Moominreview 4: The Exploits of Moominpappa, by Tove Jansson

24 04 2016

One of the aspects of the Moomin series which I find most appealing is Jansson’s uncompromising refusal to follow the logical next step. In the same sense that each book can be considered full of surprising deviations, which may often only make sense after the whole story has been digested, so is there a tendency for each successive volume to subvert the reader’s expectations. One would have imagined that, after Finn Family Moomintroll (which I reviewed last week), the next book would have presented a set of subsequent events. Instead, The Exploits of Moominpappa is, in essence (and save for the brief pieces of ‘framing text’ which describe Moominpappa’s interaction with the family as he is writing his memoirs) a prequel. This had the curious consequence that Jansson’s first three books in English publication appeared in a kind of reverse chronological order, starting with Finn Family Moomintroll, then Comet in Moominland (which preceded FFM in both its composition and its internal timeline), then Exploits (which takes us back to the previous generation).


I’m reading the 2012 Puffin hardback edition of Exploits, which features the 1952 translation by Thomas Warburton. As with the other early books in the series, Jansson made some changes to the text in the mid-to-late 1960s. It doesn’t appear that these modifications (chiefly, I understand, the addition of a prologue to the book) have been implemented in this recent edition.


As its title suggests, the book centres on Moominpappa (though logically, except in the framing text, he is referred to as simply ‘Moomin’ or as the narrator ‘I’). The story starts with his escape from an orphanage and freewheels from there. As with FFM (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Comet), it’s very episodic in its storyline; while there is an overall direction to the story, it gives the impression of a rather random series of events. Of several characters introduced in the text—Hodgkins, the Joxter, the Muddler, the Nibling, the Hemulen Aunt (an escapee from the two ‘lost’ chapters of FFM, as Boel Westin’s Jansson biography makes plain), Daddy Jones, the Mymble’s daughter—only Little My, arguably Jansson’s most emblematic character, and the Mymble’s daughter appear in subsequent books. (And to confuse matters, ‘the Mymble’s daughter’ of Exploits has a tail; she doesn’t in Moominsummer Madness, which is the book after Exploits, and in subsequent books, the same character (still without tail) is identified simply as ‘Mymble’.)

Exploits is possibly Jansson’s most humorous book, or the most strongly whimsical (with a tendency to evoke the work of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear in places). Its humour is highly situational, and folded into the story only where it doesn’t intrude (such as, for example, the Mymble’s habit of reading her almost innumerable young children to sleep with the rather gruesome ‘Inspector Bob’ murder-mystery story, of which we hear only a couple of tantalising snippets, or the running misconceptions about the nature of telegrams). But the case could also be made that this book marks the first instance of Jansson’s repeated subversion of her own creation: having defined an idyllic setting in FFM (which describes the summertime adventures of Moomintroll and his friends in Moominvalley), she does not, in this book, nor in any of the subsequent titles, revisit it. (In Moominsummer Madness and in Moominpappa at Sea, Moominvalley is absent; in Moominland Midwinter the shift is dramatically seasonal; in Moominvalley in November it’s the Moomin family that’s missing; and in Tales from Moominvalley, various of these conditions apply to the collected stories, with the possible exception of ‘The Invisible Child’.) In Exploits, the established cast of the earlier books is ditched (except for the brief bits of the ‘framing story’) in favour of an entirely new set of characters: even Moominpappa, here, is given a new name and a previously-undisclosed personality. I get the strong sense—from reading her biography, and from elsewhere—that Jansson, who wore the hats of children’s author, illustrator, artist, and cartoonist (among other creative occupations), was strongly resistant to being tied down by any one project. (The spacing between successive Moomin books became progressively longer: the first four all appeared within five years of each other, but it would take Jansson another twenty years to write the five books that followed Exploits, as other opportunities for her creative expression presented themselves.)

