Friday, 18 May 2012

Moominpappa at Sea - Tove Jansson


You probably know that I love and adore Tove Jansson.  She is, indeed, one of my all-time favourite writers, and the only author whose books I eagerly await.  (Yes, she's dead, but they're being steadily translated - a newly translated collection of short stories coming soon from Sort Of Books!)  Until now, though, I hadn't read any of the Moomin books for which she is best known.  Aware of this, Margaret Szedenits very kindly gave me a copy of Moominpappa at Sea (1965) which is actually the final book to feature the Moomin family, except some picture books.


Only the beginning of Moominpappa at Sea takes place in Moominvalley, and only the Moomin family appear.  Apparently there are lots of other characters, but I got to know thoughtful, adventurous Moominpappa, wise, diligent Moominmamma, anxious, imaginative Moomintroll, and fearless, feisty Little My.  They have a map on their wall, a dot on which marks an island (or perhaps, Little My suggests, some fly-dirt) with a lighthouse - Moominpappa decides that the family will move there.
"Of course we run the risk of it being calm tonight," said Moominpappa.  "We could have left immediately after lunch.  But on an occasion like this we must wait for sunset.  Setting out in the right way is just as important as the opening lines in a book: they determine everything."
After a wet and windy journey across the sea, they arrive on the island - deserted, except for a taciturn fisherman - and head towards the lighthouse.  Everything is not quite as they hoped.  The beam of the lighthouse doesn't work, there is no soil for Moominmamma's garden, and worst of all - the lighthouse is locked and they can't find the key.  Without being too much like an educational TV programme, Tove Jansson incorporates many different responses to change - whether it intimidates, infuriates, or energises people.  Moominmamma is definitely the family member who most wishes they had never left.
In front of them lay age-old rocks with steep and sharp sides and they stumbled past precipice after precipice, grey and full of crevices and fissures.

"Everything's much too big here," thought Moominmamma.  "Or perhaps I'm too small."

Only the path was as small and insecure as she was.
And then it all gets a bit surreal.  Not only is are they followed by the Groke - a curious creature which fills them with fear and turns the ground to ice - the island itself seems to be alive.  The trees move, the sea itself has a definite, often petulant, character.  The Moomins take this in their stride - they almost seem to expect it.
Moominpappa leaned forward and stared sternly at the fuming sea.  "There's something you don't seem to understand," he said.  "It's your job to look after this island.  You should protect and comfort it instead of behaving as you do.  Do your understand?

Moominpappa listened, but the sea made no answer.
So, what did I make of it all?  I definitely enjoyed it, and I especially liked Tove Jansson's deceptively simple illustrations throughout - they enhanced the story, and also softened its edges, as it were.  The emotions and actions of the Moomins are often quite human, and the illustrations remind us that we are in a different world - they give the prose a warm haze.

And yet I never felt I quite knew what Jansson was doing.  I was expecting that it might all be a sort of allegory, in a way, for how humans respond to change.  But the Moomins aren't simply there to represent types of response - they form a family unit as valid as those in any novel, even if there isn't quite the same depth of development in these relationships (in this book, at least.)  The characters certainly often speak wisely, or demonstrate their feelings through actions (as Moominmamma does with her painting), but I couldn't ever forget that this was a children's book - and that, in this case, the children's book really did feel like a watered-down version of the adults' novels.

I wasn't sure how Tove Jansson's books for children would relate to the wonderful novels and stories I've already read.  It seemed to me, after reading Moominpappa at Sea, that it was like the skeletal equivalent of something like Fair Play.  Janssons' great talent is her deeply perceptive descriptions of everyday interactions between people - incredibly nuanced and yet subtle.  She only gives the bare bones of this in Moominpappa at Sea.  Well, more than the bare bones - more, I daresay, than a lot of adult novelists - but not with the finesse of which I know her capable.  I still loved reading it, and I'm very grateful to Margaret for giving me the book and the opportunity, but I now feel comfortable that I have not been thus far missing Jansson's greatest work.  She may be best known for the Moomin books but, based on what I have read of her oeuvre so far, she saved her finest writing for elsewhere.

17 comments:

  1. My kids really appreciate the quirkiness of the Moomins. We have fun bantering about which Moomin character fits the personality of each family member (sort of like determining which of the seven dwarfs we most resemble). So glad you finally got to meet the Moomins.

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    1. I do hope none of you are the Groke, Susan! I can see it would be fun to grow up with these - picking from the Famous Five was less fun, since Dick is the only one anyone could find non-objectionable! Except Timmy, of course.

