Wednesday, July 04, 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]

10 comments:

David Weeks said...

You know Tove sounds as though she was as mysteriously spiritual as P.L.Travers.

a moomi lover said...

thank you for these well worded thoughts on one of my childhood heroes. i especially appreciate your description of the emotional complexity of her world. i think it was the hint of sadness that captivated me as a child - though i did not fully understand it then - and of course those magical illustrations... i tried to draw like her.

i consider my relationship with these books to have been one of the formative experiences of my youth.

i love it when some random web surfing reveals such a gem. thanks!

number3legs said...

I grew up partially in Sweden and the Moomintroll books were very influential in my life. Thank you for sharing this. It is wonderful to learn more about her, and especially to see the drawings she sent to you, which otherwise I would certainly never have known about! Her work is very inspirational and I love revisiting it and discovering aspects I never knew of before.

Lymington Moomin@ugcm.com said...

It is a 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…

Thank you...there is such a place, perhaps we could all meet there one day soon while on our travels through life and have tea with the Hattifatners xx

Brian Sibley said...

Tea with the Hattifatteners...? Yes, why not? After all, they can't be too troublesome if they drink tea, can they?

Brian Sibley said...

lymingtonmoomin@ugcm.com writes...

Hattifatners having tea,
I found them all with little Me! Though hiding in the depths of night they will at times come out in light.

It's open house for Tea with the Hattifatners perhaps the colour-blind Chamelion would like to come!? does he travel?

Brian Sibley said...

Yes, and the chameleon also likes tea... :-)

Tricia said...

Sigh...what a wonderful article. LOVED the moomins - never before or since have I come across something with quite the tone of melancholy and mischief that Tove Jannsen was able to conjure. I've since come across her adult books which are wonderful, but the moomins will live forever in my imagination.

Brian Sibley said...

You are right, Tricia, Tove's stories linger hauntingly in mind and heart. I hope they will endure as long as kids read books. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous 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