This book has always felt like a bit of an ugly duckling to me: by stepping backward in time, it doesn’t properly fit within the overarching Moomin narrative. Arguably, it could be excised from the canon, and the reader would still largely take away the same overall sense of the collected works (in a way which would not be true, I think, if any other book were omitted). And by working with a new set of (mostly non-recurring) characters, the author effectively ‘ducks the issue’ of the deeper character development that forms an ever-more-dominant focus of the later books. But if it’s largely a diversion, it’s an enjoyable one, and complements FFM in particular in its inventiveness and whimsicality.

Next week, I’ll review Moominsummer Madness.

An interview with Adam Browne

21 04 2016

I’ve served as editor (or, to be pedantic, co-editor) on two of Adam Browne’s stories: ‘The D____d’ in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, and ‘Animal The Colour of Waiting’ in Next. My most recent interaction with Adam is as typesetter of his latest release, The Tame Animals of Saturn, a work I see as a younger sibling of his novel Pyrotechnicon (for which I’ve recently uploaded here the review I wrote for ASIM three years ago).

AdamBrowneTAOS1_lightenedAdam Browne, with latest release and convenient stone armrest

To provide some hopefully-helpful background to Tame Animals, I recently queried Adam on what it was all about. Herewith follow his responses:

1. You’ve extrapolated the work or life-story of Cyrano de Bergerac in Pyrotechnicon, Alighieri Dante in ‘The D____d’, and now Jakob Lorber in The Tame Animals of Saturn, and I know there are other well-known figures that have cropped up in your fiction. Would it be fair to say that you’re somewhat obsessed by historical literary personalities? And what draws you to such people?

I use historical references in general because they help with world building. They’re an antidote to the bad sf I used to read as a kid—books like Voyage of the Space Beagle—they were so thin, so contextually meagre!—the worlds nothing more than pastiches from the sf canon—set in a standard-issue sf Future … Good futuristic sf, most of it written after our unquestioning love of the future faded, works very hard to create a context with depth and heft. I don’t necessarily write futuristic sf, but I reckon using historical characters is a way of creating that richness. A friend once said the practice ‘adds velvet’ to the genre.

I wrote for a long time with someone I’ve had a falling out with—my fault—and he impressed me with the way he played with sf; I was still young, still immersed in the genre; he was mature enough to stand outside it and cock his head this way and that, looking at it in a larger, more historic context.

Also, sf is the literature of ideas; the people I write about or refer to were people with ideas—they interest me—I write about stuff that interests me.

Citing them adds gravitas where I feel it might be lacking. I like writing essays, and essay-writing still shows some legacy of the old conception of the Golden Age. Llike before the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment, when any completely new idea was mistrusted because Aristotle hadn’t thought of it first.

And I like to see and play with the big picture. I’ve recently enjoyed the sf novels of Kim Stanley Robinson, but generally I find the immediate problems arising from climate change, say, are too small-picture to engage my imagination. I don’t say this proudly. It’s just that i feel great sympathy for the cosmic context of writers like Olaf Stapledon. Rising sea levels would provoke less than half a line in his Last and First Men.

2. Why Jakob Lorber?

In The Book of Imaginary Beings, I read of Lorber’s ‘Leveller’. It’s green and, like a lot of Lorber’s animals, elephantlike. Borges writes with great dry wit of the immeasurable service the Leveller does man. Its pyramidal legs are made by God to stomp out roadways in preparation for the tarmac-layers and so on.

When I first read this, more than thirty years ago, I fell in love with Lorber—to me, it’s self evident that such a person has to be investigated. It’s only with difficulty that I acknowledge there might be some people who aren’t immediately captivated by things like this.

I should add that one of my illustrations is a cheating reference to the Leveller, which is not native to Saturn, but Neptune.

3. Tame Animals is both a work of fiction—I assume it’s fiction, though as yet nobody has prised back the veil of Saturn’s cloud decks, so an element of doubt must be maintained—and a collection of artworks. Obviously both take inspiration from the imaginings of Jakob Lorber, but which came first, the words or the art? And how would you describe the interaction between the two modes of expression?

