Moominreview 7: Tales from Moominvalley, by Tove Jansson

15 05 2016

Some authors—Ray Bradbury springs to mind—are undoubtedly more comfortable, or at least more accomplished, in the short story format than the novel; conversely, other authors, such as, for example, Iain (M) Banks, are a much better fit for the longer format than the shorter. While Tove Jansson was no stranger, in her early productive years, to short stories—she produced several in the years leading up to Moomin fame, as she worked in parallel to establish her credentials as a writer, as an artist, as an illustrator, and as a cartoonist—it was as a novelist for children* that she would initially receive her greatest acclaim. Her first six Moomin books were novels (although, technically, the word count of her very first book might merit its classification, instead, as ‘novella’), which must, I suppose, have led to the expectation that her seventh would also follow this pattern. Instead, Tales comprises nine shorter pieces. (Jansson’s subsequent writing career, especially her reinvention as a writer for adults, would see her place a much greater emphasis on short stories, with seven or eight collected volumes versus four or five novels, depending on whether one classifies The Summer Book as a novel or as a linked suite of shorter pieces.) This isn’t entirely surprising: all of Jansson’s Moomin novels, particularly her pre-Tales work, is suffused with the exploration of sidetracks, vignettes, and plotline distractions which could fairly easily have been budded off into separate, smaller stories. Jansson was always keen to unravel the secrets and hidden implications of minutiae, and Tales is a testament to this.

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I’ve always considered Tales (which is the last in the Moomin series to have been translated by Thomas Warburton) to be a book in a minor key: the stories within are sparse, frequently melancholy, less busy than the books which precede it. And the stories are often about solitude—”The Spring Tune”, “The Hemulen who loved Silence”, “The Secret of the Hattifatteners”—or revolve, in some sense, around a vaguely moralistic epiphany—”A Tale of Horror”, “Cedric”, “The Fir Tree”. These aspects, to my mind, make it less satisfying than the earlier Moomin books—which is not to say, however, that it’s unworthy of attention. Though not all of the stories are uniformly engaging (and, as always with collections, other readers’ mileage will vary), there is a core of classic fiction here, with the central five stories (“The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters”, “The Last Dragon in the World”, “The Hemulen who loved Silence”, “The Invisible Child”, and “The Secret of the Hattifatteners”) constituting, I think, the strongest work.

It’s a book, also, which carries definite hints of Jansson’s post-Moomin future, with its quiet, uncluttered intensity. Several of the stories do not feature the Moomins at all, with two of the stories—”The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters” and “The Hemulen who loved Silence”—eschewing not only the Moomins but also regulars such as Little My and Snufkin; it’s not difficult to imagine these stories cast, instead, with human protagonists rather than fillyjonks or hemulens, and these two stories, in particular, would not look out-of-place among Jansson’s subsequent writing for grown-ups. In fact, it’s difficult not to see this book as Jansson’s first attempt at divorce from the Moomin world: she was, I think, always unwilling to be typecast, and she seemed determined that the fiction should unfold according to her instincts rather than in any sense of obligation to the expectations of her readership. In this respect, the illustrations go almost as far in severing links with the past as does the text: gone is the tidy, careful detail of Moominsummer Madness‘s and Moominland Midwinter‘s artwork, replaced by a purposefully sketchy, almost offhand style.

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My overall view of Tales from Moominvalley? It’s a book that succeeds in large part, yet it still feels as though something is missing. Each of the classic Moomin novels—arguably, all of them except the first one or two—seems substantially larger than the sum of its episodic parts, in a way that Tales, somehow, does not. Jansson was always a master of the narrative power of negative space, of the ability for the unexplained or the disjunctive to add depth and, in some measure, clarity; this is something that shows through again and again in the later Moomin novels, and even more forcefully in her subsequent fictionalised memoir Sculptor’s Daughter and her superb mosaic novel The Summer Book, in which the very lack of obvious connective tissue between the tightly-compartmentalised sections is what transforms the work into such a convincing whole. In Tales, it seems, the gaps are too large, the stories don’t mesh with each other despite the overall consistency of theme. It is perhaps churlish of me to expect that they should, but there it is.

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* (This ignores, of course, the observation that the Moomin books have always also had a large and devoted adult readership.)

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