Moominreview 8: Moominpappa at Sea, by Tove Jansson

22 05 2016

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.

An exercise in third-party signalboostery

21 05 2016

It’s come to my attention that Adam Browne’s The Tame Animals of Saturn has been reviewed, by Stephanie McLeay, in Aurealis 90. While it would be unseemly for me to repost the entire review here (and obviously there are plenty of good reasons to buy the latest issue of Aurealis), it is, I think, fair use to snurch the review’s first short paragraph:

Few books have created a ‘What the hell is this?’ reaction as strongly as this illustrated novella. The Tame Animals of Saturn is a brilliant, utterly unique piece of writing that transports you to not so much another place as another state of mind.


Adam has a few other reviews / readers’ assessments for the book over on his blogspot. But, reviews belonging to that rarefied group of entities for which too much is never enough, there’s always scope for further reviewage. I’m given to understand that Peggy Bright Books remains keen to find further reviewers, both for Adam’s book, and for the other recent release, Sean O’Leary’s Australian noir lit / crime collection Walking. Review e-copies of both of these books are currently available from Peggy Bright Books, in exchange for honest reviews.

Moominreview 7: Tales from Moominvalley, by Tove Jansson

15 05 2016

Some authors—Ray Bradbury springs to mind—are undoubtedly more comfortable, or at least more accomplished, in the short story format than the novel; conversely, other authors, such as, for example, Iain (M) Banks, are a much better fit for the longer format than the shorter. While Tove Jansson was no stranger, in her early productive years, to short stories—she produced several in the years leading up to Moomin fame, as she worked in parallel to establish her credentials as a writer, as an artist, as an illustrator, and as a cartoonist—it was as a novelist for children* that she would initially receive her greatest acclaim. Her first six Moomin books were novels (although, technically, the word count of her very first book might merit its classification, instead, as ‘novella’), which must, I suppose, have led to the expectation that her seventh would also follow this pattern. Instead, Tales comprises nine shorter pieces. (Jansson’s subsequent writing career, especially her reinvention as a writer for adults, would see her place a much greater emphasis on short stories, with seven or eight collected volumes versus four or five novels, depending on whether one classifies The Summer Book as a novel or as a linked suite of shorter pieces.) This isn’t entirely surprising: all of Jansson’s Moomin novels, particularly her pre-Tales work, is suffused with the exploration of sidetracks, vignettes, and plotline distractions which could fairly easily have been budded off into separate, smaller stories. Jansson was always keen to unravel the secrets and hidden implications of minutiae, and Tales is a testament to this.


I’ve always considered Tales (which is the last in the Moomin series to have been translated by Thomas Warburton) to be a book in a minor key: the stories within are sparse, frequently melancholy, less busy than the books which precede it. And the stories are often about solitude—”The Spring Tune”, “The Hemulen who loved Silence”, “The Secret of the Hattifatteners”—or revolve, in some sense, around a vaguely moralistic epiphany—”A Tale of Horror”, “Cedric”, “The Fir Tree”. These aspects, to my mind, make it less satisfying than the earlier Moomin books—which is not to say, however, that it’s unworthy of attention. Though not all of the stories are uniformly engaging (and, as always with collections, other readers’ mileage will vary), there is a core of classic fiction here, with the central five stories (“The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters”, “The Last Dragon in the World”, “The Hemulen who loved Silence”, “The Invisible Child”, and “The Secret of the Hattifatteners”) constituting, I think, the strongest work.

It’s a book, also, which carries definite hints of Jansson’s post-Moomin future, with its quiet, uncluttered intensity. Several of the stories do not feature the Moomins at all, with two of the stories—”The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters” and “The Hemulen who loved Silence”—eschewing not only the Moomins but also regulars such as Little My and Snufkin; it’s not difficult to imagine these stories cast, instead, with human protagonists rather than fillyjonks or hemulens, and these two stories, in particular, would not look out-of-place among Jansson’s subsequent writing for grown-ups. In fact, it’s difficult not to see this book as Jansson’s first attempt at divorce from the Moomin world: she was, I think, always unwilling to be typecast, and she seemed determined that the fiction should unfold according to her instincts rather than in any sense of obligation to the expectations of her readership. In this respect, the illustrations go almost as far in severing links with the past as does the text: gone is the tidy, careful detail of Moominsummer Madness‘s and Moominland Midwinter‘s artwork, replaced by a purposefully sketchy, almost offhand style.


