Sunday, 9 August 2015

TOVE OF MOOMINLAND

Today would have been the 101st birthday of a highly gifted and very special person Tove Jansson (1914-2001), the Finnish artist and writer who wrote in Swedish and who gave the world the Moomins.

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

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

If you're not then you've probably already stopped reading, but if you're still there, then I ought to introduce you to the Finn Family Moomintroll: Moominpapa, Moominmama and their son Moomintroll.


And, of course, all Moomintroll's highly individual and idiosyncratic 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...


I first encountered 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. Over the past few years The Summer Book has been republished along with a companion volume of stories, The Winter Book, and several of Tove's novels and short story collections and, accompanied by endorsements from the likes of Esther Freud, Ali Smith and Philip Pullman, have found a new generation of readers.

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 on a book (that has never seen the light of day and, now, will never do so) 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…

One last snippet from those letters about that name – Tove – that, as a youngster caught my eye and intrigued me... It was, she told me, 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 person who put Moomin Valley on the map of our imagination...


This is an amended version of a post first blogged in 2007.

3 comments:

Rene Lauritsen said...

A very lovely entry. Thank you. "The Summer Book" has become my staple gift to absolutely everyone, and it seems to be universally appreciated.

Philippa Thornton said...

Just came across this looking for some ideas for my mums birthday, what a coincidence, didn't know you knew her!

Brian Sibley said...

:) Hi, Phil!

Bx