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).

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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.

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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 Twiggs’ 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.

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