collection of abstracts as many have requested, but more will be heard about this in early 2015.


Silvester Mazzarella is a translator and biographical researcher who lives in Canterbury, UK. 

He has written about translating Boel Westin's biography, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (Sort of Books, 2014) for Shiny New Books.

His Tove Jansson translations include the volume of stories Travelling Light (Sort of Books, 2010).