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  2. I have read all the Moomin books and I have to admit this one was my least favourite. My personal favourite is Moominsummer Madness. I have only read the Moomin books out of her works, so I thik I should try her grown up works some time.

    Ed

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    1. Ah, and it is other people's favourites - strange! But I will keep an eye out for others. You should definitely try her other works, Ed.

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  3. I read the Summer Book (on your recommendation) and really fell in love with it...but I must read more! Which one would you recommend I read next?!

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    1. Hurray!
      Well, if you're into short stories then A Winter Book is my favourite of all of hers; for novels, The True Deceiver is a little darker than The Summer Book, and equally wonderful.

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  4. When I first started out as a teacher in 1974, I worked with a colleague who held a class full of of 6 and 7 year olds completely entranced with Moomin stories. At mid-day the children would race about tidying up the classroom really quickly so that they could squeeze every possible moment sitting on the carpet, arms wrapped round their knees, eyes fixed unwaveringly on the book in their teacher's hand. I can still hear their disappointed cries when the bell went for lunch time!

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    1. If only all 6 and 7 year olds maintained this love of literature later in life!

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  5. I also read (or had read to me) most of the Moomin books as a child. I only got hold of the Moomins and the Great Flood on a recent trip to Finland. A lot of them have an underlying sadness/loneliness to them, but some of them - Comet in Moominland, Finn Family Moomintroll - have comic moments that still tickle me years on.

    (PS - don't want to be pedantic, but surely it's the Groke?)

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    1. Thank you! I knew I should have checked this - consider it changed :)

      It seems very strange to me that a translation of Moomins and Great Flood has yet to be published in this country.. well done on picking up a copy in Finland.

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  6. Simon, I think this is a very adult book and not a watered (though watery!) down version of an "adult" one. It has, for me, a very different in tone from some of the other Moomin stories. I feel, having read them as a child and again as a young adult and then again in midle-age to my son, that these stories (the best of them) fall into the same category as "The Wind in the Willows". That book you interpret very differently as a child than as an adult and I don't think it fits neatly into an age category at all.

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    1. We'll agree to disagree on this one, Peter! Have you read any of her non-Moomin works, I can't remember? Actually, I assume you have, or you wouldn't give a comparison of them. Maybe I'll feel different later in life, but I am already beyond childhood, so perhaps not ;)

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    2. Hi disagree I think we will; that's all to the good in my view as otherwise what's the point of having discussions?* I have read both Summer Book and A Winter Book. Beyond childhood? What on earth does that mean in this context?

      * I don't mean that you and I must always disagree, I just feel that it's hard to benefit from comments which say "I agree" - one of the strengths of your weblog and your commentators is that they rarely do anything so uninteresting.

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  7. I love all the Moomin books, and reread them assiduously all through childhood, and also remember some of them being read on Jackanory. This one is one of the most gnomic, un-closured and extreme: TJ never gave quarter, never gave in to the happy ending, the perfect rounded, finished, tidy end of plot. Which is why she is so rereadable: Little My, the spirit of anarchy, was and is still my favourite character. I admire TJ's Winter and Summer books, but only becasue I think I can glean more about her as a person from them, which I was unaware of when memorising Comet in Moominland, etc. I may try her other adult novells, but am not sure I'm braced enough for them. [Kate in Brussels]

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  8. Hello Simon, sorry you didn't enjoy this as much as you expected. It's one of the few Moomin books I never read as a child, I do keep meaning to get round to it. But I understand - and Dark Puss's comments corroborate that - that it's not like her other Moomin books. I do urge you not to be put off - they are wonderful, rich, funny and wise. Your post reminds me I should reread them, and also track down a copy of this one.

    Also - thanks for the news that there's a new volume of short stories coming out soon, I must order it immediately!

    Best wishes, Helen (gallimaufry)

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  9. You had *never read* a Moomin book? :0 What sort of deprived childhood did you have you poor soul!!

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  10. Hello Simon
    Thanks for reviewing Moominpappa at Sea. I read that after Finn Family Moomintroll where you get introduced to everyone, so maybe I took for granted some of the strangeness - though it was supposed to be strange as it was an adventure, one that Moominpappa wanted. I loved FFM the best however the one with the theatre is great too and the one in winter. I was a child when I read most of them and devoured them uncritically so it's interesting to have a critical review. I love them all anyway!
    Jane

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