Sunday, January 04, 2009

Tove Jansson – ‘The Summer Book’ & ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’

I can’t remember where I read that the Moomin books are based on Tove Jansson’s own family life, but it seems to be true. In the 1950s comic strip story ‘Moomin Mamma’s Maid’ (from the second Drawn and Quarterly volume of reprints), the prim Mrs Fillijonk sits down on a bed – presumably for lack of a settee – and is surprised at the noise (‘Bing! Bjong!’). Moominmamma explains, ‘It’s so much tidier keeping dirty dishes under the bed. Until the next time it rains...’. The Summer Book has something extremely similar:

It was a fisherman’s cat and it grew fast. One day, it left the cottage and moved into the house, where it spent its nights under the bed in the box where they kept the dirty dishes. [...] When the box got too full, the cat would howl and someone would have to wash [them]. (p. 66)

That ‘someone’ would appear to be the weather, because later on during a cloudburst there is a reference to ‘...the dishes that were washing themselves’ (p. 124). The book is a novel that feels like a memoir: the narrator gives us the thoughts of the two main characters (a child and her grandmother – based, so the notes say, on Jansson’s own mother and niece), but it is quite possible that there is nothing else fictional about it. There is no plot beyond the passage of time on a small island, from spring until autumn, when its only inhabitants (Sophia, Grandmother and the mostly silent Papa) leave to live in town for the winter.

Instead there is a series of episodes which add up to a portrait of the island and its inhabitants. They occur in roughly chronological order according to season, but not all in the same year. There is usually some sense of collusion between Grandmother and Sophia, and their closeness is really the point of the book. In the chapter ‘Dead Calm’ they sail to The Cairn, ‘the last island out in the Gulf of Finland’ (p. 59), and Papa leaves his mother on an air mattress with a parasol so she can relax whilst he and Sophia go exploring (separately). She waits until he is out of sight, arranges some clothes on the mattress to fool him, then sets off on her own exploration. It is not long before Sophia finds her, having a ‘smoke in secret’ (p. 61), and they have a chat – a chat which, one feels, wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying if they hadn’t been hiding from Papa. Grandmother reminisces about her own sailing days, and Sophia wonders who the ‘he’ in her anecdote is.

‘Your grandfather, of course.’ Grandmother said. ‘My husband.’

‘Are you married?’ Sophia cried in astonishment.

‘Bloody nitwit,’ Grandmother muttered to herself. Out loud she said, ‘You better ask your father about generations and all that. Ask him to draw it on a piece of paper. If you’re interested.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Sophia amiably. ‘I’m a bit busy right now.’ (p. 63)

Their closeness doesn’t equal automatic interest in what the other person is saying (but when does it? Closeness isn’t hero worship). The grandmother is aware of this, and worries that she is losing the inclination to talk about her past life, and that it might therefore be lost. It is all done so lightly you could almost miss the fact of the dead husband, just as the recent death of Sophia’s mother gets only a single mention.

Papa eventually emerges from the shadows somewhat in ‘The Robe’ (chapter 15 of 22), which is about his sleeping gown. It is old, torn, faded, burnt, smelly (it ‘smelled of good things, too – of smoke and the sea’ (p. 107)), and it has survived being thrown into the sea by relatives who came to tidy the place up (the tide brought it back again). Papa still doesn’t speak in this chapter, but where previously he seemed far removed from the book’s action and sympathy, his attachment to this sorry garment indicates that he is a good sort, after all. A Moomin, rather than a Fillijonk. The Summer Book is fiercely partisan: living on an island may be an act of celebration (of the earth, the sea), but it is also an act of segregation (of this family from the rest of society). The grandmother’s reaction to a new house being built on an island nearby is downright hostile: she and Sophia row to the island, and she is so incensed at the notice outside (‘Private Property – No Trespassing’ (p. 96)) that she moors the boat to it, takes her penknife, and:

‘Are we breaking in?’ Sophia whispered.

