About Tove Jansson and the writing of letters

16 04 2020

(This is a book review — of Letters from Tove, edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson and translated by Sarah Death — but, as sometimes happens with my Jansson-related reviews, it has quite a bit of digression as well. If you’re not in the mood for the digression, just scroll quickly past the text between the two cover images, which are respectively those of the UK (Sort Of Books) and US (University of Minnesota Press) editions…)


I first encountered Moomin at age 11, picking a book off the shelf at my school library. It was a mistake: I was looking for science fiction. The cover illustration, in concert with the ‘Moom’ part of the title, suggested to my mind that perhaps these were creatures who lived on the Moon; in which case I was interested. But the illustration was whimsical, which wasn’t exactly what I’d been looking for. Ah, well, my eleven-year-old mind thought, perhaps it’ll be funny if it’s not serious. I liked humorous books too.

As it turned out, it wasn’t SF, and it wasn’t significantly humorous. And Moomins didn’t live on the Moon, but in Finland.

It seemed slightly too young a book, heavily illustrated and all that. But something about it resonated, and Moominland Midwinter became my portal into the world of the Moomins. Four weeks later, I’d made my way, in a somewhat disordered fashion, through all eight of the classic Moomin books (by which I mean the sequence from Comet in Moominland to Moominland in November) for the first time. I’ve repeated the journey several times since.

Even back then, I was intrigued not just by the Moomins, but by their creator. (What sort of name was ‘Tove’, anyway? Were her parents Lewis Carroll aficionados?) The back flaps of the library books’ dust jacket covers stated that ‘[Tove Jansson] and her mother and brother are the only inhabitants of a small island in the Gulf of Finland, an hour’s rowing from the next island’, which was at best a half-truth even then. (Not about the rowing, I mean, but about the cohabitation.) But children’s authors in that era were not allowed to be lesbian, or bisexual, or of any stripe other than straightforwardly and undemonstratively heterosexual, if the matter were even ever broached in public. Which, of course, it wasn’t.

For at least the decade after finding that book on the shelf, I searched, largely in vain, for more information about Jansson, and for more of her work. From the other side of the world, back then, there wasn’t much visible. I reread the Moomin books (of which, by now, I had my own Puffin paperback editions). I scoured bookshops, both new and secondhand. Sometimes this bore fruit: I found a time-worn copy of Sun at Midnight (Oswell Blakeston), a travel book detailing a Finnish summer holiday (during, I think, 1956 or 1957) which features a four-page visit to Tove Jansson on her island. (It’s a fascinating record of the encounter, as much for what is left unstated as is conveyed, and it captures Jansson’s mien — her friendliness, her sense of social obligation, but also an underlying standoffishness — quite expertly.) I also found a heavily-discounted copy of Marcus Crouch’s The Nesbit Tradition: The Children’s Novel 1945—1970, which includes a fair two-page exploration of the tone and scope of the Moomin books (alongside a scandalous characterisation of Little My as ‘appalling’, which says more to my mind about Crouch than it does about Little My). And I found The Summer Book, of which in the early eighties there were still copies of the Penguin edition available in one or two Christchurch bookstores. This led me to the realisation that Jansson wrote for adults as well as for children. By this point, the only two other books of Jansson’s adult fiction to have been translated into English — Sculptor’s Daughter and Sun City — were already out of print, but there were copies available in the Canterbury Public Library, which I borrowed. And photocopied. (I don’t still have those photocopies; they have presumably fed a few generations of silverfish. Meanwhile, secondhand prices for the never-reprinted Sun City, which I suspect probably qualifies as Jansson’s least convincing novel, have skyrocketed; my advice to the curious is that that particular book is not worth several hundred dollars for a secondhand copy, even for the sublime incongruity of seeing Tove Jansson name-drop Seattle acid-punk band The Electric Prunes… which itself is an incident I really think needs to be explored further.)

