Moominreview 9: Moominvalley in November, by Tove Jansson

29 05 2016

Two months since I began this set of reviews, I’ve reached the end. Moominvalley in November is Tove Jansson’s final Moomin novel. On a first reading, it’s a low-key, melancholic, hesitant work; but first readings aren’t always reliable.

I’m reading the 2011 Puffin hardback, which uses the 1971 translation by Kingsley Hart. Thankfully this edition retains the tidy layout of the 1974 paperback: there’s none of the (to my mind) misjudged experimentation with heavy fonts and left justification that bedevils the recent hardbacks of Finn Family Moomintroll and Moominpappa at Sea.

Moominvalley_in_November_1

In Moominvalley in November, the Moomins are in absentia (and, as with Moominpappa at Sea, to which November provides a sort of contrapuntal backing track, there is a greater relative focus on Moominpappa and Moominmamma at the expense of Moomintroll). In place of Moomins, Jansson gives us six disparate characters who visit the deserted Moominhouse in a search for the family of their memory. Two of these characters are instantly recognisable: Snufkin and Mymble (i.e., ‘the Mymble’s daughter’ of The Exploits of Moominpappa and Moominsummer Madness; and I can’t help but notice that, in Kingsley Hart’s translation, she’s lost the definite article her name wore in the Thomas-Warburton-translated Moominland Midwinter, even though, in the original Swedish texts for both Midwinter and November, her name is the same: Mymlan. But this is a minor lapse in continuity between two books written well over a decade apart.). Two are more-or-less familiar from the earlier books: while it’s not apparent whether the Fillyjonk is the selfsame one from Moominsummer Madness, or perhaps the disaster-obsessing individual from Tales from Moominvalley, or possibly a third, unrelated one, we’ve met fillyjonks before, so we know more-or-less what to expect. (So too with Hemulens: this is one of any number of possible Hemulens from the earlier books, but the particularity is possibly less important than the characteristic.) And two of the characters we meet here for the first time: the shy, secretive, somewhat mistrustful Toft, and the cantankerous and amnesiac Grandpa-Grumble (known in the Swedish as ‘Onkelskruttet’, which might more faithfully be translated as ‘Uncle-Grumble’—although ‘skruttet’ doesn’t appear to mean anything outside of the Moomin universe). These six characters do not so much mesh with each other as abrade one another: relations between them are often flinty and occasionally overtly hostile, as they bicker about how to cook fish, what to call the river, and what the Family were (are) really like. But ultimately, if only for a while, they jell.

Compared to, say, Finn Family Moomintroll, this book is not one in which a great deal happens; or perhaps I should say, it’s not one in which the events occurring lie on the surface. But Jansson excelled at subtext, and in drawing out surprising insights from her character interactions, and November provides some very good examples, with a mixture of unexpected pathos and character-based humour. And the book is, after all, as much about its absent characters as it is about those present: even though they do not show themselves for the book’s entire duration, we definitely learn new things about the Moomins. I think I’ve mentioned, previously, Jansson’s facility with negative space, with the weighted freight of the unspoken, and it’s evident here in spades.

Moominvalley_in_November_2

This isn’t so much a children’s novel as a book for adults who aren’t allergic to the interplay between text and illustration. And the illustrations are different in style, again, from those in the earlier books. There’s no longer the busy, joyfully-detailed imagery of, say, Finn Family Moomintroll, nor the quickly-executed, sketchy pieces of Tales from Moominvalley and Moominpappa at Sea. The pictures in November are sparse, mostly suffused and surrounded by white, often giving an overexposed appearance, but there’s an almost architectural care with the placement of each short line, each stroke. As in the text, each element of the illustration must be in just exactly the right place: it looks as though it must have been a painstaking process. It’s that kind of book. The shadows, done freehand, have something of the near-perfect, organic regularity of fingerprints.

Sent_i_November

The characters are delightful, although not to each other. It’s perhaps a symptom of my advancing years that I’m much more sympathetic towards Grandpa-Grumble than I was at age twelve: he’s a kind of awkward hybrid of Mister Magoo and Lady Constance Keeble. He’s also, I suspect, a dry run for the no-nonsense Grandmother in Jansson’s The Summer Book, which saw publication in 1972, the year after November. (Toft, for his part, is perhaps a character sketch of sorts for The Summer Book‘s other protagonist, the serious-minded six-year-old Sophie, although it seems clear that the Grandmother and Sophie of that book are drawn in substantial measure from Jansson’s own mother, Ham, and niece, Sophia. And if you haven’t yet read The Summer Book … but I digress.) The Hemulen and Fillyjonk, who in their separate and largely misjudged ways each try to fill the shoes of Moominpappa or Moominmamma, yet come to realisations that they were not aware of looking for. Snufkin, given every opportunity to take a starring role here, out of the Moomins’ shadows and in the company of such a disparate bunch of misfits, instead opts to linger on the margins—but then, that’s Snufkin all over. It’s important that he’s there, but he’s careful to stay out of the others’ way. Mymble, who’s the second-longest-established character here, actually ends up only vaguely defined compared to the Hemulen and to Fillyjonk. She is perhaps here, like Snufkin, as a totem of constancy so much as an active character. Or perhaps it’s merely her ability to glide through the disputes and interactions without getting herself ruffled that gives me that sense … she is, ultimately, supremely comfortable in her own skin, in a way several of the others are not.

It’s a difficult book to do justice to, I think, in a review: how does one describe a road trip where there is no road? But that’s the sort of book it is. And yes, it has its elegiac aspects, by virtue of its status as the last glimpse of a loved world. But it’s also a stoutly optimistic book, honest, quiet, moving, and unexpectedly funny. A fitting end to the series.

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