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The Gay Love Stories of Moomin and the Queer Radicality of Tove Jansson | Autostraddle
"In 1955, Tove Jansson asked Tuulikki Pietilä to dance. They had sat all night around the gramophone together, guarding it whilst they played their records so that nobody could change the music. But Pietilä said no: same-sex relationships were still illegal in Finland — and would be until 1971 — and – the threat of judgement from peers and colleagues was intense. Queer people know well the hollow of panic, deep in the gut, when you think that your disguises may have failed. It is why, historically, we have avoided large displays of affection; why our histories take the form of private letters, fragments hidden inside books and diaries. The story of Tove and Tuulikki is no different; soon after she refused to dance, Tuulikki sent Tove a card with a cat, fat and striped, hand-drawn on the front. A code that meant: I am thinking of you. After telephone calls over the holidays, Tove finally set off to Tuulikki’s studio. It was March, and snowing, when she walked over; the streets were dark and the fat flakes fell in drifts that made the roads shine. When she got there, the studio warm and light like a ship’s cabin at sea, they drank wine and played French records.

Jansson’s queerness is often left out in stories of her life. Puffin editions of Moomin books talked about how she lived alone on her Finnish island; documentaries still talk of Pietilä as a lifelong friend. Jansson is no
 misnomer, rather, she fits in neatly with the trend of avoiding the personal lives of gay people
 – particularly lesbians – that exists to this day. Society dissolves queer realities: erases the two bodies sharing a bed, wrapped around each other, the two bodies fucking, the moments and hours and days, the holding hands and arguing and kissing and small talk. As seen throughout history, gayness is coded as dangerous for children. It is portrayed something purely sexual or purely chaste, rarely afforded the complexity and nuance afforded to heterosexual relationships. For Jansson to be a successful children’s writer she was portrayed as sexless, loveless. It’s particularly egregious when queerness informs the work of a writer to that extent that it did for Jansson. Not only do the themes of loneliness, family and love shape her work for adults and children, but she included characters based on her female lovers in many of her works.

Before meeting Pietilä, Jansson had been in a creative crisis. She knew the demand was high for another Moomin book, but dreaded the thought of repeating herself – she longed for new ground to tread, for the freedom of inspiration. As her fame had increased, so had her awareness that the Moomins were no longer hers alone; they now appeared on waste paper baskets and brooches and wrapping paper, and the public always wanted more. In 1955 she wrote of her conflicting feelings, saying, “I can’t recall exactly when I became hostile to my work, or how it happened and what I should do to recapture my natural pleasure in it.” The knowledge that she had to write another Moomin book loomed large in her mind. It was precisely Pietilä’s influence that helped overcome her writer’s block: “That I was able to write Moominland Midwinter was entirely due to Tooti,” Jansson stated to biographer Boel Westin in Tove Jansson: Life, Art Words. Out of their love letters the character of Too-tikky had been formed, first as an inky doodle of her lover’s likeness (‘My Tootikki!’, she nicknamed Pietilä), and then slowly as a fleshed-out form.

Moominland Midwinter was a radical departure from the sun-drenched summers of the Moomin valley that readers had seen before — sailing boats framed by orange-slice suns, picnics on the terrace, dances in the woods. Instead, Moomin wakes up from hibernation in the cold dark of a Finnish winter, pine trees blanketed with snow. He is disoriented and scared, eager to wake up his mother for comfort. However, when she turns away from him in her sleep he realises he must deal with this new world — and his yearning for spring — on his own. There to help him is Too-tikky, as no-nonsense as her flesh and blood counterpart, who describes to him the dancing colours of the Northern Lights, states “One has to discover everything for oneself.” Moomin realises that the winter is needed, for after it follows the spring, lush and bright and alive. It’s hard not to read this as a mirror of Jansson and Pietilä’s relationship, blooming out of the snow and cold — in Moominland Midwinter, our narrator states “There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kinds of night animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in.” The winter gives us as queer people the chance to show ourselves, to claim the world as ours.

This wasn’t the first lover she had included in her stories: Vivica Bandler, the married theatre director with whom Jansson had an affair in 1946, became the character of Bob. Bob’s counterpart, Thingumy, was Tove, who wrote to Bandler, “No one understands their language, but that doesn’t matter so long as they themselves know what it’s all about… Do you love me? Of dourse you coo! Sanks and the thame to you!” This exchange ended up almost entirely complete in Jansson’s next Moomin book, Finn Family Moomintroll, where Thingumy and Bob are introduced as intertwined, inextricable creatures, their names better known in conjunction than when on their own. They even look the same, only differentiated by the hat Bob wears. By placing them, idiosyncratic and unmissable, at the centre of the story, Jansson was able to make a public declaration of love in a private manner. Her passion – her willingness to depict their relationship for anybody who could decipher the code – led Bandler to warn her to be secretive. Not only was their love illegal, but it was classed as a psychiatric condition, and its reveal would have cost both women their livelihoods and families.

Queerness is Jansson’s works is never as simplistic as direct representation of lovers. It’s something that seeped into the pages, flowing along the lines in the illustrations. In a letter to Bandler, Jansson talks of how “everything has changed since I met you! Every tone is more vivid, every colour cleaner, all my perceptions are sharper.” Already so occupied with “pure, fresh colours” – fleshy greens and cornflower blues and sherbet yellows – Jansson’s passion for Bandler allowed her to utilise them further in her work, encouraging her to use them with a giddy joy on the front cover of Finn Family Moomintroll. Her renewed passion for colour around this time is also prominent in the murals she painted in Helsinki Town Hall, into which she painted Bandler, a tiny Moomintroll and herself; fan in one hand, cigarette in the other, turning her blue eyes away from the viewer’s gaze.

Throughout Finn Family Moomintroll there is a presence, cold and dark and flat, sucking the light from the sun, wilting the flowers. The Groke is the closest the Moomin books get to an antagonist, although even she is treated with sympathy. She is grey as a storm cloud, and wherever she goes the plants and creatures die. She is the antithesis of Thingumy and Bob’s happiness, the embodiment of loneliness to their companionship. It is they who get to keep suitcase of rubies in the end of the story, a treasure many long for but one whose dazzling contents are only available to those who have ‘the right’ to own it — their love makes them the only ones suitable for the honour. It’s tempting to read the Groke as an allegory for the bigotry of a society that seeks to separate lovers, and for the misery that follows. In typical Tove fashion, however, the Groke is not a figure of hatred or derision, but one of pity.

It is Too-Ticky who, in Moominland Midwinter, encourages us to empathise with the Groke — to consider how desperately lonely a life untouched by love must be. This is not to say that Jansson did not face the isolation that is inherent in the lives of most queer people — although she remained with Pietilä for the rest of her life, and although they shared connected apartments and their island cottage, she could never discuss her love with her family. Jansson was open with her friends, telling them that she the “happiest and most genuine solution for me will be to go over to the spook side;” a wonderfully matter-of-fact way of resolving her own conflicts over her sexuality. But both her father and her mother were unable to discuss it with her — Jansson describes how her father tried to speak with her after he had heard gossip, but ultimately, he could not say the “difficult word homosexual.” Jansson suspected that her mother knew, but never raised the subject, writing “I can accept this […] But it feels lonely.”

Only after her parents had died did Jansson write Fair Play, a collection of short stories that fictionalised her relationship with Pietilä. The characters in the book, Jonna and Mari, live as Jansson and Pietilä do – in adjoining apartments with connecting studios. They are – respectively – an artist, and an illustrator and writer. The stories are quiet: Jonna and Mari watch westerns together, try to protect their fishing nets from a storm, bicker over the way paintings hang on the wall. They travel to America, as their real-life counterparts did, and sleep in a tent when a guest stays in their island cottage. But it’s everyday-ness is precisely what makes it so calmly radical. It is a portrait of a lifelong lesbian couple, allowing us to see into their daily lives, the minutiae of how they live, and on display at the centre of everything is their love for one another. In her introduction Ali Smith brilliantly summarises it as “affectionate discretion […] a good-working love, a homage to the kind of coupledom that rarely receives such homage.” No longer forced to be… [more]
tovejansson  tuulikkipietilä  2018  moomins  sexuality  writing  hannahilliams  queerness  relationships  creativity  finland  love  boelwestin  1955  1946  vivicabandler  language  groke  empathy  literature  howwerite  homosexuality  alismith  affection  discretion 
november 2018 by robertogreco
John Berger remembered – by Geoff Dyer, Olivia Laing, Ali Smith and Simon McBurney | Books | The Guardian
"Ali Smith

I heard John Berger speaking at the end of 2015 in London at the British Library. Someone in the audience talked about A Seventh Man, his 1975 book about mass migrancy in which he says: “To try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it and to reassemble it as seen from his.”