The literally incredible thing is that people are still willing to believe in him. Getting into this, I’d assumed that any faith in him that remained would have focused on his spiritual stuff, or such bits of wisdom as he offers—but no. It’s a conspiracy: NASA et al are hiding the truth—that Saturn, for example, is a solid earthlike planet; that the rings are likewise solid, populated by the souls of the elegant, sexless humanoids that inhabit the planet-proper; that our own planet rotates because its gigantic south-polar organ of excretion is helical; and so on.

These are people who need to believe in order to enjoy something—I might go too far the other way, generally—but in this case, for me, Lorber is a wonderful fantasist who deserves to be rescued from obscurity and outrageous Christian mysticism.

People very often feel the need to couch fantasy in junior fiction, or in humour—or in religious/spiritual writing—it’s as satisfying to me in one form as another.

I was interested in him decades ago; I actually can’t remember when I began writing this, but I do know that the words came first. Someone had to nag me into illustrating it. It seems ridiculous now that I resisted the idea. I’m sometimes suspicious of illustrated books—the idea that the text won’t stand up on its own …

4. You’ve mentioned Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings as an influence, at least in the context of Tame Animals, and possibly more broadly. What is it about Borges’ work that attracts you?

I discovered Borges when I was young. My reading tastes were still immature, but he wrote so simply that I wasn’t scared off. I was exhilarated by his commitment to the idea. He works so hard to exploit the idea as fully as possible. Too, his delivery is concise. Every paragraph is pregnant; the kicks he gave me weren’t matched until the advent of good cyberpunk writing—the ‘crammed prose’ that Bruce Sterling talks about.

I responded to the melancholy in his stories too, and the uncertainty—he creates an abstract space in which he can pack in even more ideas—’is this amazing thing true, or is this?’

He made his own subgenre to which a lot of scholarly nerds like me are now seriously devoted. I find myself wishing he wasn’t so popular. I get miffed when I see other people talking about him—I’m propietorial about him—I discovered him!—he’s mine!

5. Are there other historical figures out there that, right this moment, you are stalking with pen and sketchpad? What is your next project likely to involve?

I’m writing a standard-issue sf novel at the moment, with spaceships and aliens etc—there’s no particular historical figure I’m picking on, but it is set in SPACE VENICE—the city’s apologists say: ‘as the Venetians denied the centuries of plagiarism and theft with which they composed their city, so we deny any accusations that we are a copy of that city’.

I have to say, novel-writing is a chore. I’d rather make books like Tame Animals. I reckon if my current novel doesn’t make me any money or make any sort of impact, I might give up novelising and concentrate on shorter things, illustrated things.

But—if there is another novel in me, I’d like to set it in Metropolis. I haven’t checked if anyone else has done this. Cities belong to genres as pieces of fiction do. Venice belongs to the romantic tragedy. Metropolis belongs to the epic.


If the above whets your appetite or your whistle, you might just want to check out The Tame Animals of Saturn for yourself. In this context, I’ll note that the book is currently available at a special pre-launch rate from the Peggy Bright Books website. And, of course, Adam’s Pyrotechnicon (from coeur de lion) and his short-story collection ‘Other Stories’, and Other Stories (from Satalyte) are also well worth your while.

Moominreview 3: Finn Family Moomintroll, by Tove Jansson

17 04 2016

Finn Family Moomintroll was the third Moomin book Jansson wrote (I’ve reviewed the earlier ones here and here), but was the first to be translated into English. The version I’m reading is the translation by Elizabeth Portch; it’s referenced in the book’s publication details as the original translation, dating from 1950, but I suspect it may include some modifications which were made to the text in the mid-1960s. (A Jansson biography, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, by Boel Westin, makes plain that the author modified the original Swedish text at that time, as she did several of the other early books. The chief change in this one is the inclusion, in the updated manuscript, of an appearance by the Hobgoblin during a storm midway through the book. This episode, absent from the original text, does indeed feature in the version I’m reading, although as noted in my review of Comet in Moominland, some modifications made to that book at around the same time have not been carried across to the current English translation.)