My overall view of Tales from Moominvalley? It’s a book that succeeds in large part, yet it still feels as though something is missing. Each of the classic Moomin novels—arguably, all of them except the first one or two—seems substantially larger than the sum of its episodic parts, in a way that Tales, somehow, does not. Jansson was always a master of the narrative power of negative space, of the ability for the unexplained or the disjunctive to add depth and, in some measure, clarity; this is something that shows through again and again in the later Moomin novels, and even more forcefully in her subsequent fictionalised memoir Sculptor’s Daughter and her superb mosaic novel The Summer Book, in which the very lack of obvious connective tissue between the tightly-compartmentalised sections is what transforms the work into such a convincing whole. In Tales, it seems, the gaps are too large, the stories don’t mesh with each other despite the overall consistency of theme. It is perhaps churlish of me to expect that they should, but there it is.


* (This ignores, of course, the observation that the Moomin books have always also had a large and devoted adult readership.)

Moominreview 6: Moominland Midwinter, by Tove Jansson

8 05 2016

I must admit to a particular affection for Moominland Midwinter, since it was the book which, forty-odd years ago, first introduced me to the Moomins, and thus it has influenced—more strongly than any of the other books in the sequence—my understanding of what the Moomins are about. This is a rather different book than the ensemble-cast pieces of Finn Family Moomintroll and Moominsummer Madness: here, though the story is once again kept lively with a variety of (mainly new, and always idiosyncratic) characters, the focus is indisputably on Moomintroll, who, by virtue of having been inadvertently woken early from a hibernation to which he cannot return, is pushed, isolated and lonely, into an unfamiliar and at first dark and intimidating winter landscape.


(I shared some of Moomintroll’s confusion when I first read the book, all those decades ago: I was in the habit of scouring the school library shelves for books of science fiction, and chanced upon a spine which on first mis-reading appeared to be something about ‘Moon’—which seemed to fit the SF bill, so I investigated further. The cover illustration, with its strange, not entirely humanoid characters, didn’t exactly confirm SF content, nor did it entirely dispel it. So I gave the book a try. I might never have encountered Jansson’s writing if it had not been for this mistaken interpretation on my part …)

The version I’m reading is the 2010 Puffin hardback release, which uses the 1957 translation by Thomas Warburton. (Unlike the earlier books in the series, I don’t believe there have ever been any changes to the English text over the years, nor even to the original Swedish.) My one gripe about this version is that I cannot believe Jansson would have ever sanctioned the use of lilac as a theme colour for the cover: every cover artwork I have ever seen for the book, whether an English, Swedish, or Finnish edition—and Jansson produced several different images for this purpose—has always been dominated by mid-to-dark blue, which seems much more suitable for a winter-themed story.


There’s a sense in which Moominland Midwinter—which opens with Moomintroll awakening to the new season, is thereafter busy with a sequence of events and a panoply of diverse characters, and closes with the turn of the season—is straightforwardly a transposition of the earlier Finn Family Moomintroll, merely substituting winter in place of summer. But it’s nonetheless a very different book, with a different feel: the illustrations are frequently drawn as white lines on black, rather than black on white; the supporting characters are more openly individualistic and often more enigmatic; the focus of the book is more clearly on Moomintroll rather than on the supporting cast; and the Moomintroll who finishes the story has changed substantially from the character we met at the outset. It’s tempting, too, to speculate that the book’s central trio—Moomintroll and Little My (both of whom have been described as Jansson’s most clearly autobiographical characters) and the newcomer Too-ticky (who draws openly on the personality of the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä)—provide an encapsulation of the new relationship in which Jansson found herself, with the woman who would be her life’s partner. (This, too, provides an opportunity for overlap with Finn Family Moomintroll, in which the inseparable characters of Thingumy and Bob (in the original Swedish, ‘Tofslan och Vifslan’) are drawn from an earlier, then-current Janssonian relationship, with the theatre director Vivica Bandler.) But as with so much of Jansson’s writing, the parallels are unlikely to be literal, and it would be foolhardy to interpret Midwinter as anything so straightforward as a retelling. (It’s perhaps notable, though, that while Thungumy and Bob are consistently presented as a ‘matched pair’, Moomintroll and Too-ticky constitute a sort of ‘harmonious mismatch’, between whom the differences in personality and viewpoint count for more than the similarities.)


