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.

Comet_in_Moominland_1

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.

Comet_in_Moominland_2

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.

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