I should note that the book established a pattern, largely resisted by Jansson for the Swedish titles of the books, of diligently including the term ‘Moomin’ in the title somewhere so as to assist with its identification. (The Swedish title of FFM is Trollkarlens Hatt, in which hatt is simply enough ‘hat’, but trollkarl, which hinges on the other sense of the Swedish troll, not the mythological bridge-dwelling caprivore but the practice of magic, means ‘conjuror’ or ‘magician’, so the title in Swedish translates to ‘The Magician’s Hat’. The magician here is the Hobgoblin to whom I alluded above.)


And I want also, before I actually get into the review itself, to detail another difference between the original Swedish and the English translations, and this is on the naming of characters. It’s appropriate to raise this issue with FFM in particular because it was the first translated, and therefore the book in which the decision had to be made: what are these creatures’ Anglicised names? This isn’t quite as straightforward as you might expect. In the original Swedish, very few of the characters are actually named, they are instead described as types. This does indeed carry across to the English version to some extent, as in ‘the Muskrat’ (bisamråttan), ‘the Snork Maiden’ (snorkfröken), and ‘the Hemulen’ (straightforwardly enough, hemulen, which should however just translate as ‘the Hemul’). Note that, as types rather than names, the Swedish descriptors are not capitalised. But lower-case descriptors are also given in place of names for some central characters who do feature names: snusmumriken (‘the snusmumrik’, I suppose, where a snusmumrik is a literary invention of Jansson’s, translated into English as the name ‘Snufkin’) and mumintrollet (‘the moomintroll’, rather than the English ‘Moomintroll’) and his parents. In fact, of more than a dozen characters in the book, only four bear actual names in the Swedish text: Sniff (conveniently enough, Sniff), the Groke (Mårran), and Thingumy and Bob (Tofslan och Vifslan).


One more thing, and then there will, I promise, be an actual review. The edition I’m reading this time around is the recent Puffin hardback, dating from 2009, and something strange has been done with its typesetting. Almost without exception, the other volumes in this uniform edition feature a layout that is a faithful reproduction of that of the early-1970s paperbacks, with modestly-sized chapter headings in all-caps and with fully-justified text in (11 pt, I suspect) Linotype Plantin; this one has chapter headings in a block bold font, and left-justified text in 13 pt Baskerville. The text here sits big on the page, and the ragged right edge (appropriate for an e-book that might be viewed on a small screen, but thoroughly out of place in printed fiction) makes line-by-line reading more of an effort than it should be, since paragraph breaks are less obvious. Here’s a comparison, to scale, of the same pages in my old and yellowed paperback edition, and the new hardback:


But now, to the review itself. (Which means I must refrain from further distraction, such as any mention of the two ‘lost chapters’ tantalizingly alluded to in the Boel Westin biography of Jansson …)

Finn Family Moomintroll occurs, it seems, some months after the events of Comet in Moominland, and in contrast to the two earlier books, it is not a ‘quest’ novel of any kind. (Or, perhaps, it is a quest, but the quest, undertaken by a minor character, is so peripheral that it can properly be ignored as an impetus for the narrative.) Such structure as is imposed upon the storyline derives from Moomintroll’s and Snufkin’s discovery, atop the nearby mountain, of a hat — the ‘Hobgoblin’s Hat’ alluded to in the Swedish title — which transpires to have magical, if not rather disruptive, properties. Aside from the repeated hat-related hijinks, the story is largely episodic, and could probably be described as aimless — which is not intended as a criticism. It’s a fun-filled book, with a strong sense of adventure but without much overt tension; much of the joy of the book arises from the character interplay (something that grows sharper in each successive book) and from Jansson’s enchanting and highly-expressive illustrations. There’s not a great deal of plot-driven character growth, but there is quite a bit of understated situational humour, and some early indications of the subtlety that would become progressively more of a hallmark of Jansson’s fiction. It’s possibly the most idyllic of the Moomin books (although Moominsummer Madness, the next-but-one volume, might just edge it out). I do find myself wondering, however, whether it’s too much ‘of its time’ to be fully satisfying as a children’s book today, and it does feel distinctly more of a children’s book than an adult’s — something that’s not true of the last few books in the series.