The perceptive among you — which, hopefully, is both of you — will notice that this is quite a long way into my review, and still no review. I’m getting there. Sometimes, like Snufkin’s attitude to tune-finding, these things need to be walked around to. Awaited. Preluded.

The Who’s Who entry for Tove Jansson, in the early eighties, let slip that there were other books — Moomin picture books and novels for adults — which remained untranslated into English. In 1981, I decided to learn Swedish, so I could read the untranslated books. But for this plan to work, obviously I’d need to find a way to buy the books, which weren’t available in NZ. I wrote, first, to the embassy (actually the wrong embassy to start with, because I’d assumed the Swedish-language books would be published in Sweden), and was directed, after next writing to the correct embassy, to the publisher (actually the wrong publisher to start with, because the Finnish Embassy’s information was out of date). But the former publisher directed me to Schildts, her then-current publisher, so I contacted them about purchasing copies of the books. That shipment of 14 books — the six books of her adult fiction then available, the four large-format colour Moomin picturebooks, and my four favourites among the Moomin novels I’d already read several times — was probably the most exciting delivery I ever received, even if I never did actually get around to properly learning Swedish. (I did make an effort, and I have a smattering even now; but I stopped far short of fluency or even reliable comprehension.) Jansson is dead now, and the books are of course almost all readily available in English translation, as so often happens when famous foreign-language authors pass away; but I still regret that I didn’t master the language back then.

I also wrote a letter, back then, to Tove Jansson. And received a reply from her. Which I then somehow lost. I won’t overburden this already preamble-heavy book review with the details of that sequence: you can choose to read it in this earlier post instead, and I hope you will.


Tove Jansson was an assiduous correspondent. She wrote many thousands of letters to the many thousands of fans who wrote to her over the years. She also wrote detailed and incisive letters to friends, lovers, and family members, updating them on a multitude of events in her life, and on her musings on life and her own difficult-to-settle identity. It’s a selection of these latter, often deeply personal, letters which have been collected in Letters from Tove, edited by Jansson’s biographer Boel Westin and longtime publishing contact Helen Svensson. (And if my own personal Jansson-related backstory is allowed to intrude one final, final time into what, by now, should really be asserting itself as a book review rather than a memoir, it was only on picking up my copy of Letters from Tove prior to commencing this review that I realised the name ‘Helen Svensson’ was one I’d encountered before… because, although I’ve shamefully misplaced my letter from Jansson herself, I still have a typewritten letter, on blue Holger Schildts letterhead paper and dated 19 October 1982, in which Helen Svensson provides me with prices for the titles of Jansson’s Swedish-language books. Lyssnerskan (The Listener) and Sommarboken (The Summer Book) were, she informed me, unfortunately sold out… but when I received my shipment of Swedish-language Jansson books, those two were included nonetheless, even though I’m fairly sure the money order I’d sent Schildts didn’t cover them.)

Letters from Tove is divided into nine sections, organised first by correspondent and then in chronological order for that correspondent. Some sets of letters encompass decades, and therefore the stretches of time and events covered have a tendency to overlap; to read the book in sequence is to follow a somewhat erratic trail through, broadly, the middle half-century of Tove Jansson’s life. It’s a busy life, cosmopolitan, didactic, sometimes sharing deeply personal information. What one gains from shoulder-surfing Tove Jansson’s letters in such depth — and it is a long book, far longer than any of the novels she wrote — is something that is in some respects less satisfying than either a fictional account or a true biography, for it lacks the artistry and pacing of one and the completeness and detail of the other. We don’t get to read, either, her correspondents’ replies to her, which makes the reading experience additionally unbalanced. And yet there’s also a strong sense in which this collection of messages to family and friends (and sometimes more than friends) is more informative about Tove Jansson, about the person she was and the experiences she faced, than any biography could ever be. This is Jansson, after all, outlining her own thoughts in her own words. Her talent as a writer and a highly observant student of human nature shines through repeatedly.

Jansson is frequently very revealing of herself in her correspondence, particularly in the long section of letters to her US-emigrated friend Eva Konikoff. The Konikoff letters explore from several angles Jansson’s worries at Finland’s ‘winter war’ with Russia in which her brother Per Olov [’Peo’] was a combatant (and on which she found herself bitterly opposed to her father Viktor [’Faffan’], whose outspoken patriotic hawkishness and racism contrasted sharply with her own fundamentally pacifist convictions). Later letters to Konikoff deal at length with Jansson’s explorations of sexual identity, her unexpected love affair with theatre director Vivica Bandler, her long romance with (and ultimately lapsed engagement to) left-leaning politican and philosophically-minded author Atos Wirtanen, her progression through a series of relationships with other men and women and, ultimately, her decades-long partnership with graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä [‘Tooti’]. These latter figures also feature as correspondents in their own right, addressed in their own sections of the book; the letters to Tooti are also highly informative and engaging, and free of the sometimes-cloying lovesickness that clogs the first few letters to Vivica Bandler. Elsewhere, the letters explore the tension between Tove’s mother Signe Hammarsten Jansson [’Ham’] and Tooti while the three of them, in the decade after Faffan’s death, are often the sole inhabitants of the Jansson family’s small island Bredskär (and, later, of Klovharun, the island Tove and Tooti lease for themselves). There are tidbits on as-yet-untranslated stories and newspaper articles, commissions she undertook for French radio and television, and incidents which inform both the Moomin stories and her other fiction. It still hurts to learn that there were two chapters culled from Finn Family Moomintroll so as to reduce it to a more ‘acceptable’ length for publication, though it doesn’t seem to have concerned the author greatly: alongside evident pride in the Moomin stories’ capacity to reach both a child and an adult audience, there’s also an open ambivalence at the cultural phenomenon of Moominish popularity, and a very definite sense of relief at the conclusion, in 1959, of her seven-year contract to produce the daily Moomin cartoon strip. The people around her are also delineated in considerable detail, particularly her own family members (parents and younger brother Lars [’Lasse’] somewhat more than Peo) and longtime lovers.

As one might expect, the tone of each series of letters is somewhat distinct: Jansson expresses herself differently to her parents than to her friends, and otherwise again to current or former lovers. But there is nonetheless, incrementally, a life (or more accurately, a several-decades-long segment of a life) that emerges consistently from these letters, a career in which ambition primarily as an artist morphs gradually into success primarily as a writer, with the milestones in this traversal interspersed with personal observations, random minutiae, and an aggregated process of self-discovery.

The letters are candid yet discreet in their phrasing and presentation. They are at times wonderfully chaotic: there are shopping lists interspersed with observations on love, death, and art; there is gossip alongside the deft portrayal of minor and background characters. (The background characterisation is itself quietly fascinating. I found myself wondering, for example, whether Jansson’s colourful and scientifically-minded maternal uncles might collectively have been the inspiration for the character of Hodgkins in The Exploits of Moominpappa; and there are many other ways in which the letters add intriguing colour and depth to the Moomins’ backstory.)

Occasionally, the letters resonate oddly with contemporary life in a world which finds itself in ongoing crisis. Jansson’s background canvassing of the prelude to World War Two (she was holidaying in Italy in June 1939), in a sequence of letters to her mother, might well seem unsettlingly familiar to those who wish to recall the foreshadowing of the past few months. There are similarly eerie undercurrents in Jansson’s wartime letters to her friend Eva Konikoff, with their focus on the sudden slow-grind horror of war and the haphazard mortality which accompanies it. Against such concerns, there are more hopeful strands as well: the enduring friendships forged, the relationships, the interstitial ‘ghost’ (gay) scene which Jansson somewhat wryly finds herself a member of. There’s a strong ‘life goes on’ flavour to the letters, and that, I think, is a strength of this book. I’m not sure that, having read it, I’ll ever reread it in its entirety; but I am certain I’ll browse through it again, searching from time to time for a half-remembered phrase, observation, or anecdote. There’s a useful index.

