Thursday 10 December 2009

Reflections on Tove Jansson, by Leslie Wilson

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!


Cathy Butler said...

I love the Moomins too: I think the Memoirs of Moominpappa may be my favourite - although, Moomin Midwinter is excellent, and - well... they're all rather marvellous. Very wise, but not at all in a sugar-coated Waltonsish way! Ali Smith's remark is seriously reductive.

The only one of Jansson's adult books I've read is The Summer Book, which I loved too, but I reread the Moomins in a way I can't imagine doing with that.

Go away google said...

Oh, I adore the Moomins, especially Moominpappa at Sea, for all the reasons you list.

Sort Of books have duly been emailed.

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh Leslie, I loved this post. I too adore the Moomims, started reading them when I was eight, and yes, she's a very, very thought-provoking writer and Ali Smith cannot have understood them at all. And Moomintroll is such a great character - good-hearted, sure, but also self-conscious, awkward, believes everyone is either laughing at him or cleverer than him - I love his teenage angst in 'Moominpappa at Sea'and his crush on the seahorses who have no interest in him whatever - but he knows he's not beautiful and yearns for it...
Wonderful and often dark books.

Leslie Wilson said...

Moominland Midwinter is my absolute favourite, I think, soo atmospheric, and with such wonderful moments and such mystery and depth. And I adore Too-ticky - love Little My as well, and the Groke. My little grandson only knows 'Moomin' at present, he has a night-light Moomin, but I have ordered 'Moomin, Mymble and Little My' for him, to introduce him.

Anonymous said...

According to Frank Cottrell Boyce Tove Jansson is a writer's writer. That explains why most authors seem to adore her disproportionately compared with 'ordinary' people.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes, she probably is a writer's writer. Apart from the Moomins I loved both her The Summer Book and her The Winter Book. She manages to write about being crochety as well as quietly wise without falling into the usual cliches and captures a superb relationship between grandchild and grandmother... probably unequalled in anything I've ever read. I enjoyed The Summer Book so much that at one time I think I gave a copy to everyone I knew!

Katherine Langrish said...

Well, but was I a writer when I was eight? Discuss. Anyway I loved her as a child and still love her - and so do my daughters, who aren't writers yet anyway. We all wept a little over what happens to 'the squirrel with the marvellous tail' - again, what a wonderful eye for the innocent yet perilous vanities of the world.

Di, I know exactly what you mean. I gave away my copies of the Summer and Winter books, and now I'm going to have to buy them all over again.

Peni R. Griffin said...

It's interesting that Moominsummer Madness, of all books, frightened your neice! Did she say what elements she found scary? That's one of my books I read when I need something reassuring to get me through a long insomniac night of existential angst (you know, when you feel yourself falling through the limitless universe and the rainforest is dying and the end of civilization is coming and by the way, you personally are going to die, which is the thing that really bugs you). Nothing cures me better than Snufkin looking after the little Woodies, Moominpappa's play, the daring escape, and Moominmamma's unconditional love. ("She didn't know what her Moomintroll had done, but she was convinced that she approved of it.") But I find a lot of Brits find the Moomins kind of creepy. I think this may be traceable to a cartoon. I'm pretty sure I don't want to see that cartoon.

Cathy Butler said...

Peni, there's a US/Japanese cartoon, which I suppose some people might conceivably find creepy, though to my mind it tends to sugarcoat the Moomins. But maybe the Brits are remembering the animated puppet series narrated by Richard Murdoch (though originally German, I think), which I think did have more creepability potential.

Pen said...

I have never heard of these books! I am seriously intrigued. I'll keep my eyes peeled for them. Thanks for the tip.

Sue Purkiss said...

I never read the Moomins, but have loved The Winter Book and The Summer Book, and am giving those and The True Deceiver as presents. There's a sort of spareness about them that I love, a recognition that drama and significance can lie in very small things. I also like the look and the feel of them - well done to Sort Of Books!

John Ward said...

I too am a great admirer of Tove Jansson - the first Moomin book I read remains my favourite, though it does not actually feature any Moomins - Moominvalley in November. As to Anna in The True Deceiver, though she has her fillyjonkish side, does her surname - Aemelin - not suggest something Hemulenish about her, too?

markdtiller said...

Most of "The Sculptor's Daughter", save for five of the short stories, was contained in "A Winter Book" with a few additional short stories. So it's unlikely they would re-publish that in it's entirety. The only novel that remains is "Sun City" which has been out of print since the 70s.

Nuuskamuikkunen said...

Hi there,

I too am a great admirer.

Toves moomin characters are incredible fysical and she has been very precise when actually writing her characters to move, or dance. Whether it was just about crawling on the beach or dancing mambo with a king, she knew excatly what she wanted to expres with the movements.

This is what I have been trying to study while re-reading Toves Tales from Moominvalley during these last two years.

I work as a choreographer here in Finland. We have just recently premiered a contemporary dance adaptation based on Toves Tales from Moominvalley. And we are thrilled about it.

As a devoted reader You might be at first shocked by the very idea of turning Toves extraordinary beautiful tales into the contemporary dance theatre. But I believe we have managed to bring up something very profound and relevant at Toves work. - The very fysicality of these characters. The way they move. The dances they dance. The individual body languages. This all has been an enormous adventure and a great pleasure for the whole Dancing Moominvalley team. Eventually we found out that Moomins are quite excellent and versatile dancers.

If you want to know more about Dancing Moominvalley project, please visit the blog: