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107: MOOMINTROLLS

#107: MOOMINTROLLS. Some tastes travel, some don’t. Tintin, the hero of Herge’s long-lived graphic series, has conquered the world, translated into over a hundred languages and with shops of Tintin merchandise everywhere from London to Tokyo; but they’ve never caught on in the States so much, and when Spielberg released his Tintin movie in 2011 it made most of its money overseas. Likewise with Tove Jansson’s series of tales about the Moomintrolls, which have been translated into forty-five languages but have enjoyed only a somewhat sporadic fame for American readers. Every once in a while some brave publisher reprints them—Avon did them in paperback in the seventies, and Farrar Strauss just recently reissued them in hardcovers—but over here they seem to remain the property of the few. It’s strange.

Like Gabrielle Roy, Jansson was part of a linguistic minority: the Swedish-speaking community in Finland. She trained as an artist, but her reputation has remained as the creator of these peculiar creatures—picture sort of amiable biped white seals with enormous schnozzes—and their attendant cast. She began in 1945 with The Moomins and the Great Flood, which was sort of a dry run; it vanished for a long while, but Sort Of Books in England has recently brought it back into print, and you can pick it up easily online. The series officially begins with Comet in Moominland (1946), and continues on through seven more books; a ways into her career, the Moomins began a long life as a comic-strip series in British newspapers, which secured her fame, and Europe is now awash in Moomin memorabilia, adaptations, and merchandise. The novels are the real core of the characters’ existence, which, as someone said once of Sherlock Holmes, seem to have been discovered rather than invented. The tales have a rather odd, dry tone: calamitous things are always on the horizon—comets, storms, floods, threatening creatures (the Groke, for instance, a melancholy creature who leaves an ice patch behind wherever she sits)—but are observed with fairly little ceremony or hysteria; the real drama tends to be internal. Her characters—the placid Moominmamma excepted, unless she loses her pocketbook—are much prone to moods, and have little of the cloying cheeriness once the requisite tone of British children’s books. One of the defining characters of the household is the caustic Little My (the Mymble’s daughter) who is small enough to fit into a sewing basket but has a tongue which would terrify a Soho mugger. Jansson, delightful as the stories are, was on constant guard against the drip of treacle. And, for all that she understands the cozy pleasures of being inside on a cold day, there is a gnawing current of wanderlust in them, a champing at the restraints of home and habit. This surfaces in the distantly glimpsed characters of the Hattifatteners, small wordless electric creatures who sail ceaselessly in search of new places. In the series’ penultimate book, Moominpapa At Sea, the family uproots itself and settles on a distant island, like a young adult version of Mosquito Coast with, thank God, a more tonic ending.

She finished with a little jewel. Moominvalley in November takes place concurrently with Moominpappa at Sea: while the Moomins are away, a half-dozen of their friends decide to visit them, descend unannounced on the Moomins’ abandoned house and settle in to wait for their return. The Moomins themselves appear only briefly, in the images of a shadow-puppet show, but figure throughout the story as the images of what the visitors are most in need of. In place of the Moomins we have, among others, the familiar shaman figure of Snufkin (his father was the Joxter), the Fillyjonk (perpetually aquiver with phobias) and, most tellingly, the orphan Toft, who is a reminder that the book was written during Jansson’s intense grief at the death of her mother. The characters all bring their dissatisfactions and wants with them, and life, as they say, goes on. The story is not only Jansson’s most piercing and ingeniously resolved, it’s also her best illustrated—by this time a few dashes of ink are all she needs. The mood—let’s put it this way: if you’ve ever cleaned out your possessions, gotten down to the nub of the necessary, and then noticed that the stars in the sky look different—that’s where Jansson brings you. She gets the ice-cold rain showers, the plants gone black, the chandelier draped in muslin; and she get the Hemulen, walking in the rain, “so happy it almost hurt.” It’s a great book.

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