Review: Tales From Moominvalley and Moominvalley in November

11 January 2019

Moomins are really having their day in the sun, and have been ever since Tove Jansson received her first letter from a business trying to trademark Little My for children’s period-training underpants. In Melbourne, you can buy random objects with their faces on them from Uniqlo, Miniso and every sort of artist’s market. Little My’s been the Twitter avi of the current Voiceworks Editor-in-Chief for as long as I can remember, and I have a turquoise portable phone charger with Moomintroll on a pogo stick on it.

Yet I’d like to think of myself as the Moomin-shaped elephant in the room—or a particularly looming, pretentious, party-killing, stamp-collecting Hemulen. Hovering about on the doorstep, I’m an annoying anti-capitalist Groke. Although I love that some of my friends grew up with the animated series in Japanese, I was lucky enough as a kid to read my hoarder dad’s dog-eared paperback copies of Jansson’s books. They weren’t around in the late ’90s and very early 2000s—there was no Readings Kids superstore on Lygon Street, the Moomin Boom with its estimated value of over 700 million EU per year hadn’t yet hit Port Phillip Bay. Once, when I found Comet in Moominvalley at the Salvo’s in Abbotsford (complete with the titles at the top of each page as headings for what happens on that page!) I think I cried a bit.

As a kid, these were my criteria for rating, Antiques Roadshow-style, op-shop Moominbilia:

  1. Did Tove Jansson write it or someone else?
  2. Does it have her illustrations? Everywhere or just on the front?
  3. Does it have the special titles at the top of each page or at least any kind of words up the top, in italics?

Over the years, reprints started flowing in—documentaries, authorised biographies and more appeared until finally not just The Summer Book was available in translation through my local library, but all of Jansson’s other adult prose too.

Anyway, the thing is, I grew from an unknowing-but-judgemental child-dyke to an adult. Audre Lorde, in ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’ says that when we read and write poetry it “forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change”—and cheesily enough Jansson’s words shape my ethics, light and life. (And whitely enough too: I’m white and so was the Swedish-speaking Fin Jansson, which is an important detail I don’t want to completely glide over in using a Lorde quote to shape this review. In such faithful collectors’ reprints of the ‘60s and ‘70s originals, these books do also buy into a form of fetishism of and nostalgia for Nordic culture that is all the rage right now and I am absolutely not doing justice to an analysis of but also don’t want to completely ignore.)

These new hardback prints of two previously harder-to-find Moomin books: Tales from Moominvalley and Moominvalley in November are glorious, just under 20 bucks, and I’m just so excited to think of all the children who’ll get to read them. After all, that’s who they’re for. Plus they fulfil the extra fourth category none of my other second-hand ones ever did: they’re hardcover and have dust jackets (and can therefore last forever).

Jansson captures perfectly a world in which being a child often sucks. You’re basically powerless, unable to have any control over your life, and frequently just stuck there feeling bored. This becomes ever-truer now in the time of anthropogenic climate change: in her first books a great flood and later a comet are coming towards Moominvalley to destroy the world. There’s nothing anyone can do but love their community and try and fight the social powers who decided on how these stories would end (from memory, this involves a man with a big telescope). In Tales from Moominvalley, Too-Ticky brings the family an invisible child and Moominmamma knows how to make her visible again: to fight her trauma through community and love. Jansson is a subtle, careful magician with words, stitching together the complexity of life and love. More than that too, in Moominvalley you only go to school for as long as you want to and Moominmamma’s always at home at the end of the day. Snufkin will be back every summer. Your feelings and frustrations are real but they’re also cyclical—and there are so many joys to experience in in the meantime. After all, Jansson’s world-renowned ultra-cute Moomin was originally a drawing of “the ugliest creature she could imagine” on a toilet wall when she was mad at her brother. Ugliness as unloveability and cuteness its opposite, feeling opposed to thinking, minds opposed to bodies, and all of the other dichotomies we pretend are rules that guide our lives get carefully torn apart.

On the dustjacket of both books, there’s this Philip Pullman quote:

Tove Jansson was a genius of a very subtle kind. These simple stories resonate with profound and complex emotions that are like nothing else in literature for children or adults.

He’s right, I think. But Moominvalley in November makes me heart-sore to think about, let alone review. Jansson wrote it—the final novel in the series—after her mother’s death. One by one characters come to Moominvalley to visit, but the Moomins aren’t home. Snufkin, Mymble, Toft, the Fillyjonk and others wait in the house and that’s it. The waiting.

Near the end, Snufkin leaves his annual letter for Moomintroll in the letter box and leaves. Toft thinks to himself:

His dream about meeting the family again had grown so enormous that it made him feel tired. Every time he thought about Moominmamma he got a headache. She had grown so perfect and gentle and consoling that it was unbearable; she was a big, round, smooth balloon without a face. The whole of Moominvalley had somehow become unreal, the house, the garden and the river were nothing but a play of shadows on the screen and Toft no longer knew what was real and what was only his imagination.

Moominvalley in November is a book with illustrations for children that came out in 1970 and it gets at loss and grief and hope in a way that other things very rarely, if ever, manage to do. It twins, and sits alongside Jansson’s exploration of absence in The Summer Book.

Every summer, Jansson and her “life partner” (to borrow again from the dust jackets) Tuulikki Pietilä would row out to spend the season on a tiny Finnish island that just had room for their small cabin and cat. One summer there was a nasty storm: the boat was rocked so violently and they suddenly realised they couldn’t control it any more. They discovered then they were too old: they could never go back.

Endings come all at once or slowly or sometimes not at all really. Often they’re slow—things going out of print, falling out of the world, files corrupted and you don’t notice until suddenly it’s all at once and none of the libraries have what you’re looking for. But at least—I’m hoping, at least in nice gorgeous hardcover reprints with dust jackets and full illustrations—Moominvalley is somewhere we can return a little longer.

These Collector’s Editions of Tales from Moominvalley and Moominvalley in November are published by Sort Of Books in London and available in Melbourne bookshops.

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