wanted to know how I think the Moomin books compare to Tove Jansson's books for adults, if any comparison can be made. I certainly think it can be. Let's see how this goes. I'm going to have trouble citing sources for this at times because a lot of them have just been read out loud to me from books written in Swedish which are way above my current reading comprehension level.
Also, on the topic of Tove Jansson's books, if you haven't spotted it yet you may be interested to know that Travelling Light
(Resa med lätt baggage
, I think) is being released in English this summer. I'm looking forward to it, because while I can read texts in Swedish it's really laborious and sometimes you want to just experience the book.
Tove Jansson spent the earlier part of her career writing about and drawing the Moomins, who began their life as a happy family who could pretty much deal with anything cheerfully, in a way which probably contained a fairly strong element of escapism. Even the earlier ones are about disasters and danger, not always in a way entirely disconnected from the real world (there's an essay titled Tove Jansson's 'Comet in Moominland' as War Text
by Kate McLoughlin, in Tove Jansson Rediscovered
, which talks about the use of a flaming red comet from the east threatening to wipe everyone out when used in a book published in Finland in 1946 - look, do I really need to spell this one out?) - but it's about disasters that are survived, and in pretty good humour on the whole. People have grand adventures along the way, and there's always a good ending. Her books for adults are not about grand adventures; they're about people, and philosophy. So on the surface of it, they're very different - or at least, say, Comet in Moominvalley
, originally Kometjakten
, the second moomin book and the earliest widely avaliable in English), from the 40s, is very different from Fair Play
), from 1989. But why wouldn't it be? Apart from the presence or absence of small happy trolls, there are 35 years of life between them.
What I actually feel happens is not that there's a disconnect between her writing which is marketed for children (not sure it really is so much For Children, in fact, but that's another argument) and her writing for adults so much as that there's a fairly logical progression. The idealised world of the happy family of Moomins breaks down over the course of the moomin series, and if the early books held up a fairly traditional family structure and made it look wonderful the later books almost seem to show that as having been largely an illusion - maybe even all along. Moominpappa at Sea
(Pappan och havet
- 1965) is the obvious example, with Moominmamma withdrawing into herself and her art because she's unhappy with their situation and Moominpappa coming across as obsessive and insecure about his (perceived) role as the protector of the family. Moominvalley in November (Sent i november
- 1970, and the very last novel to be written about Moominvalley) is also about this illusion of the Moomin family as opposed to the reality; people from all around gather at the moomins' home expecting the family to be there to provide whatever it is they feel they need, but what most of them are after, as far as I remember, is actually mostly fictitious. They cling to the bits that suit whatever it is they need, not the reality of the family, so that the family are more a symbol than anything. The tone of both books is melancholy and philosophical, and there aren't any particularly grand adventures; possibly Moominpappa tried to force one in Moominpappa at Sea
by taking his whole family off to the lighthouse, but the character of the thing is very different.
Unsurprisingly, Tove talked about becoming unable to recapture the happiness of Moominvalley. To me it feels like something she probably needed at one time, and outgrew.
The first of her books for adults, Sculptor's Daughter
) was published in 1968, so a couple of years before Moominvalley in November
, and I think it has things in common with the Moomin books, actually. It's an at least semi autobiographical book, and in it one can feel pieces of the family structure of the Moomins - her father, the sculptor, comes across to me as rather like Moominpappa, the troubled writer, at times. I don't have a copy of this book - it's long out of print in English, and I got hold of it as a very old and battered library copy when I lived in the UK. I haven't read it in a while, though some of the essays I've read more recently have touched on it, so forgive me if I get this wrong.
It's a set of stories narrated by a child, who takes a kind of idealistic view of her family and their work and their relationships - but the adult Tove colours the text rather, and you can feel that there are problems there which are not being looked at straight on. It has an idealistic element to it, from the child, but possibly quiet cynicism in the background, from the adult. For example, the emphasis on the father's work and the father's sense of importance is emphasised, but it's actually the mother's hard work that keeps things together - I don't remember if it was actually spelled out in the book (I fancy it may be strongly implied), but it's certainly the way the Jansson family worked, with Tove's mother Signe providing most of their income with graphic design work. At this stage I'll just direct you to the book itself if you can find a copy, and to the essay Bohemia and Beyond: Creativity and the Artistic Lifestyle in 'Sculptor's Daughter'
by Sonia Wichmann, again in Tove Jansson Rediscovered
Basically, it feels like a real transition piece, and I'm actually tempted to argue that in some ways it doesn't have much more in common with other pieces of her adult fiction than, say, Moominvalley in November
*, except for the coincidence of not containing Hemulen et al. Moominvalley in November is the more philosophical book, and although it's about the little creatures of Moominvalley it's actually an awful lot about people, while Sculptor's Daughter
contains a less strongly questioned nostalgia for childhood but is a move towards the fairly unveiled autobiography that comes out in a number of her later books. This isn't
to say that I don't think the Moomin books contain elements of Tove's actual life; see above. I think Tove was a number of the characters from the Moomin books at different times... one is even named after her, and two are named after people she was in love with or in a relationship with.**
Beyond this sort of transitory period, there are also themes that Tove kept playing with right through her life that tie the Moomin books together with her books for adults, though there are of course big areas in which they don't
overlap. All the same: creativity is permanently present, in The Exploits of Moominpappa
) and in Moominsummer Madness
) when Moominpappa works on his memoirs and tries to write a play, respectively, and in Tales from Moominvalley
when Snufkin struggles with the balance between creative freedom and responsibility to one's audience, and in others besides; I won't get into listing which of her later books count, because it's basically all of them
, or at least every single one I've been able to get hold of and read.
