Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Close encounters with children's writers, part 6

This year marks the centenary of Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomin books. It will be celebrated worldwide, I believe, with new books, conferences, festivals and exhibitions. I have contributed to the academic bit with an edited special issue of a journal, to be published in summer, just in time for the actual hundredth birthday. But I'd better hurry with my personal reminiscences before the web is drowned in Tove Jansson stuff and nobody has energy to read more.

As I have mentioned many times, I am not particularly interested in flesh-and-blood authors, and I have seldom actively tried to meet them unless I had a good reason (such as an interview). Since Tove Jansson lived in Helsinki I couldn't meet her at publisher receptions or the Children’s Book Institute events, where I met many Swedish authors. But it so happened that Staffan wrote a musical together with Vivica Bandler, a famous theatre director and producer, once upon a time Tove Jansson's partner and subsequently a good friend. We were invited to Vivica's birthday party in Helsinki, featuring the cream of Finland's culture, which made me feel very special indeed. It was a relatively small private party, following a huge celebration at the theatre, so inevitably everybody was introduced to everybody else, and when I was introduced to Tove Jansson and explained that I had read her books in Moscow, she clapped her hands and kissed me. She was like that.

About a year later, my colleague Boel Westin defended her doctoral thesis on Tove Jansson, and the study object was the guest of honour. It was a horrible winter day, with sleet and wind, and after the defence and the sparkling I offered to take the defendant and the object home in my car. For some inexplicable reason, I thought that Tove was staying with Boel and drove to her house, opening the back door for Tove and her partner Tuulikki. Tove looked at me with horror: “Are we to go on foot from here?” I realised I'd made a blunder and took them to their hotel. In the evening, at the banquet, I asked Tove to sign three books for my children.

Tove Jansson's eightieth birthday was celebrated loudly in Finland, with a big international conference in Tampere, the location of the Finnish children's books institute. The object of research was there, sitting literally on a throne, crowned with a wreath of flowers. People queued as if in front of royalty, invited one by one to approach, speak and be ushered away. I looked at this and told myself: I have met this wonderful person privately, she has sat in the back seat of my car. Do I really need to stand in line to say some pointless words? And I didn't.

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