It’s not a novel, nor an autobiography. These are letters that were each written for their moment in time, and all of them private and personally-focussed; there should be no expectation that they remain in any sense current, or even illuminative to others than their intended correspondents. There isn’t always sufficient scene-setting to make sense of what’s on the page. Nonetheless, the book’s editors (perhaps ‘curators’ would be the more appropriate term) have done well to organise and to provide context and explanatory annotations. And Jansson’s voice is, often enough, wonderfully vivid. There are some gorgeous moments. I think it’s fair to say that Letters from Tove has given me a better understanding of a writer, illustrator, artist and cartoonist whose work I only ever found out about through a sort of happy accident.

Jansson is deservedly celebrated as the woman who gave to the world Moominvalley and its intriguing inhabitants, but she was always more than that. Letters from Tove isn’t the place I’d recommend for readers to discover her — go to the Moomin series, or to The Summer Book or Sculptor’s Daughter for that — but it is, most definitely, a place to find her.

A transcribed item of correspondence

9 08 2018

As I write this, it is now the 9th of August here, though it’s still the 8th across most of the world. My point in mentioning the date is that the 9th of August is the birthday of Tove Jansson, Finnish author, artist, illustrator and cartoonist, born that day in 1914. Those who know me reasonably well will know that I’m something of a Jansson tragic, and have in previous years marked the day with Jansson-related posts on this site. And so:

I wrote to Tove Jansson once, in January or February of 1982. (My uncertainty about the date is a reflection of the fact that, although I studiously made a transcript of the two-page letter I sent off, that transcript has been lost in the intervening decades.) My memory of the letter is that it was an earnest and somewhat clumsy expression of readerly admiration to a favourite author—you can probably imagine the sort of thing that a socially-awkward, overly-formal nineteen-year-old would write. I sent it without any real expectation of receiving a reply: Jansson was a world-famous writer with innumerable competing demands on her time, and was surely too busy to respond to every piece of fanmail she received. But I did get a reply.

Tove Jansson’s letter to me was written, in fountain pen, in English, on both sides of what I believe to be her standard stationery item for responses to fan letters: a landscape-format folded card showing a panoramic black-and-white image of Haru, the small island in the Gulf of Finland on which she spent her summers with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä. The letter was written sometime in May 1982 and my recollection is that it began on the side bearing the island’s photograph, concluding on the card’s blank back. I’m providing these details about its appearance because, although it instantly became one of my most treasured possessions, it has been—and readers may be sensing a theme here—lost in the intervening decades. But I did make a transcript, typed up on my white Olympia portable typewriter—my twenty-year-old self could be, on occasion, very organised about such things—and that has not yet been lost.

Here it is:



The context of the letter, at least in part, is that this was pre-internet correspondence, and so some items of information which would nowadays be provided very straightforwardly by Google and Wikipedia had back then required diligent investigation by me of the Canterbury Public Library’s reference section, letters written to (as it turned out) an out-of-date publishers’ address provided to me in an earlier response received from Australia’s Finnish Embassy (for NZ was, at the time, without a Finnish Embassy or Consulate of its own) which in turn had been preceded by my correspondence with Australia’s Swedish Embassy (for NZ was, at the time, without a Swedish Embassy or Consulate of its own) because my library-sourced information back then had been that the Swedish-speaking Jansson’s primary publisher was based in Stockholm. The entire cascade of correspondence which preceded my letter to Tove Jansson took months, even by airmail; nowadays such an email chain might be completed within days, or a diligent internet search within hours. Life has accelerated, in some measure. And Jansson’s books to which I referred in my letter, then unavailable in English translation, are now all freely available, even her first (but technically her second) book Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Moomins and the Great Flood) which she refused to allow republication of during her lifetime. Lyssnerskan (The Listener) has become probably my favourite of her short story collections (I’ve reviewed it here), and is an excellent gateway into her fiction for adults who might only know of Jansson through her Moomin books (which themselves, nonetheless, thoroughly reward adult re-reading).