Tove wrote, when it comes right down to it, about work, which for her was always creative work, and love. (The introduction by Ali Smith to the English edition of Fair Play
says that a young Tove used Labora et amare
as a moto in her personal bookplate design, and that "As she told an interviewer in 1994, 'The most important thing for me has been work. And then love.'") And I think that pretty much counts for the vast majority of her books, whatever the apparent target audience - although there's a shift in focus. While the Moomin books focus on relationships that centre in around the family unit of the Moomins themselves (whether they're present or not) her later books move towards relationships between women. This isn't universally the case (Sculptor's Daughter is still about the family as a whole, and while I haven't read Sun City I understand that it has a different focus, to name just a couple), but here are the books that I own of her later ones:
- Fair Play
is about the relationship between two ageing women who live and work together
- The True Deceiver
is about a young woman, Katri, and an elderly artist, Anna, and a kind of strange power struggle between them over the course of a winter in a remote Swedish village; it's a tense sort of book, where one feels that something terrible might happen at any moment, and it's the nuances of their relationship which do that
- A Winter Book
is a collection of short stories, and the emphasis varies story by story, but there are, for example, stories composed entirely of letters between women.
- The Summer Book
is about three people living on an island for the summer, but two of them take centre-stage, and those two are a child called Sophia her grandmother, who irritate each other and help each other understand things and much more.
(Which is to say, if anyone was feeling the need for books which pass the bechdel test with absolutely flying colours, here you go. Work and small animals and creativity and religion and money and friends and haiku and many other things are discussed. And sometimes men. But mostly other stuff, to be honest. Have at.)
There's also a move towards openly gay characters, for a varying value of optimistic representation (...again, I haven't actually read
Sun City, but...). Fair Play
is clearly the obvious choice to illustrate this point; see description above.
At first glance the moomin books are much more conventional when it comes to gender and sexuality than her later books. But you don't have to squint that hard to get hold of signs of other things, as proved by the essay Roses, Beads and Bones: Gender, Borders and Slippage in Tove Jansson's Moomin Comic-Strips
by K.A. Laity (Guess which book of essays this is in! Go on! Guess! ...that's right! The only book of essays about Tove Jansson's work avaliable in the English language, as referenced several times already...), which basically talks about a series of comic strips which can be read as undermining expectations about gender, age and desire. There's also an essay about homoerotic themes in the Moomin books at large, but it's in Swedish only, and also I've lost the title, so you're going to have to take my word for it. I haven't read it, so I don't know what points it makes. But it exists! (Further information from People Who Know welcomed.)
Returning to more definitely common themes, though, is a kind of respect and love for nature which gets in everywhere. There is a kind of sentimentality to it, and an attachment to the dramatic extremes of storms, for example, but also a constant presence of practicality, grounding it just a little: that you can enjoy a storm but only if you're sure of the moorings on your boat and you haven't left your fishing nets in the water. Some of her characters get carried away in their sentimentality over nature - Moominpappa is one such - but many take a more grounded and practical approach even while loving it, and Snufkin the traveller is one of those. In her later books, characters try to balance the two feelings, and Tove often comes across as critical of people from the cities who come out to the islands for the summer without understanding how things work there; perhaps partly about snobbishness (in the way her child self was snobbish about people living less bohemian lives than her own in Sculptor's Daughter
) but partly about the damage that people can do and have done to them when they only think of nature as something beautiful. This comes back a lot, in The Summer Book
particularly, and in Moominvalley in November
with the Hemulen who thinks he loves sailing and boats, and perhaps with Moominpappa's rather fumbling attempts to understand the sea around the lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea
. But there's a real love of the sea especially and the natural world in general that I got from all of her books, and the tone of it coincides happily with my feelings about the whole thing, actually.
I think my overall point is that I do think of Tove Jansson's works as a fairly coherent unit, actually, with a lot of common themes and what feels like a natural progression through the course of Tove's life, from young artist through to old age (she was in her 70s when she published Fair Play
). There are changing concerns and changing needs but there's not such a giant disconnect between what people think of as the two bodies of (written) work she produced.
Or that's how I feel about it, anyway.
* Interestingly, I also almost feel as though Moominvalley in November is edging a little towards the structure used in Sculptor's Daughter as well as in many of her other books for adults, which is chapters which are fairly loosely connected but build together to form a story. In this case it's mostly a product of tracing the stories and concerns of individual characters, as opposed to the Moomins on an adventure style of earlier Moomin books.
** Those characters are: Tofslan for herself and Vifslan for... damn, I can't find the exact name. There was a woman she was in love with who had a name like Violet or Violetta or something. Can anyone help me? This info comes from the 2007 biography by Boel Westin, which I do not have on hand and cannot read properly anyway, but which seems excellent. Anyway, those are the characters who in English are Thingumy and Bob, the two mischievous ones who talk in their own nonsense-language only they understand. In English they switch the order of syllables around. In Swedish they add -sla or -slan onto the end of words. It is not uncommon for people in this household to spontaneously begin talking like that, which is what comes of there being a ten year old child and two adults who barely qualify for the term. Anyway, the final character named for someone in Tove's life that I'm aware of is Too-ticki/Too-ticky, for Finnish artist Tuulikki Pietilä, her long-term partner. Of these Too-ticki has the biggest role and is recognisable as a similar character to, say, Jonna in Fair Play.