The book’s minor characters are delightfully varied: the muddle-headed squirrel, the annoyingly-brash Hemulen, the shy Salome the Little Creep, the Ancestor, and many others, some of whom are merely glimpsed on the way through. In fact, Jansson’s worldbuilding, throughout the first six books of the sequence, is consistently busy with a wealth of character invention and interaction, a sense of bustle, an expansiveness that convinces the reader of the imagined world’s three-dimensionality by virtue, in part, of its detail. But there is also, as hinted above, an undeniable change in tone within Midwinter, when assessed against the earlier books: a developing deepening of focus on a smaller subset of individuals, and this is something Jansson would carry through into the last pair of novels in the Moomin corpus. The books remain magical, but the nature of the magic changes.

I would once have nominated Midwinter, without hesitation, as my favourite book by Jansson. I’m not so sure I would do that now: while it’s still a book which affects me deeply, it faces serious competition from several of Jansson’s later works, especially Moominpappa at Sea and The Summer Book. But I’m still drawn to it for its outwardly-simple yet mesmerising detail (things such as the story arc involving Sorry-oo, told briefly but with surprising depth), its magic, its enveloping otherness, and its plain human warmth and optimism. It is, ultimately, a quietly beautiful book, and it served, for me, as the gateway to a trove of quite wonderful storytelling.

Next week, I’ll review Jansson’s first (and her only Moomin-themed) short-story collection, Tales from Moominvalley.

And while I’m on the subject of free samples …

4 05 2016


I’ve made mention previously of the two recent Peggy Bright Books which I’ve had a hand in producing: Sean O’Leary’s noir/lit collection Walking, and Adam Browne’s weird bestiary The Tame Animals of Saturn. There are now free e-samplers available for both of these tomes, through the PBB website, should you wish to dip your toes in the prose: the Walking sampler is on offer in pdf, epub, and mobi formats, while the Tame Animals sampler is proffered only in pdf. (That final link actually does double duty, because it also provides a purchase opportunity for the hot-off-the-press epub/mobi editions of Tame Animals: these e-reader-friendly versions of the book inevitably lack some of the aesthetics of the printed version, but they do allow Kindle junkies, for example, to access Adam’s twisted masterpiece on their preferred platform. The e-versions of Walking have been available pretty much from the outset.


Seventh episode in a continuing series

4 05 2016

Yes, it’s May the Fourth. But no, that title isn’t a Star Wars reference.

You may have felt this site to be a little moominheavy of recent weeks. To counteract that, and to presage something which I hope should be relatively soon ensuing, I’ve posted another story on my ‘Online Fiction’ listing here.

Some background: I’ve so far written nine stories set on human-colonised Titan, starting with ‘Storm in a T-Suit’, which appeared in Aurealis 44 in 2010. Seven of these stories—and they vary in style, and don’t often share characters, though they are all definitely pinned to the same timeline—have so far seen publication; the ninth (a murder-mystery novella, as it happens) is still undergoing final polishing in the authorial toolshed.* The seventh of these stories,** and substantially the shortest to have seen publication, is ‘CREVjack’, which is the story I posted here today.

I don’t generally take my SF into mil-SF territory; ‘CREVjack’ is probably the closest I’ve come to skirting that particular sub-genre, and even then I’d argue that its intent is somewhat otherwise. It’s also—and here’s where that presagery comes in—the direct precursor to my eighth Titan story, ‘The Goldilocks Hack’, soon to appear, I’m given to understand, in the fiction section of Cosmos Online.

And as for the calendar stuff: May with you the Fourth be, as that little green guy might have said.


* No, I don’t actually have an authorial toolshed. That’s authorial licence. (No, I don’t actually have an authorial licence either.)

** Yes, that makes it, technically, seven of nine. No, that isn’t a Trek reference. Or maybe it is, but an entirely gratuitous one.