Notwithstanding the above, it is the book which probably did most to establish Jansson’s reputation, and it has, I think, a rather quaint freshness that still endures today.

Next week, I’ll review The Exploits of Moominpappa.

Moominreview 2: Comet in Moominland, by Tove Jansson

10 04 2016

Tove Jansson was already deeply involved with the writing of Comet in Moominland, her second book, when her first book (The Moomins and the Great Flood, which I reviewed last week) was published at the end of World War Two. Both books are therefore indelibly influenced by the turmoil through which Europe was still passing. Comet, though, is a much more assured story than Flood. For a start, the division of the narrative into discrete chapters greatly assists with the pacing; and Jansson has found her feet with the characters. There’s a much greater differentiation between the characters: Moomintroll and Sniff, for example, emerge here as quite distinct personalities, something that was not evident in Flood. There are also some very well-handled touches of gentle humour (such as the ‘village store’ scene, with a precursor to Douglas Adams’ bistromathics), again something largely missing from the earlier book. And Comet sees the introduction of several new characters, including the nomadic and staunchly anti-materialistic Snufkin, the first of Jansson’s particularly intriguing, almost scene-stealing, ‘foils’ to the Moomin family.


As foreshadowed by the title, the story concerns the danger posed to Moominvalley—and, by extension, to Earth—by the approach of a comet on an apparent collision course. The book thus shares a focus on disaster, a concern with natural hazards, and a pittoresque linearity of plot with its predecessor; later books would be more wilfully didactic, more seriously whimsical, less quest-focussed than this.

Later books would also emphasise character to a greater degree. The Moomin family here is not as well-rounded as it would later become (both literally and figuratively). There is still a trace of two-dimensionality, in particular, around Moomintroll’s parents, though this perhaps reflects their largely reactive role in the book: there’s little sign, here, of Moominpappa’s occasional wanderlust or of Moominmamma’s eventual quiet rebelliousness, although she does get to lose her temper a little at one point.

Several of the characters introduced in this book—the Muskrat, the Snork, the Snork Maiden, and Snufkin—recur in the later books, to a greater or lesser extent. I have the sense, though, that Jansson only stayed with any particular character so long as he or she remained interesting, with ‘dull’ characters not invited back. Thus the Snork and the Muskrat only appear in one further book each … which is no great loss in the case of the Snork, in my opinion, though I do wish we’d got to see more of the Muskrat. (I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that Jansson’s gently satirical portrayal of the cheerfully gloomy, philosophical Muskrat probably hews closest of any characterisation in her books to the substantially more provocative cartoons with which she had earlier made a name for herself, as one of the mainstays of Garm, a Finnish satirical magazine in which, during WWII, Jansson’s cartoons regularly lampooned both Stalin and Hitler.)

The versions I’m currently reading are the modern Puffin hardback editions, which seem (in textual content) to be unchanged from the Ernest Benn edition I first read in 1972 or 1973, or the Puffin paperback editions of the mid-1970s. In Comet‘s case, the English translation is by Elizabeth Portch, and dates from 1951. But there are, intriguingly, other versions of the original Swedish text, because Jansson modified the story in 1956 and again in 1968, applying tweaks in a manner somewhat reminscent of George Lucas’s repeated tampering with the original trilogy of Star Wars movies. The changes in Kometen Kommer, the 1968 revision, include the supplanting of a minor character (the ‘silk monkey’) from the original 1946 release, Kometjakten, by a kitten—apparently on the grounds that the ‘monkey’ was too exotic for the story’s Finnish location. (The crocodiles, however, were presumably allowed to remain. Who’s going to argue with a crocodile?) I’m not sure whether the accompanying illustrations—the silk monkey appears in several—were adjusted also in the 1968 revision; but the character in the original artwork does not look particularly like a kitten.


