A transcribed item of correspondence

9 08 2018

As I write this, it is now the 9th of August here, though it’s still the 8th across most of the world. My point in mentioning the date is that the 9th of August is the birthday of Tove Jansson, Finnish author, artist, illustrator and cartoonist, born that day in 1914. Those who know me reasonably well will know that I’m something of a Jansson tragic, and have in previous years marked the day with Jansson-related posts on this site. And so:

I wrote to Tove Jansson once, in January or February of 1982. (My uncertainty about the date is a reflection of the fact that, although I studiously made a transcript of the two-page letter I sent off, that transcript has been lost in the intervening decades.) My memory of the letter is that it was an earnest and somewhat clumsy expression of readerly admiration to a favourite author—you can probably imagine the sort of thing that a socially-awkward, overly-formal nineteen-year-old would write. I sent it without any real expectation of receiving a reply: Jansson was a world-famous writer with innumerable competing demands on her time, and was surely too busy to respond to every piece of fanmail she received. But I did get a reply.

Tove Jansson’s letter to me was written, in fountain pen, in English, on both sides of what I believe to be her standard stationery item for responses to fan letters: a landscape-format folded card showing a panoramic black-and-white image of Haru, the small island in the Gulf of Finland on which she spent her summers with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä. The letter was written sometime in May 1982 and my recollection is that it began on the side bearing the island’s photograph, concluding on the card’s blank back. I’m providing these details about its appearance because, although it instantly became one of my most treasured possessions, it has been—and readers may be sensing a theme here—lost in the intervening decades. But I did make a transcript, typed up on my white Olympia portable typewriter—my twenty-year-old self could be, on occasion, very organised about such things—and that has not yet been lost.

Here it is:



The context of the letter, at least in part, is that this was pre-internet correspondence, and so some items of information which would nowadays be provided very straightforwardly by Google and Wikipedia had back then required diligent investigation by me of the Canterbury Public Library’s reference section, letters written to (as it turned out) an out-of-date publishers’ address provided to me in an earlier response received from Australia’s Finnish Embassy (for NZ was, at the time, without a Finnish Embassy or Consulate of its own) which in turn had been preceded by my correspondence with Australia’s Swedish Embassy (for NZ was, at the time, without a Swedish Embassy or Consulate of its own) because my library-sourced information back then had been that the Swedish-speaking Jansson’s primary publisher was based in Stockholm. The entire cascade of correspondence which preceded my letter to Tove Jansson took months, even by airmail; nowadays such an email chain might be completed within days, or a diligent internet search within hours. Life has accelerated, in some measure. And Jansson’s books to which I referred in my letter, then unavailable in English translation, are now all freely available, even her first (but technically her second) book Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Moomins and the Great Flood) which she refused to allow republication of during her lifetime. Lyssnerskan (The Listener) has become probably my favourite of her short story collections (I’ve reviewed it here), and is an excellent gateway into her fiction for adults who might only know of Jansson through her Moomin books (which themselves, nonetheless, thoroughly reward adult re-reading).

Tove Jansson is gone (and so, it seems, is a precious item of correspondence), but the writing remains. That’s something, at least.




3 responses

12 08 2018
Sue Bursztynski

What a lovely letter! Like you, I have mislaid some treasured correspondence from before the Internet. I have a personally written rejection slip from Marion Zimmer Bradley, typed with a fading typewriter ribbon, saying she liked my story and would have published it “but for the inelasticity of typeface”. I have a letter from Susan Cooper. I’m sure both will turn up once I have done some more of my cleanup.

And it’s amazing your letter finally got through. Like you, I used to make use of the library(the Victorian State Library in my case)to find addresses for people I wanted to contact. Amazing what you could find there pre-Google! There was a world guide to children’s writers which had Susan Cooper’s home address. And she replied! I somehow found an address for Rita Levi Montalcini’s Rome workplace – she was still working in her nineties. I got in touch via fax with a Sydney woman scientist who had made a discovery about brain cells that I wanted to mention in my book. All this without the Internet, which was very new at the time. I’m not sure I could do without my World Wide Web nowadays…

12 08 2018

Yes, the internet and email have changed things immensely, and mostly in positive ways — it would’ve been inordinately more difficult to research my Titan stories without the internet’s various repositories of astrophysical research studies, even if the relevant studies had existed in those days (which, by and large, they didn’t).

I wish you luck in finding your MZB and Susan Cooper mementos: hopefully, as you say, a cleanup will unearth them. I suspect no amount of cleanup will recover my missing letter from Tove Jansson, though; after three house-moves in the decade or so since I last sighted it, I suspect it’s gone irrevocably, which is a pity because, as well as being something I treasured deeply, her panoramic-island notecards were aesthetic objects in her own right. From what I’ve read, she was very assiduous in replying to the items of fanmail she received, though I gather she was also resentful of the time the process consumed — certainly her letter to me (which, written at some unspecified date in May 1982, could conceivably have been written either at the Helsinki studio she lived in during the winter months, or on the small island she lived on during the warmer months) does not read like something that was just dashed off in a hurry, there was real thought given to her reply, and from what I’ve read this was typical of her correspondence with fans.

16 04 2020
About Tove Jansson and the writing of letters | Simon Petrie

[…] already preamble-heavy book review with the details of that sequence: you can choose to read it in this earlier post instead, and I hope you […]

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