I’ve been reading Tove Jansson’s novel for adults, The True Deceiver. Worry not, this is not a spoiler, I shan’t reveal more of the plot than a review would. But I was interested to read, in Ali Smith’s introduction to the novel, that the Moomins are ‘a community of big-nosed, inventive, good-natured beings who survive the storms and existentialisms of a dark Scandinavian winter by simply being mild, kind, inclusive, and philosophical.’ This is undoubtedly true of darling matriarchal Moominmamma, whose response to the arrival at her house of yet another small lodger is just to put out another plate for them and ask if they eat pancakes – but reading The True Deceiver, it struck me that there was more than a passing resemblance between it and the children’s books.
The True Deceiver is about the relationship between Anna, an ageing, slightly childish children’s illustrator – not much of a self-portrait, by all accounts – and Katri, a cynical calculating young woman, an outsider-figure rejected by her community, whose sole aim is to get money out of Anna for her beloved brother. The action takes place over a Finnish winter in a small place and by the end of the winter, both Anna and Katri have changed radically.
The first thing that struck me about it was that the characters’ interactions reminded me of some of the darker Moomin stories – not Finn Family Moomintroll, but Tales from Moomin Valley, Moominpappa at Sea, or Moominvalley in November. In many ways, these books are like stories for adults, they pull no punches, and the characters often behave in a quite hysterical way – rather like Anna, when Katri’s influence starts to work on her. Take The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters. She invites a neighbouring creature – Gaffsie – to tea – and then starts splurging all her worries – to Gaffsie’s horror.
‘Dear Gaffsie, believe me, we are all so small and insignificant, and so are our tea-cakes and carpets and all those thing, you know, and still they’re so important, but always they’re threatened with mercilessness..’
‘Oh,’ said Gaffsie, feeling ill at ease.
‘Yes, by mercilessness,' the fillyjonk continued rather breathlessly. ‘By something one can’t ask anything of, nor argue with, nor understand..’ Gaffsie, of course, makes her excuses and leaves.
When I think about it, it’s usually fillyjonks who fall prey to such horrors. Like the one in Moominvalley in November, who almost kills herself cleaning her windows. They also have moments of blinding illumination about what really matters – not the belongings that have previously circumscribed their lives, and sometimes not the people they used to revere or the things they thought they liked. There’s a similar moment in The True Deceiver, when Katri makes Anna see that she’s never liked coffee, though she always drinks it. Anna is not exactly a fillyjonk, but there are resonances. Though Anna is less than ecstatic about this realisation.
The fillyjonk in Moominvalley in November, coming down from the perilous roof, goes to seek comfort from Moominmamma. Only Moominmamma isn’t there. The creatures who all go off to Moominvalley in this book all have to come to terms with the absence of the Moomins, in the same way in which Anna and Katri’s psychological journey takes them both into uncertainty and anguish. In the same way, in Moominpappa at Sea, Moominpappa gets the male menopause and drags his family off to an island with a lighthouse, but the island doesn’t hand him the new, exciting life he wanted. One of the things I like most about that book is Moomintroll’s relationship with the Groke, who has developed from being a dangerous monster into something like a Jungian shadow – but there is nothing didactic about the story.
I gave Moominsummer Madness to my young great-niece, hoping to enlist her into the ranks of Moomin-lovers, but the book frightened her. I was rather startled by that, remembering getting the books out, over and over again, from the library in Kendal and never being scared at all. But then I also liked The Hobbit, and later adored The Lord of the Rings, I was scared of Black Riders!
I do think the Moomins were maybe one of the most important children’s books I read, I still adore them. I’ll read anything I can get hold of from Jansson. And if anyone wants to join me in demanding a reissue of her memoir Sculptor’s Daughter, please email Sort of Books as I’ve done and ask them to publish it!