The questioner asked what Berger thought about the huge movement of people across the world. He put his head in his hands and sat and thought; he didn’t say anything at all for what felt like a long time, a thinking space that cancelled any notion of soundbite. When he answered, what he spoke about ostensibly seemed off on a tangent. He said: “I have been thinking about the storyteller’s responsibility to be hospitable.”

As he went on, it became clear how revolutionary, hopeful and astute his thinking was. The act of hospitality, he suggested, is ancient and contemporary and at the core of every story we’ve ever told or listened to about ourselves – deny it, and you deny all human worth. He talked about the art act’s deep relationship with this, and with inclusion. Then he gave us a definition of fascism: one set of human beings believing it has the right to cordon off and decide about another set of human beings.

A few minutes with Berger and a better world, a better outcome, wasn’t fantasy or imaginary, it was impetus – possible, feasible, urgent and clear. It wasn’t that another world was possible; it was that this world, if we looked differently, and responded differently, was differently possible.

His readers are the inheritors, across all the decades of his work, of a legacy that will always reapprehend the possibilities. We inherit his routing of the “power-shit” of everyday corporate hierarchy and consumerism, his determined communality, his ethos of unselfishness in a solipsistic world, his procreative questioning of the given shape of things, his articulate compassion, the relief of that articulacy. We inherit writing that won’t ever stop giving. A reader coming anywhere near his work encounters life-force, thought-force – and the force, too, of the love all through it.

It’s not just hard, it’s impossible, to think about what he’s given us over the years in any past tense. Everything about this great thinker, one of the great art writers, the greatest responders, is vital – and response and responsibility in Berger’s work always make for a fusion of thought and art as a force for the understanding, the seeing more clearly and the making better of the world we’re all citizens of. But John Berger gone? In the dark times, what’ll we do without him? Try to live up to him, to pay what Simone Weil called (as he notes in his essay about her) “creative attention”. The full Weil quote goes: “Love for our neighbour, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius.”

Berger’s genius is its own fertile continuum – radical, brilliant, gentle, uncompromising – in the paying of an attention that shines with the fierce intelligence, the loving clarity of the visionary he was, is, and always will be.

***

Geoff Dyer

There is a long and distinguished tradition of aspiring writers meeting the writer they most revere only to discover that he or she has feet of clay. Sometimes it doesn’t stop at the feet – it can be legs, chest and head too – so that the disillusionment taints one’s feelings about the work, even about the trade itself. I count it one of my life’s blessings that the first great writer I ever met – the writer I admired above all others – turned out to be an exemplary human being. Nothing that has happened in the 30-odd years since then has diminished my love of the books or of the man who wrote them.

It was 1984. John Berger, who had radically altered and enlarged my ideas of what a book could be, was in London for the publication of And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. I interviewed him for Marxism Today. He was 58, the age I am now. The interview went well but he seemed relieved when it was over – because, he said, now we could go to a pub and talk properly.

It was the highpoint of my life. My contemporaries had jobs, careers – some even owned houses – but I was in a pub with John Berger. He urged me to send him things I’d written – not the interview, he didn’t care about that, he wanted to read my own stuff. He wrote back enthusiastically. He was always encouraging. A relationship cannot be sustained on the basis of reverence and we soon settled into being friends.

The success and acclaim he enjoyed as a writer allowed him to be free of petty vanities, to concentrate on what he was always so impatient to achieve: relationships of equality. That’s why he was such a willing collaborator – and such a good friend to so many people, from all walks of life, from all over the world. There was no limit to his generosity, to his capacity to give. This did more than keep him young; it combined with a kind of negative pessimism to enable him to withstand the setbacks dished out by history. In an essay on Leopardi he proposed “that we are not living in a world in which it is possible to construct something approaching heaven-on-earth, but, on the contrary, are living in a world whose nature is far closer to that of hell; what difference would this make to any single one of our political or moral choices? We would be obliged to accept the same obligations and participate in the same struggle as we are already engaged in; perhaps even our sense of solidarity with the exploited and suffering would be more single-minded. All that would have changed would be the enormity of our hopes and finally the bitterness of our disappointments.”

