Monday, July 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 173 (7/26) -- Moomin, Vol. 4 by Tove Jansson

The artifacts of other people's childhoods can be disconcerting, particularly when they're presented in such a way as to attempt to evoke memories of one's own childhood; it's like biting down on a sandwich and finding only air.

Tove Jansson's "Moomin" stories were the stuff of many childhoods -- particularly those of mid-20th century kids in the UK and Scandinavia -- but they were not universally known, even in the Anglosphere. I'm over forty, and this book is my first direct experience of Jansson's work -- despite the existence of ten novels for children, the strips collected here, and a number of other objects. So my experience of these Moominstories are entirely unaffected by nostalgia, for good or bad -- I'm coming to them as an adult and a blank slate.

But these stories -- originally syndicated in newspaper strip-cartoon form in The London Evening News from 1953 to 1959 -- presumably attracted an adult audience back then, so being an adult shouldn't hurt anyone's appreciation of these stories. And the fact that this is the fourth of four volumes -- which fact is hidden on the outside of the book and only revealed, as if furtively, on the copyright and table of contents pages -- also shouldn't be a major issue, since a newspaper strip has to be based on the assumption that readers will drop in and out, willy-nilly, and that each strip must stand somewhat on its own.

That last assumption turns out not to be true: the Moomin strip was divided into discrete storylines (this volume collects five of them, each around 80 to 100 strips long), but individual strips don't always stand alone. In a reprint volume like this, that's an advantage, avoiding the stutter-step progress of so many strips that attempt to both tell a story that moves forward and bring new readers up to speed every single day, but it may have confused some readers in London back in the mid-50s. (Even if so, who cares about them?)

The main characters of Moomin are iconically standard: the young Moomintroll, driven by whatever fad or fancy takes him at the time; his more-or-less girlfriend, Snorkmaiden, typically "romantic" by the standards of young women of her era; the tinkering and occasionally self-improving Moominpapa; and the mostly colorless Moominmamma. A number of secondary characters parade through as well, who also mostly exhibit one major trait, in the standard way of stories for youngsters. (Think Winnie-the-Pooh, or Wind in the Willows, or what-have-you.)

And Jansson's stories are in that classic stories-for-youngsters mode, too: there's a lesson of some sort buried not too deeply in each of these stories. Luckily, Jansson's morals are rather less dour and Protestant than most of the classic books for children: "The Conscientious Moomins" is about finding the good life by slacking off, and "Moomin and the Golden Tail" has a similar message against fame and fortune -- mostly because it's uncomfortable and short-lived.

I found these Moomintales pleasant in a whimsical, old-fashioned bohemian way without entirely giving in to them -- but, again, I'm coming to them for the first time as a grown man, and a pretty grumpy, hard-hearted one as well. Anyone less curmudgeonly than me will likely find Jansson's work sweetly endearing, and her mid-century illustrator's line smooth and endlessly expressive.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index


Martin said...

Her children's books are fantastic (and have much more depth than the comic strip, especially the later, more melancholic books).

Leo Petr said...

I find the novels much more approachable than the comic strip. They are easy to read and transition better between plot points.

The comic strips are more for a seasoned Jansson aficionado who's looking for more, like me.:P

Armitaj said...

Bjork is on BBC Radio 4 this evening (Aug 4th) talking about the Moomin books and a song she's written for an animated film version:

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