Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa at Sea is notably longer and sparser than any of its antecedents: only seven (or, depending on how you count them, eight) characters occupy its 200+ pages. It’s also a distinctly more melancholic and reflective book than the previous novels, though there’s a clear continuity with the sensibilities explored in the earlier Tales from Moominvalley. There are strong indications, too, of the future directions in which Jansson’s writing would take her, with its focus on often-unvoiced character disagreement, on solitude, and on independence. These are themes for which the often-bustling Moomin world would not seem a natural fit; and this book is, in many respects, a leave-taking. Just like the Beatles’ Let It Be, it’s not the last book in the Moomin sequence, but it feels as though it is.
I’m reading the 2011 Puffin hardback edition, which uses the 1966 English translation of Kingsley Hart. As with the recent Finn Family Moomintroll hardback edition, I’m not much impressed by the font and title typesetting choices which have been made with this edition, and which have resulted, in a few cases, in the introduction of typos not present in the earlier paperback edition. On the other hand, the cover illustration this time around (below) is restricted to characters actually present within the text, something not true of Jansson’s admittedly-charming cover painting for the 1970s Puffin paperback edition (above), so there’s that.
The focus of Moominpappa at Sea, moreso than in any of the earlier books, is on the family dynamics of the central Moomin family, here stripped of former hangers-on (except for the ruthlessly practical Little My). But while the interactions between the characters are important—and, often, telling in ways not evident in the earlier novels—it’s also a book of solitudes, with each of the Moomins adamant (and in some cases desperate) to assert him or herself, to stake out something that is uniquely and centrally his or her own. There’s male-menopausal Moominpappa’s need to thoroughly understand the sea and the island to which his domestic wanderlust has dragged the whole family; Moominmamma’s quietly fierce determination to not let her identity, so connected with their cluttered, now-abandoned home in Moominvalley, be subsumed by her husband’s quixotic, mercurial enthusiasms; and Moomintroll’s teenaged rebelliousness, overlaid upon an unsettled yearning for something he seems not, himself, to yet understand.
This may well be the most intensely personal of Jansson’s Moomin books, and, I think, the one in which she comes closest to presenting an unvarnished exploration of attraction, desire, and love. It’s also a strongly transformative book, with the Moomins redefined through their actions and reactions (although Little My is, perenially, always simply Little My). Moominpappa here, for example, is a quite different character from his earlier memoir-writing incarnation—less jovial, more earnest—and Moominmamma and Moomintroll are analogously evolved. It would have been fascinating to see in which directions Jansson took these characters in subsequent novels; but, although there would still be a couple of picture-books after Moominpappa at Sea‘s publication, there would be no Moomins per se in her final Moomin novel.* This, then, is essentially the family’s swansong.
What impresses me most, on this re-reading of the book, is the subtle surefootedness with which Jansson shows us just what is happening between the family members, often while eliding substantial chunks of the intervening action. (Exhibit A: the removal of seaweed from the fishing net. In a very brief section, just one sentence of bald and quite bland description, we’re left in no doubt as to the subtext.) The illustrations, too, are extraordinarily expressive, if less elaborate than those in the earlier books.
Moominpappa at Sea is a slow book, a quiet and surprising book, suffused with an understanding of the intricacies of family life and the particularities of an insular existence. It’s arguably Jansson’s most accomplished Moomin book, and if it leaves the reader wishing for further titles in the sequence (I waited all through the seventies for her to revisit these characters, which she never did), then this, I think, dovetails well with Jansson’s belief that every story should include something left unexplained, so as to allow free rein to the reader’s imagination. Sometimes, less can indeed be more.
Next week, I’ll review the final Moomin novel, Moominvalley in November.
* Whether you choose to interpret this disclosure as a spoiler, or as a content advisory, is entirely up to you.