Thursday, 28 June 2007

MEMORIES OF MOOMINLAND

What is a Moomin? You could say it is something like a small white hippo but with a bit more tail, but it really doesn’t get you very far…

Basically, when it comes to Moomins, you’re either a Moomin person or you’re not…

Some months ago, while snooping round one of numerous blog-sites of animator and illustrator Elliot Cowan, I realised that he was a Moomin person. I knew this the moment I came across a haunting little drawing entitled ‘Tove Tribute’…


Then, this week, Elliot posted a blog, More Tove

So, what is a Tove? Well, like Moomins, you either know or you don’t…

There are, of course, toves (of the "slithy" variety) referred to in the poem 'Jabberwocky', but Tove - in connection with Moomins - is Tove Jansson (1914-2001), the Finnish artist and writer who wrote in Swedish and whose name, as she told me in a letter once, was Norwegian: “The first Tove, a princess, is said to have been buried in a sea shell. In Hebrew, ‘Tove’ means ‘good’.”

Any Moomin fan will think both those linguistic associations are appropriate to the woman who created the Finn Family Moomintroll: Moominpapa, Moominmama and their son Moomintroll...


And Moomintroll's friends Snufkin and Sniff, the Snork and the Snork Maiden, the Muskrat, Tooticky, Ninny, Mimble and Little My, assorted Hemulens and Thingumy and Bob...


Not to mention the terrifying Groke and the spooky Hattifatteners --- seen here in 3-D form as presented to me by my good friend and fellow Moomin-fan, Emma!


I first met the Moomins in 1954 in the daily comic strips written and drawn by Tove Jansson, which appeared in the Evening News that my Dad used to bring home from work each night.


Tove’s brother, Lars took over the strips in 1961, in which year, Puffin Books (God bless ‘em!) published the first paperback edition of Tove’s novel, Finn Family Moomintroll translated from the original Swedish. This was followed by, among others, Comet in Moominland, Moominsummer Madness, Moominland Midwinter and Tales from Moominvalley. Eight novels in all, plus various delicious picture books…



What captivated me about the chronicles of Moominland was the combination of fantastical storytelling with exquisite black-and-white illustrations that evoked feelings of warmth, happiness and security, shadowed by a hint of sadness, longing and regret, and tinged with a kind of yearning that is both nostalgic and elegiac.

In Moominvalley, everyone - however curious or odd: an invisible child or a cross-dressing Hemulen - was welcomed and accommodated somewhere in the tall, tower-like Moomin House.

It is tolerant world in which love is unconditionally guaranteed and where every individual is allowed - encouraged - to be themselves without criticism or censure; a world where home is the safe, centered heartbeat of life to which the inhabitants always return but from which they are also free to set off on adventurous quests in search of whatever might lie over this mountain or beyond that sea…


I always wanted to write to Tove as a youngster, but to a child of the ‘50s, Finland might as well have been on the moon; and, indeed, Tove (with her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä), lived on a small island called Klovharu, that, in the days before instant global communications, was about as remote as you could wish an island to be.

Although I never wrote that fan-letter, I loyally maintained my love of Moominvalley into adolescence and beyond, by which time I had found her beautiful adult novel about childhood and old age, The Summer Book, which has recently been republished along with a companion volume of stories, The Winter Book, and one of Tove's novels, Fair Play, all of them accompanied by considerable contemporary hoop-la in the form of endorsements from the likes of Esther Freud, Ali Smith and Philip Pullman.

Anyway, twenty years after first falling in love with the Moomins, I finally decided to attempt to make contact with Tove.

In the meantime, I had discovered that she had also illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, at the time, I was working a book (that has never seen the light of day) about interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s story in the popular media.


So it was that, in 1975 we began a correspondence that ran, on and off, until 1995, during which time, we exchanged letters and cards and Tove sent me several books and a hand-drawn greeting that is now one of my most treasured treasures…


Tove wrote to me at length about Hans Andersen and Lewis Carroll (she had also illustrated The Hunting of the Snark) and talked about how, as a child, she had initially disliked the Alice books:
Reconstructing afterwards is difficult, one is afraid not to be honest, but I believe that I felt Carroll’s anguish and reacted by fright.

