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.