My one serious complaint with the book is that Jansson commits an unforgivable (if difficult to notice) continuity error. The events of chapter 7 occur, we’re told, on the 4th of October, and this chapter concludes with nightfall and sleep. Chapter 8 occupies the entirety of the next day, and again concludes with nightfall and sleep. But Chapter 9, the day following this, is the 5th of October. This wouldn’t matter greatly (indeed, in any other Moomin book it wouldn’t matter at all), except that the events within Comet are wired to a particular deadline. So the book’s ending (which I won’t disclose here) can only be satisfactorily explained by invoking a timeslip which contains the events of chapter 8 as a sequence outside of the normal flow of days; or, alternatively, one can choose simply to not notice this, and enjoy the story regardless.

The case can be made that any one of the first four books—that’s The Moomins and the Great Flood, Comet in Moominland, Finn Family Moomintroll, and The Exploits of Moominpappa—could be taken as an appropriate starting point for reading the series. Flood was the first book written, but Comet would nonetheless be known to many English readers of the series as the ‘first’ book, since Flood was not presented in English translation until 2005, long after all the others; Finn Family Moomintroll was the book first translated into English; and Exploits describes events which occured before any of the other books. (As it happens, since I encountered the Moomin series by purest accident, I didn’t start with any of these, but it didn’t matter much. I reckon the series can usefully be read in almost any order.)

Although it’s a substantially more accomplished book than Flood, Comet in Moominland is still the work of a developing writer. Comet is a fun, engaging read, and recommended on that basis, but it lacks some of the subtlety and hidden depth that informs her later work. Jansson—who at age 32 was already known, at least in her native Finland, as an artist, illustrator, and cartoonist—had yet to fully convince the wider public that she could write.

Next week, I’ll review Finn Family Moomintroll, the third book in the series.

An interview with Sean O’Leary

8 04 2016

I recently mentioned Walking, Sean O’Leary’s second short fiction collection, as one of two books I’d been working on in recent months. I’ve since conducted an interview-by-email with Sean, which I’ll present below.


1. Your biography makes  it clear that you’ve lived in many different parts of Australia, and your story settings are similarly far-flung across the country. To what extent are your literary stories informed by personal experience?

Quite a lot. Mainly because it’s easier to set stories where you’ve been and I was itinerant for quite a while. Trying to find my place in the world. But I worked in five star hotels and places like the YMCA Hostel in Darwin so, I had a look at the world from both sides of the street. At times because of my ‘habits’ I might have been having breakfast at the Salvos and then turning up to work in a shirt and tie on the reception desk of a five star hotel.

2. You’re open in your fiction about the impact schizophrenia has had on your life; in Walking, both the title story and  ‘Slipping Away’ speak to this impact. Aside from its relevance as subject matter, how has schizophrenia shaped you as a writer?

I’ve never quite experienced exactly what went on in ‘Slipping Away’ but there have been times in my life when schizophrenia or its effects on me have made me frozen in fear or literally bolting down the street away from some imagined happening. I have found that at times my whole day to day living has been so heightened it is either scarily brilliant or scarily too awful to ever want to go there again. I have been hospitalised three times due to schizophrenia for a variety of reasons but having said that I’ve been happy and healthy for a couple of years now with no incidents.

3. Several of your stories veer strongly into ‘noir’ territory. What attracts you to this style of writing? And what authors would you cite as influences for these stories?

Everyone likes ‘noir’ don’t they? I am a big fan of Ian Rankin and the Rebus books, which are quite dark. I actually think the Rebus TV series, in parts, may be even darker than the books. But I really like American author George Pelecanos and his crime fiction set in Washington. Pelecanos was a writer on The Wire too, a brilliant crime fiction TV series. And I think a lot of the very great crime fiction these days is also in TV series. Starting with The Wire and The Sopranos through to Dexter and Breaking Bad. So, if you can write both like Pelecanos can, then you’re something special.
I am also a huge fan of Arnaldur Indridason, who is a crime fiction writer from Iceland and the stories are set in Iceland, mostly in Reykjavik featuring his detective, Erlendur. Very dark and very bleak.

4. Various stories in Walking have either a literary or a crime-fiction flavour, and in some cases the two overlap quite strongly. There’s also an element of SF in some of your stories. If you had to focus on just one style of writing, which would it be, and why?