Well, what do you think?’ her grandmother answered. ‘But of course normally we would never do such a thing.’ (p. 98)

Unfortunately the owner chooses this moment to return, and the two intruders crawl through the undergrowth in a forlorn attempt to escape (Sophia: ‘Did I tell you they had a bloodhound with them?’ (p. 100)). Grandmother does quite a lot of crawling through undergrowth – it has the advantage over walking that it can’t be interrupted by her dizzy spells. Cornered, they accept an invitation to have a drink with the owner, Mr Malander. Sophia is shy and will hardly say a word. Her grandmother reflects (with breathtaking arrogance, given her own behaviour):

We’ve got to teach her some manners. We’ve made a mistake. She has to spend more time with people she doesn’t like, before it’s too late. (p. 102)

Generally, it is quite easy to draw parallels between Grandmother and the Moomins. Both are in favour of a free, independent life, lived according to impulse rather than convention. But in Finn Family Moomintroll, Moominmamma shows herself to be a good deal more tolerant than Grandmother:

‘Oh!’ said Moominmamma with a start, ‘I believe those were mice disappearing into the cellar. Sniff, run down with a little milk for them.’ (p. 108)

One might even say idiotically tolerant. Finn Family Moomintroll is structured in a similar way to The Summer Book: there is a plot underlying the whole thing, involving the Hobgoblin’s search for the King’s Ruby, and his lost hat which can turn eggshells into clouds and rivers into raspberry juice. For much of the time, though, this too is an episodic book in which the adventures are there to help illustrate the characters and the landscape. Both books follow the seasons, from spring to autumn* – whereafter the Moomins hibernate, having first eaten a meal of pine needles. Both also include trips to a cave and an island, and a storm, so they feel geographically similar too. Moominmamma’s character is fully formed by this, the third book in the series, from 1948 (The Summer Book is from 1972). Moominpappa, though, seems more of a stock figure than he becomes later on. He defends his family when danger is near (e.g. the Groke, who freezes the ground she walks on), but not with quite the ridiculous and adorable relish he develops later: here his precautions are sensible and necessary. Sniff is as he should be: shallow, proud and greedy. Snufkin too is exactly his own calm self. This follows the Hattifatteners’ retrieval of their barometer after the Hemulen steals it:

The Hemulen, moaning piteously, thrust his nose into the sand. ‘This has gone too far!’ he said. ‘Why can’t a poor innocent botanist live his life in peace and quiet?’

‘Life is not peaceful,’ said Snufkin, contentedly. (p. 67)

Like Moominmamma, he is more placid and tolerant than either Sophia or her grandmother. Perhaps this is the point: Snufkin’s character is idealised, it is something to aspire to (it would be great to be Snufkin). And his old, battered hat has something of Papa’s dressing gown about it. But what of the Snork Maiden? If she hasn’t quite developed into the two-timing minx of the ’50s comic strip, there are still powerful conflicts within her:

Out on the point the Snork Maiden was clambering about on the rocks. She [...] was searching for something that would surprise all the others and make them jealous. When they had admired it she would give it to Moomintroll, as long as it wasn’t something she could use to make herself beautiful. (p. 76)


* Coincidentally, the book I read this time last year, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, does almost exactly the same thing: there is a period of summertime liberation spent on an island, followed by a constricted winter spent in town. In excluding winter from her accounts, it is as though Jansson never wants to admit to the importance of any state other than being awake, alive, free.


Anonymous said...


I think I'm in love with Tove Jansson.

How lovely, to find ourselves in our thirties, thirsting after Moomin stories.

I don't have them to hand, but I think the notion that the stories are partially-autobiographical stems from the essay at the back of the comic strip books. I seem to remember being tickled by a reference to an Argyle sweater-wearing pet monkey. If you're struggling for gift ideas for my next birthday, that's what I want.

Chris said...

This'll be it:

'...Tove was immersed in a creative and often raucously eccentric household. A pet monkey named Poppolino, who was reputedly fond of wearing argyle sweaters, and a nanny who read Plato...'

I'll, er, see what I can do.

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