Tove Jansson is gone (and so, it seems, is a precious item of correspondence), but the writing remains. That’s something, at least.


Book review: Sculptor’s Daughter, by Tove Jansson

4 01 2017

Sculptor’s Daughter (Bildhuggarens dotter, 1968, translated by Kingsley Hart) was Tove Jansson’s first post-Moomin book, published two years after Moominpappa at Sea and several years before Moominvalley in November. It’s described as ‘A Childhood Memoir’, which it clearly is; and yet it’s written in a deliberately fictionalised voice, and is set out as stories or episodes rather than attempting to link the whole into a clearly coherent narrative. In this respect it shares common ground with Jansson’s other coldly intimate (yet less self-focussed) family-drawn work, The Summer Book, and indeed with much of the Moomin canon, which taken as a whole all provide a kind of fragmented, kaleidoscopic image of the family life with which Jansson was familiar.


The original Swedish title Bildhuggarens dotter can indeed be reasonably approximated as Sculptor’s Daughter, since bildhuggeri is indeed one of the Swedish words for ‘sculpture’ (the more obvious term, though, is skulptur), but a more literal translation would be The Picture-Hewer’s Daughter … though that, I suppose, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, even if it does evoke a greater degree of thematic connection between artist and word-painter Tove and her father.


As detailed in Boel Westin’s compendious Jansson-biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, the roots of Sculptor’s Daughter can be traced back to at least 1959, the year after Jansson’s sculptor-father Viktor’s death, when she wrote some short autobiographical pieces. I’ve no idea whether these vignettes ever saw official publication, or were perhaps only entries in her own diary, but the extract presented in Westin’s biography is fascinating and insightful. A further precursor to the book was the publication, in December 1965, of an autobiographical family-customs story ‘Our Magic Christmas’, in Vi magazine; this, again, is information drawn from Westin’s biography.

I think I still have, somewhere, an illegally-photocopied version of Sculptor’s Daughter, dating back to my first encounter with the book back in 1981, when it was already out of print in English (back then, it didn’t have the staying power of The Summer Book, which stayed in print for many more years). My photocopy was a bootleg of the Christchurch Public Library’s copy of the book; I had to wait over three decades (and more than a decade after Jansson’s death in 2001) until Sculptor’s Daughter was back in print and I was able to buy a legitimate English edition.

On the evidence of Sculptor’s Daughter, Jansson must have been a fearsome small child, not so much precocious as fierce, unyielding, imaginative, and resolutely sure of herself. That imaginativity and self-assuredness come across in the crystal-clear confidence of the language employed here, which conveys the child’s mindset (with all the characteristic limitations and strengths of the young mind) with what feels like complete fidelity. The voice is breathtaking, and the best of the episodes (including ‘Parties’, ‘The Iceberg’, and ‘Jeremiah’) rank with anything Jansson has written; one can feel, here, probably more strongly than anywhere else in her writing, the strands that connect her Moomin fiction to her writing for adults. There are several pieces in Sculptor’s Daughter, indeed, that read almost like impressionless, elusive, moominless studies for the more naturalist world of the Moomin books. The landscape in Sculptor’s Daughter is at least as much (and probably more) a landscape of freewheeling and internally-logical imagination as it is a landscape of geography. This can, in a sense, be frustrating: it’s impossible to know how much of the book’s content is truthful narrative and how much is audacious confection. But perhaps it does not really matter.