Moominreview 5: Moominsummer Madness, by Tove Jansson

1 05 2016

Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness (in the original Swedish, the title is Farlig Midsommar, ‘Dangerous Midsummer’) marks not just the importance of midsummer as a time of magical transformation but also, as the fifth of nine books, the midpoint of the Moomin series. In some respects it is a glance backwards—the central upheaval is effectively a repetition of the flood that precipitated The Moomins and the Great Flood (now with added offscreen volcano), though this time around the tone is busier and more exhuberant—and in other ways it looks forward to her later works, with character now strongly entrenched as the central driving force of the narrative. Jansson introduced a wealth of new characters in Moominsummer: Whomper, Misabel, Emma the Stage Rat, the prototypical Fillyjonk, the little Hemulen … these characters would not be reprised in later works, and arguably their primary purpose here is to act as foils to the Moomin family, but each is drawn with sufficient crisp efficiency that their personality is distinct and reasonably subtle. It’s notable, too—though I’m unsure of its ultimate significance—that most of the new characters are female, and in fact Moominsummer has a slight preponderance of female characters, in contrast to the rather male-dominated dramatis personae of Finn Family Moomintroll  and The Exploits of Moominpappa in particular.


There’s a sense, as I mentioned in last week’s review of Exploits, in which all of Jansson’s later Moomin works are transitional in some manner. In Moominsummer we’re offered the last glimpse of what might be termed the ‘cosy catastrophism’ of the earlier Moomin books, in which the upheavals are not, for the main characters, life-changing. This ‘quasi-permanence’ is obviously a familiar and well-entrenched facet of children’s fiction, particularly prevalent in series, but Jansson would disregard such considerations in her subsequent books. Even in Moominsummer, although the main characters escape effectively unscathed, Jansson outlines plot developments which lead to irreversible character growth for the book’s ‘guest stars’, perhaps as practice for the more substantial changes forced on the Moomin family members themselves in the final three novels (of which, obviously, more later).

I’m reading the 2010 Puffin hardback release of Moominsummer, translated by Thomas Warburton (whom I regard as the ‘archetypal’ Moomin translator, if only because those books for which he provided the translations appear to be the most iconic of the series). The book starts with the same summery setting that marks Finn Family Moomintroll, except that here the ‘early’ offsider characters Sniff, the Muskrat, the Hemulen, and the Snork have been Chuck Cunninghamed out of the picture, with their places as adjunct Moomin family members taken by Little My and the Mymble’s daughter. The book’s disruptive event, as mentioned above, is a flood which necessitates the family’s escape from the drowned Moominhouse. They take refuge in a mysterious floating structure; but if they were hoping for peace and simplicity, they should probably have looked elsewhere.


If Exploits was Moominpappa’s book (as its title obviously suggests), it’s tempting to see Moominsummer as Little My’s: though she’s not the principal character here, she comes damned close to stealing the show. She adds zest to every scene she appears in, and has some inordinately good lines. Though she was introduced in Exploits, Moominsummer is the first book in which she really holds sway as an individual.

The other character to really take hold of the book—and as with the Muskrat from Comet and Finn Family Moomintroll, it’s a shame she doesn’t reappear in subsequent works—is Misabel. The quietly melancholic Misabel is more-or-less the polar opposite of the extroverted, carefree My, but both are uncompromising in their own way. Both hint at depths, too, which their reasonably simple surface characteristics would appear to disguise. Misabel gets relatively few opportunities to state her identity, but she ends up, in my opinion, more fully realised than many main characters I’ve encountered in other books. (It may be, I suspect, that Jansson’s illustrations assist in this: the author need never waste time in telling us what such-and-such a character looks like, because as illustrator she can simply show us. The illustrations are always an important part of a Moomin narrative, and there are some gorgeous full-page illustrations in Moominsummer, such as Moomintroll diving through the submerged kitchen, the gathering of the midsummer garlands, and Snufkin’s retrieval of Little My.)

I’ve purposely said little about the plot here, partly through a desire to avoid spoilers, but more because, in the later Moomin books especially, the plot is almost incidental—certainly there are events to be negotiated, but it really is the character interplay which holds these books together, and Jansson was an almost unparalleled student of character. It’s the innate recognisability of these outlandish creatures which gives these books their kick.

Next week, I’ll review Moominland Midwinter.


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