Sometimes when friends return borrowed books, I feel compelled to reread them right away, to welcome them home.
Tove Jansson’s Fair Play came back recently. It was an especially fast reread because it’s so short and clear, not a wasted word, a credit both to her and to translator Thomas Teal.
Fair Play is connected short stories about a couple, Jonna and Mari. Here they are about to watch a movie:
“Actually,” Jonna said. “Actually, it would probably be better if I watched it alone.”
“I promise not to say a word.”
“Yes, but I’ll know what you’re thinking, and I can’t concentrate.”
Every conversation between Jonna and Mari is about what’s happening in the moment, but also about their relationship. In the hands of a less skilled writer the technique could come across as obvious, but here it simply rings true — two people accommodating and resisting each other’s idiosyncrasies, navigating their days and lives together and separately. Jonna is an artist and filmmaker, Mari a writer and illustrator, so the stories are also about creative work and the ways they both support and resent each other’s art.
If you know anything about Jansson’s life, you can’t help wondering how much of Mari and Jonna come from Tove and Tuulikki, Jansson’s artist partner. Impossible to know and useless to speculate, of course — but I like to think that in reading and rereading these lovely spare stories, I’m seeing a version of their life together.
Tuulikki Pietilä: Rosetti (Psipsina I), 1977, 15.6 x 16.4 cm, Tampere Art Museum.