It is very probably wrong of me, but on re-reading Sculptor’s Daughter, there is a part of me which wishes that it was a different book, that it took a different, and probably more literal, direction. There’s the sense in which it defines itself not so much by what it is, but by what it is not. Not a Moomin book. Not, in truth, a memoir. Not a novel drawn from close observation of family life (as was The Summer Book). Not a straightforward collection of short stories (as was her second book for grown-ups, The Listener). Not entirely fact; not completely fiction. It sits somewhere in the space between all of those shapes, and thereby defies easy definition. There are sections of the book which are utterly fascinating: Jansson, as one might expect, has her child-self down cold, and the almost confessionally personal vantage we’re offered, into the child’s thoughts, is at times dizzying. But it’s nowhere near as straightforward a book as at first blush it appears, and I’m not sure that it always succeeds: there are episodes within it which feel opaque, misplaced, unfinished. It’s probably not the book with which to start an exploration of her adult fiction: for that I’d recommend The Listener, or The Summer Book, or The True Deceiver, or Art in Nature, or …

Jansson once said—in point of fact, she very probably said it more than once, because it is a saying now deeply entwined with her memory—that there should be, in every story, one thing shown which is never explained further, but is left to the reader’s imagination to puzzle out. The difficulty with Sculptor’s Daughter, I think, is that there are so many such things within its pages. So we never truly know, for example, what is the mysterious silver stone which the young child so laboriously rolls home from the shoreline, and then inadvertently destroys, nor why it is, in ‘Snow’, that mother and young daughter have gone to stay in an empty house some distance from their home. It’s possible that the book’s magic would be diminished were these things, and others, explained, but this lack of contextual detail is what, I think, I find a bit distancing about Sculptor’s Daughter, and why it’s never won me over as wholeheartedly as has, say, The Summer Book.

A digressionary book review: The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

11 08 2016

I reread The Summer Book every few years. It’s not usually summer at the time.


My first encounter with the book would have been, I think, in 1981; at the time I was looking for something with the same magic as Jansson’s Moomin novels, the last of which (Sent i november / Moominvalley in November) appeared just a year before Sommarboken / The Summer Book (published, in the original Swedish, in 1972; in English translation by Thomas Teal, in 1974). It would be incorrect to say The Summer Book has the same magic as the Moomin books. In consequence, my first reading of this book left me vaguely disappointed. And yet I felt compelled, a couple of years later, to read it again. I found myself warming to it.


The Summer Book, which is set on and around the family’s island home in the gulf of Finland, centres on the relationship between Sophia, aged six*, and her paternal grandmother. Sophia is ebullient, brash, still learning to find her own limits, while her grandmother is more reflective, struggling against her developing frailness, sometimes a little cantankerous. Neither the child nor the old woman is inclined to suffer fools gladly, and the interaction between them is often flinty yet characterised by a deep, if sometimes reserved, respect. It’s an elusive, self-effacting tale that’s been pared to the bone, occurring as a sequence of short episodes which seem, at first pass, to be almost randomly arranged. There’s no readily-discernible plot arc, few supporting characters, almost nothing by way of props. It’s a quietly wonderful book.

The writing is vividly descriptive and yet simultaneously sparse. Adverbs are almost entirely eschewed, used only as seasoning, to sometimes brilliant effect. From the very first page, from the episode titled ‘The Morning Swim’:

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.
“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, “I’m looking for my false teeth.”

By focussing so closely on just the two characters, the book achieves an intensity quite at odds with its measured, unhurried pace. And it manages to touch deeply on its twin themes of dying and living. It’s a melancholic book, yet much too warm to be a sad book. And yet all of this—the intensity, the warmth, the depth of tone—is achieved in so subtle and understated a manner that one doesn’t notice the life in the text until after the reading. Or until after a second or a third reading. It’s a book that merits reinvestigation.

I wear out copies of this book.

There are, though, episodes that work less well. I’ve never really felt that ‘The Road’ adds anything of value to the narrative—it feels more like something Jansson has added so as to make some negative-space comment on progress, and consequently it feels out of place. And ‘Of Angleworms and Others’ feels a bit like filler; which is probably just to say that it’s significantly outshone (for me) by the chapters around it. But it may well be that removing these pieces would damage the structure, so I don’t really begrudge them their place in the book.