While his work was influential and admired, its range – in both subject matter and form – makes it difficult to assess adequately. Ways of Seeing is his equivalent of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert: a bravura performance that sometimes ends up as a substitute for or distraction from the larger body of work to which it serves as an introduction. In 1969 he put forward Art and Revolution “as the best example I have achieved of what I consider to be the critical method”, but it is in the numerous shorter pieces that he was at his best as a writer on art. (These diverse pieces have been assembled by Tom Overton in Portraits to form a chronological history of art.)

No one has ever matched Berger’s ability to help us look at paintings or photographs “more seeingly”, as Rilke put it in a letter about Cézanne. Think of the essay “Turner and the Barber’s Shop” in which he invites us to consider some of the late paintings in light of things the young boy saw in his dad’s barber shop: “water, froth, steam, gleaming metal, clouded mirrors, white bowls or basins in which soapy liquid is agitated by the barber’s brush and detritus deposited”.

Berger brought immense erudition to his writing but, as with DH Lawrence, everything had to be verified by appeal to his senses. He did not need a university education – he once spoke scathingly of a thinker who, when he wanted to find something out, took down a book from a shelf – but he was reliant, to the end, on his art school discipline of drawing. If he looked long and hard enough at anything it would either yield its secrets or, failing that, enable him to articulate why the withheld mystery constituted its essence. This holds true not just for the writings on art but also the documentary studies (of a country doctor in A Fortunate Man and of migrant labour in A Seventh Man), the novels, the peasant trilogy Into Their Labours, and the numerous books that refuse categorisation. Whatever their form or subject the books are jam-packed with observations so precise and delicate that they double as ideas – and vice versa. “The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art,” he writes in “The Moment of Cubism”. In Here Is Where We Meet he imagines “travelling alone between Kalisz and Kielce a hundred and fifty years ago. Between the two names there would always have been a third – the name of your horse.”

The last time we met was a few days before Christmas 2015, in London. There were five of us: my wife and I, John (then 89), the writer Nella Bielski (in her late 70s) and the painter Yvonne Barlow (91), who had been his girlfriend when they were still teenagers. Jokingly, I asked, “So, what was John like when he was 17?” “He was exactly like he is now,” she replied, as though it were yesterday. “He was always so kind.” All that interested him about his own life, he once wrote, were the things he had in common with other people. He was a brilliant writer and thinker; but it was his lifelong kindness that she emphasised.

The film Walk Me Home which he co- wrote and acted in was, in his opinion, “a balls-up” but in it Berger utters a line that I think of constantly – and quote from memory – now: “When I die I want to be buried in land that no one owns.” In land, that is, that belongs to us all.

***

Olivia Laing

The only time I saw John Berger speak was at the 2015 British Library event. He clambered on to the stage, short, stocky, shy, his extraordinary hewn face topped with snowy curls. After each question he paused for a long time, tugging on his hair and writhing in his seat, physically wrestling with the demands of speech. It struck me then how rare it is to see a writer on stage actually thinking, and how glib and polished most speakers are. For Berger, thought was work, as taxing and rewarding as physical labour, a bringing of something real into the world. You have to strive and sweat; the act is urgent but might also fail.

He talked that evening about the need for hospitality. It was such a Bergerish notion. Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers, a word that … [more]
johnberger  2017  geoffdyer  olivialaing  alismith  simonmcburney  marxism  capitalism  migration  soundbites  hospitality  storytelling  hope  hopefulness  utopia  hierarchy  consumerism  compassion  unselfishness  questioning  skepticism  simoneweil  creativeattention  attention  goldenrule  humanism  encouragement  relationships  friendship  equality  giving  generosity  solidarity  suffering  seeing  noticing  looking  observation  senses  kindness  commonality  belonging  ownership  thinking  howwethink  care  caring  blackpanthers  blackpantherparty  clarity  money  communalism  narrowness  alls  difference  openness  crosspollination  hosting  hosts  guests  strangers  enemies  listening  canon  payingattention  audience  audiencesofone  laughter  resistance  existence  howtolive  living  life  howwelive  refuge  writing  certainty  tenderness 
january 2017 by robertogreco

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