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.

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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.

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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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