Boel Westin’s compendious biography of Jansson, Life, Art, Words, provides some useful background on the book’s genesis and release. As has been reasonably widely reported, the characters of Sophia and her grandmother bear considerable resemblance to Sophia Jansson and Signe Hammarsten Jansson (‘Ham’), the author’s niece and mother respectively, and other important details (Sophia’s mother’s death, the family’s summer presence on the island) also match the particulars of Jansson family life. But Tove Jansson was always at pains to point out that the book was indeed fiction, rather than biography.

Jansson was also at pains, according to Westin, to ensure that the book was seen as a work for adults, and not a continuation of her increasingly-wistful Moomin novels, the last of which she had written before The Summer Book was completed. Having blurred the lines so successfully between children’s and grown-ups’ fiction with books such as Moominland Midwinter and Moominpappa at Sea, Jansson moved, it seems to me, to disentangle those lines in her work from The Summer Book onwards: the only Moomin books that she would write after The Summer Book were a pair of large-format picture books that were very clearly aimed at a younger readership than that of, say, Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November. To that end, she was adamant, according to Westin, that The Summer Book must have nothing about it that suggested intention for a young audience, with the result that the book has very often appeared, in its various international editions (see examples above), with only the pivotal island illustrated on the cover. She resisted all efforts by publishers to persuade her to provide internal illustrations for The Summer Book … until the Germans insisted on such illustrations for the German translation of the book. So that particular translation came out with a number of Jansson illustrations not available elsewhere.


If you’re sufficiently a Jansson devotee as to wish to see these illustrations, the most straightforward course is probably to acquire the current Swedish paperback edition of the book (shown just above this paragraph): the cover, for example, is a colourised version of one of the illustrations. In style, the drawings are similar to those featured in Moominpappa at Sea: the lines carefully irregular, with much use of white space. They’re a rather beautiful addition to the story.

But these are not the only illustrations Jansson did for The Summer Book. I said at the beginning of this post that I first read The Summer Book in 1981, which is true; but I had read one of its episodes six years earlier. This episode, ‘The Cat’ featured in Puffin Annual Number One, released in 1974 by Puffin Books, a publication which appears to have predated the English-language release of Jansson’s book by a few months, and curiously the translation of ‘The Cat’ is provided in the Puffin annual by Kingsley Hart rather than Teal. The Puffin Annual version of ‘The Cat’ is illustrated by Jansson—and the illustrations are not any of those which feature in the German translation or the new Swedish paperback.


There’s a significant difference in tone, by the way, between the Hart and the Teal translations of ‘The Cat’, as the following excerpt demonstrates. From the Hart (Puffin Annual) version:

“Cats are funny things,” said Sophia. “The more you love them the less they like you.”
“That’s very true,” said Granny. “And what can one do about it?”
“Why, go on loving!” Sophia insisted. “You just love more and more.”
Granny sighed and said nothing.

and from the Teal (The Summer Book) version:

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
Her grandmother sighed and said nothing.

The Teal translation is distinctly the more faithful to the original Swedish of the novel—which is not, in and of itself, to say that the Hart translation is ‘incorrect’ in any way, because I do not know which form of the story Jansson supplied for the Puffin annual, nor what editorial modifications might have been imposed, post-translation, to render the story more suitable for a children’s publication. But I do very much prefer the text of the Thomas Teal translation.

It’s difficult to say, exactly, what it is about The Summer Book that so resonates with me. On first approach, it can seem like a novel-length vignette; and then one realises, while waiting steadfastly for something to happen, that it’s all happened exactly before one’s eyes. It’s a remarkably quiet book, and yet there are episodes of high drama, such as the marvellous ‘The Neighbour’; of surprising complexity, such as ‘The Visitor’; of other aspects even less straightforward to characterise, such as ‘Dead Calm’. There’s ‘The Cat’, and ‘August’. It’s all multilayered, and as warm and as cold as life itself.


* (Note, though, that various of the episodes appear to occur during different summers, so Sophia can’t be six for all of them. What’s contained in the book, I’ve always understood, is an idealised sampling of crucial details of the summer island life, rather than a straightforward portrayal of any one particular summer.)

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.


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.


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.


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.

