Tove Jansson, Fair Play


This is definitely not a new publication! Tove Jansson died in 2001 and this translation was published in 2007. The original Swedish book was published in 1989. However, there is nothing dated about Tove Jansson’s prose and her understanding of human relationships.

While the book is called a novel, the chapters do not follow each other in a linear plot, but look more like vignettes that come to form a coherent whole because of an underlying common foundation. This foundation is made of the shared attitudes of the two main characters, Mari and Jonna, and their attempts to make sense of the world and give their life meaning. My impressions of the book are the following: calmness, gentleness, sort of a dry humor, and a sort of ruthless yet respectful directness such as I experienced when I had to give training in Denmark.

Through the stories that are told we come to see what matters to the two main characters (and I suspect, to Jansson and her companion as well):

  • Living in the moment: should we all be so lucky

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.

  • Following the movements of nature: For example,

The storm came nearer, a huge alien backdrop making its own steady way across the water, never before seen in such splendor and maybe never to be repeated. The sky moved toward them in a finely drawn curtain of local thunder showers, each with its own delicate drapery. The light turned subterranean and yellow, the shallows had gone Bengali green. Very soon it would all be nothing but grey rain.

  • Friendship that lasts: shared meaning, honesty, respect, ability to be together in silence, support each other

This edition features a very moving introduction by Ali Smith. Here is one of the things she says about Tove Jansson’s gift to convey meaning:

‘Fog’, for instance, is literally a chapter about being lost in fog, and lost, too, to the fog of an old, old argument. It becomes a story about what’s not sayable, a story that admits some things are veiled, fogged, not resolvable. Fair Play  allows for life’s unresolvables at the same time as being very much about aesthetic resolution and composition. The chapters are thoughtfully, deceptively casually, arranged to arise as if by accident out of each other. They seem like throw away pieces of time. Of course, this is one of Fair Play‘s themes — the recording of haphazard life and what it means, at all, to record anything. The cumulative effect is to suggest that there’s always more life, more possibility, another story, and that nothing is fixed or ended. There’s always something new to know or see, even when you think you’ve seen it all. The openness of this book’s structure, when you reach its end, is both liberating and moving.

There is a whimsical side to this book, a lightness in the way that the characters are connected yet free. So there is an openness to the book’s structure, as said Ali Smith, and this is also reflected in the mood, the atmosphere that pervades each chapter. When there is a transgression from another character, Mari or Jonna respond strongly.

Whimsy may be something that characterizes Tove Jansson and her work. Little did I know but she is famous for a series of childrens’ books about the Moomins, characters she invented. I bought Fair Play while I was on vacation in London and the friend I was with mentioned the Moomins. She was flabbergasted when I said I never heard about them… I guess that unlike Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, it was not translated in French when I was a child (according to Wikipedia, French translations appeared in the 80s).


Jansson, Tove. Fair Play. Sort of Books, London, 2007.

Other things:




One response »

  1. Thanks for the ping back to my review Sylvie. Was this your first Jansson? She’s a brilliant writer, so able to deliver a multitude of meaning with seemingly very little. If you haven’t read the Moomins I highly recommend them, even though they were written for children they still have much to offer adults, and if you’re interested in reading more you can’t go wrong with The Summer Book which is similarly structured in a vignette form and follows an ageing grandmother and her granddaughter living on an island in Finland.

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