I couldn’t separate literary and crime. I love them both. And I think they sit quite well together. I really respect writers like Garry Disher and Peter Temple. You could say their novels were literary crime novels. Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin Award for his novel, Truth.
John Burdett is a an English writer who spends most of his time in Asia and writes brilliant novels set in Bangkok, which has to be the greatest place on earth to set a crime novel.
And sci-fi is great. I have read the John Christopher trilogy that included The City of Gold and Lead and I have to say I really loved the Hunger Games trilogy. And I read The Day of the Triffids and Chocky by John Wyndham. But once again I think movies and TV do it well too. The Twilight Zone is amazing still today and the Alien movies are unreal and my story ‘Proktor Man’ gets its inspiration from Blade Runner.
I love this quote I read from some sci-fi magazine submission guidelines. It says, All fiction is written to examine or illuminate some aspect of  human existence but in science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the universe.

5.‘Connections’, the longest story in Walking, hovers around the 7500-word mark, on the borderland between ‘short story’ and ‘novelette’. Do you see yourself as continuing solely or predominantly with short fiction, or do you have an ambition to produce longer works, such as novels? What are your plans for the future?

I am writing a crime fiction novel right now set in Sydney in 1990/91. I lived in Sydney for more than a few years around that time also so once again I think I have the locations down and I worked a lot in Kings Cross, mostly at night so I really did see both sides of the street. I lived in Bondi and Leichhardt and Coogee, the North Shore too so … I have my fingers crossed I can write a cool noir crime novel.

If you’re interested to learn more about Sean’s writing, a great place to start is Walking. You can find the details here, on the Peggy Bright Books website.

Moominreview 1: The Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson

3 04 2016

I’m re-reading the Moomin books, because it’s been a few years since I last dipped into them; and this time around, I’m reviewing them, one a week. I’ll endeavour not to be too spoilerific, but I suspect the books are almost spoiler-impervious: knowing what happens next is no real impediment to enjoyment of the stories. These are books that definitely merit re-reading.

(Yes, they’re classified as children’s books. Yes, I’m into my second half-century. I don’t see a problem here.)

Tove Jansson’s Moomin books have a sense of solidity, a certain impossible inevitability to them, that’s quite unlike anything else I’ve read. The Moomin world is recognisable as our own, just wholly different; its characters at once mundane, commonplace, and larger-than-life. To my mind, no other author of speculative fiction—not Tolkien, Le Guin, Peake, Bujold, or Banks, however compelling their imagined worlds may be—has succeeded in matching Jansson’s achievement. In part, this might be because Jansson’s multi-faceted approach to her creation—she was not only the author, but also the illustrator of the Moomin books—afforded her a kind of visual shorthand through which we experience her Moomin world, in pictures as well as in words. Alternatively, it may be because the avowedly Scandinavian Moomin world has a freshness and originality that owes very little to antecedents in English-language literature: the closest parallel would be, I suspect, with Grahame’s riverbank or Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, although Moominvalley is a long way from either of these. It’s tempting to describe it as a riff on Carroll’s Wonderland, differently populated and played by new rules less constrained by logic-games—though this too would miss the point. Ultimately, I think a large part of the books’ appeal lies in Jansson’s talent for clear, crisp character delineation. Such creations as Snufkin, Little My, and the Groke are each, in their own way, fascinating: archetypal, enduring, deceptively three-dimensional. We know these people, even if we’ve never met anything that looks like them.


That said, the Moomin series’ beginning is not entirely auspicious. Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (literal translation: ‘The little trolls and the big flood’), written during WWII and published in 1945, sold only a couple of hundred copies in its first year and was destined, first at the publisher’s and later at the author’s direction, not to be reprinted. “Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen will not be published anymore, nor translated, as I find this first story of mine rather banal and too much influenced by all I had read as a child.”*

Often, however, the imperatives of authors hold sway only so long as they are alive. Tove Jansson died in 2001, and The Moomins and the Great Flood has since been republished (by Schildts, and subsequently by Sort Of Books), in an English translation by David McDuff. It’s the only one of the core Moomin books that I was unable to read as a child; as the first book, it seems the logical starting-point for my series of Moomin reviews. How does it stack up?