Of course, I read Alice again, 20, maybe 30 years later, still without knowing anything about Lewis Carroll’s life - and I was fascinated, enchanted. Most of all by his unbelievable capacity of [sic] changing everyday reality into another underground-reality, more real, overwhelmingly so - one dives into the depths and stays there until the end. It is nightmarish.


As far back as I can remember, I have had nightmares, maybe that was why I couldn’t like Lewis Carroll as a child. In 1966, when I illustrated the Swedish translation of Alice in Wonderland, I read about his life, and understood…
Being at the time a relatively successful broadcaster with a string of BBC radio profiles of children’s writers to my credit, I made several attempts to make a feature about Tove and her world.

She eluded me for years and then, when she finally turned 80 and was far from well, she wrote to say that she had at last reached an age where she could now be excused a process which she had “disliked and feared” as long as she could remember. “Now it’s final,” she said, “and a great relief.” She signed off saying, “Hope you understand. Have a fine winter…”

Of course I understood, but the disappointment was sharp and still smarts.

In our correspondence I had told her - many times over, I imagine - how much and why I loved her work, but, too late I realised that there was still so many other things that I longed to ask her...

Had I managed to find my way to her and Tuulikki Pietilä's little house on Klovharu, I should have liked to ask her thoughts on Tolkien since she had illustrated The Hobbit but, like her drawings for The Snark, it has never been published outside Sweden. And I would have asked about her extraordinary understanding of youth and age; about the sense of longing and loss that runs through her books; and, most of all, about her acutely-felt perceptions of love, parenthood and friendship.

Then, if we had reached that far in the conversation, I might even have had the courage to ask her perceptions on same-sex relationships…

Well, alas, that was not to be, but in her letters she at least revealed some insights into the mysteries of creativity.


So, for Elliot (whose been nagging me for ages to write about Tove) and other Moomin fans, here are just a couple of thoughts from the Mistress of Moominland…
It is so very difficult to know in what degree one’s work has been influenced… How can I know when I portrait [sic] my own anguish, or dreams, or memories - or somebody else’s? There [are] constant influences… a lot of them maybe part of the big addition ending up in, say, writing or drawing…

Whatever they may be, they are possibly drowned in the everlasting stream of impressions where one never knows what is one’s own and what is a gift from outside…

[Photo of Tove by her brother, Per Olof Jansson]

20 comments:

Elliot said...

BRIAN!
I could not be more genuine with my thanks for this post.
I am delighted and hideously envious to see the drawing she did for you.

There are some nations in the world who are as aware of the Moomin books as anyone remotely British is aware of Winnie The Pooh.

I hope always to find more people who know of her sophisticated stories and wonderful art.

Interestingly, when I was a kid, I struggled with both Moominpappa At Sea and Moominland Midwinter.
I found them dull and boring.
Now I find them fascinating.
Not many books for young readers are about the patriarch of the family having a mid life crisis and dragging the family off to a remote island in the sea so he can contemplate his existence.
Once again, a big thanks for posting about this lovely subject.

Boll Weavil said...

Yeay ! Other Moomin fans are alive and well ! Although the Moomins had an eighties boom in the UK, there is a cult of followers still around today but they are mostly underground although the cartoons still show regularly in Scandinavia. A great insight into their world Mr B.Thanks.

Brian Sibley said...

ELLIOT & BOLL WEAVIL - My pleasure! I was incredibly fortunate to have corresponded with someone as inspired, talented and life-enhancing as Tove...

I think I was aware of it at the time, but it is only as I have got older (and older!) that I have realised (a) just HOW fortunate I was and (b) just how I DUMB I was not to have asked the zillion things I never asked...

Andy J. Latham said...

"...feelings of warmth, happiness and security, shadowed by a hint of sadness, longing and regret..."

Those words of yours describe your correspondence with Tove just as well as they describe Moominland Brian.

I never got on with Moomins when I watched the cartoon on TV as a child. Perhaps they are better introduced in picture books. Perhaps also that only a mature (and might I add, scarred) mind can really appreciate the "tolerant world" of the Moomins.

I can see why you love them, Brian, and I thank you for sharing this!
-----------------------------
Visit Andy's Animation!

Brian Sibley said...

ANDY - Try the books, you won't regret it ---- I hope! :-)

Phil said...

I love the Moomins. Something of a look of surprise in their eyes, but not a hint of a mouth. That's an excellent profile of Tove; I knew nothing about her until I read it.


P.S. For the first time ever, I got a Blogger word verification that actually sounds like a word (or a name): smenita.

