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.

Moominland_Midwinter_1

(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.

Moominland_Midwinter_2

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.)

Trollvinter

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.

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One response

14 05 2016
adamb666

Yes good point about the lavender cover.

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