Moominreview 8: Moominpappa at Sea, by Tove Jansson

22 05 2016

Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa at Sea is notably longer and sparser than any of its antecedents: only seven (or, depending on how you count them, eight) characters occupy its 200+ pages. It’s also a distinctly more melancholic and reflective book than the previous novels, though there’s a clear continuity with the sensibilities explored in the earlier Tales from Moominvalley. There are strong indications, too, of the future directions in which Jansson’s writing would take her, with its focus on often-unvoiced character disagreement, on solitude, and on independence. These are themes for which the often-bustling Moomin world would not seem a natural fit; and this book is, in many respects, a leave-taking. Just like the Beatles’ Let It Be, it’s not the last book in the Moomin sequence, but it feels as though it is.


I’m reading the 2011 Puffin hardback edition, which uses the 1966 English translation of Kingsley Hart. As with the recent Finn Family Moomintroll hardback edition, I’m not much impressed by the font and title typesetting choices which have been made with this edition, and which have resulted, in a few cases, in the introduction of typos not present in the earlier paperback edition. On the other hand, the cover illustration this time around (below) is restricted to characters actually present within the text, something not true of Jansson’s admittedly-charming cover painting for the 1970s Puffin paperback edition (above), so there’s that.


The focus of Moominpappa at Sea, moreso than in any of the earlier books, is on the family dynamics of the central Moomin family, here stripped of former hangers-on (except for the ruthlessly practical Little My). But while the interactions between the characters are important—and, often, telling in ways not evident in the earlier novels—it’s also a book of solitudes, with each of the Moomins adamant (and in some cases desperate) to assert him or herself, to stake out something that is uniquely and centrally his or her own. There’s male-menopausal Moominpappa’s need to thoroughly understand the sea and the island to which his domestic wanderlust has dragged the whole family; Moominmamma’s quietly fierce determination to not let her identity, so connected with their cluttered, now-abandoned home in Moominvalley, be subsumed by her husband’s quixotic, mercurial enthusiasms; and Moomintroll’s teenaged rebelliousness, overlaid upon an unsettled yearning for something he seems not, himself, to yet understand.

This may well be the most intensely personal of Jansson’s Moomin books, and, I think, the one in which she comes closest to presenting an unvarnished exploration of attraction, desire, and love. It’s also a strongly transformative book, with the Moomins redefined through their actions and reactions (although Little My is, perenially, always simply Little My). Moominpappa here, for example, is a quite different character from his earlier memoir-writing incarnation—less jovial, more earnest—and Moominmamma and Moomintroll are analogously evolved. It would have been fascinating to see in which directions Jansson took these characters in subsequent novels; but, although there would still be a couple of picture-books after Moominpappa at Sea‘s publication, there would be no Moomins per se in her final Moomin novel.* This, then, is essentially the family’s swansong.


What impresses me most, on this re-reading of the book, is the subtle surefootedness with which Jansson shows us just what is happening between the family members, often while eliding substantial chunks of the intervening action. (Exhibit A: the removal of seaweed from the fishing net. In a very brief section, just one sentence of bald and quite bland description, we’re left in no doubt as to the subtext.) The illustrations, too, are extraordinarily expressive, if less elaborate than those in the earlier books.

Moominpappa at Sea is a slow book, a quiet and surprising book, suffused with an understanding of the intricacies of family life and the particularities of an insular existence. It’s arguably Jansson’s most accomplished Moomin book, and if it leaves the reader wishing for further titles in the sequence (I waited all through the seventies for her to revisit these characters, which she never did), then this, I think, dovetails well with Jansson’s belief that every story should include something left unexplained, so as to allow free rein to the reader’s imagination. Sometimes, less can indeed be more.

Next week, I’ll review the final Moomin novel, Moominvalley in November.


* Whether you choose to interpret this disclosure as a spoiler, or as a content advisory, is entirely up to you.

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.


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.


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.


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

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.


(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.


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.)


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.

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.


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.


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.

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).


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.


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.