Brian Sibley said...

PHIL - Uh-oh... Smenita? Yes, it IS a word --- a well-known Blogger word that is often a prelude to Blogger breaking down...

Google 'smenita' and check out some of the sites...

Phil said...

Good grief, I had no idea about smenita! Does this mean trouble for me (humble commenter) or for you (blogmeister)?

If it's any consolation, today I've got nwjqhb. Although that sounds familiar...

Brian Sibley said...

PHIL - No, I think you're OK - normally when that word pops up it won't let people leave comments however often they type them in...

'nwjqhb' sounds good!

Minnie said...

Arrived here via a very circuitous route (and won't bore you with the waymarks!); but so glad I did. Thank you for a sensitive and enlightening post about the wonderful Tove.
I loved the books as a child, and the characters stay with me as an ancient adult - including the dreaded Groke (I bet you know one, too!).

Brian Sibley said...

Thank you for your visit, Minnie. It is good to meet another friend of Tove and the little people of Moominland.

Hemulen said...

Brian, I've just come across this, and I wanted to say how utterly wonderful your description of the Moomin world is. Its completely perfect, and sums up my entire outlook on life too. I'm 31 and have been reading the Moomin books my entire life (thanks to my very open-minded parents), and I still read them now (as you can probably tell from my profile name!), as they still make total sense to me.

I'd also like to take the opportunity to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your mesmerising adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, which I first heard on Radio 2 in 1987, when it was repeated every sunday for 3 months. I had just been read it for the first time by my parents, so to hear it dramatised by those brilliant actors, I think sealed it for me, and I now read the books every 18 months/2 years without fail, and listen to the CD's at night with the lights off, and enter that world.

Once again, thank you on two different, but equally important counts!

Brian Sibley said...

Thank you so much, HEMULEN! I'm delighted that something I wrote two years ago has found a reader all this time afterwards - and one who loves Moominland and Middle-earth!

Hemulens are among my favourite Moomin folk!

Hemulen's Aged P said...

Brian,

Hemulen's father here! I think I should correct him - he in fact, I think, brought the Moomins to us, through the services of a class mate of his, who has a Finnish mother. I don't recall reading it to his two older brothers, only to him and his younger sisters.

Lovely article. They are truly wonderful books, and as an inveterate book worm, as child and adult, and inveterate reader at bedtime to the kids (as once they were), coming to the Moomins late in life (I had a half-Finnish college friend who loved them too, but he never persuaded to read them) was a delight. I couldn't wait to read them, and indeed took Moomin Summer Madness on holiday with me a few years back.

I miss reading them to the kids!

Perhaps my favourite character is Little My. I have know a number of very fierce little girls with topknots (including Hemulen's sister!), so she rings a very loud bell.

I have the Summer and Winter books on the book shelves behind me. Thank you for reminding me to re-read them, and also to remind me to *ge* the Moomin books for myself.

Is Gordon Brown the Groke?

Brian Sibley said...

Thank you, HEMULEN's AGED P. And, yes, Gordon Brown is now, officially, the Groke!

Hemulen said...

Well now I think you're both being terribly unfair to the beautiful Groke!

Josna said...

I too am a lifelong fan of Tove Jansson's Moomin books, for all the reasons you sum up so well, especially the fact that everyone who showed up at the door "was welcomed and accommodated somewhere."

As you also note, the warmth, genuine politeness, and security of the family is accompanied by a pervasive longing, which partly explains why the home-loving Moomintroll's best friend is the Snufkin the wanderer.

I love the fact that Jansson's weirdo characters are weird through and through, and never just cute. The Hemulen has always been one of my favorite characters (and became one of my pet names for my husband).

Thanks for the terrific post and illustrations, and for sharing some of your treasured correspondence with Tove Jansson. Not many fans take the trouble to write to an author and she clearly valued the relationship.

Josna

Brian Sibley said...

Thank you for visiting and for adding your own perspective on the world of Tove! :)

Reize711 said...

Moomins rule! That is all. =)

Jenni Sjölund said...

Hello,
I’m currently doing research for my undergraduate dissertation and would really appreciate it if you could spend a couple of minutes filling in a short questionnaire about the MOOMINS :) It is completely anonymous and you can do it online at http://tolu.na/XDGedL
Thanks for your time,
Jenni Sjölund