It is, I have to say, a somewhat minor-key introduction to the series. The story, which concerns the search by Moomintroll and his mother for his father, gone wandering with the Hattifatteners, takes place against the backdrop of a slowly-receding flood, and is quite picaresque in fashion. The plot moves from episode to episode without full regard to continuity, and Jansson’s gift for characterisation has not yet properly bloomed. (There are, in fact, at least two senses in which the characters are not well-rounded, since the moomins in Flood are drawn as the slender-nosed descendants of her earlier ‘Snork’ cartooning sigil, not yet the bulbous creatures of the later books.) It could comfortably be devoured in one sitting: the whole story is less than fifty pages from beginning to end, with most pages featuring an illustration as well as text. (The later Moomin books, I think, are not so copiously illustrated.) It’s interesting to have this glimpse of the moomins’ backstory, but one can see Jansson’s motivation in withholding permission for the book’s republication: compared to the subsequent books, this one does not sing. And several of the story elements—the family separated by a flood, the moomins’ ancestral porcelain-stove habitat, Moominpappa’s travels with the Hattifatteners—are much more successfully reprised in Moominsummer Madness, Moominland Midwinter, and Tales from Moominvalley. It’s distracting, also, to encounter a human protagonist in Flood, the blue-haired girl Tulippa: though humans (or at least characters not immediately recognisable as nonhumans) do feature in several of the later books, such as the scientists in Comet in Moominland, the King in The Exploits of Moominpappa, and (perhaps) the lighthouse-keeper in Moominpappa at Sea, they’re not given such prominence. It has always seemed to me that one of the strengths of Jansson’s envisaged Moomin world is its orthogonality to our own: humans, if they feature at all, are peripheral creatures only. In this respect, Flood has not stepped fully into the Moomin world, but occupies instead some kind of moomin/human ‘halfway house’. (It does go so far, at least, as to introduce ‘the little animal’ Sniff, who hangs around for the next three books; to cross paths with a (skirted, naturally) Hemulen; and to provide the first mention of Snufkin, by name if not by character.)

Would I recommend Flood?

Hmmm. Not as a first introduction to the series, no more than I’d recommend The Phantom Menace, for fear that it would put the merely curious off the more rewarding works that fall later in the sequence. But if you’ve been fascinated by the other Moomin books, you might well feel compelled to check out Tove Jansson’s first foray into Moominvalley. It’s not my place to advise against that. And it is interesting to observe the evolution of Jansson’s writing and illustrating styles, alongside the slowly-unfolding elaboration of Moomintroll’s world. But reading it, one can appreciate why the author allowed this book to wither on the vine, while the later books flourished.

Next week, I’ll review Comet in Moominland.

[* This assessment is contained in one of my most prized possessions (though in truth I may no longer possess it, since it appears to have been lost in a spring-cleaning): a letter from Tove Jansson herself, written in May 1982, which fortunately I had the wit to transcribe before shamefully misplacing it.]

‘Walking’, by Sean O’Leary

2 04 2016

Further on the ‘what have I been doing over recent months’ front, there’s this. Walking is a collection of seventeen short stories by Melbourne author Sean O’Leary.


As well as editing the collection, I also did the typesetting and the cover design, so my perspective on the book is hardly that of a detached observer. But be that as it may …

Sean’s stories mostly fall into the ‘crime’ or ‘literary’ category (although a couple of Walking‘s stories qualify as SF), and are narrated with a plain immediacy that keeps the pace fast and throws the characters into sharp relief. The settings are, without exception, various versions of a real or imagined Australia (Sean seems to have lived in almost every city or town in the country); recurring themes within the stories are attraction, responsibility, retribution, and schizophrenia. Sean has an eye for the grittier, less pretty side of life, and he tells a good story. His work has been praised by Garry Disher and by Les Murray. This is his second collection: his first, My Town (Ginninderra Press, 2010), is now, I gather, quite difficult to locate.

If you’re interested to learn more, Peggy Bright Books has the book on sale (in paperback and e-book versions), at a reduced price prior to its June launch.




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