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.

The_Moomins_and_the_Great_Flood

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.]

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