This post was written by Friday blogger Annie Reid.
One of a continuing and random series….
In honor of limpid summer days and the vacation my mind has been on for the last month, I nominate Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness as an adaptation I’d love to see done right, in my dreams. But really, don’t mess with these guys. They’re pretty much perfect the way they are now.
Finnish writer Tove Jansson wrote a series of children’s books on the Moomins mid-century. They enjoyed fantastic popularity in Europe and particularly Japan, but haven’t caught on so much here. (I’ve always wondered why – is it the gentle anarchy, or the lack of causality, or sadly, just a failure of marketing?) As a child these were amongst my most beloved books – so much so that I still carry them around with me from move to move. Like the best of children’s books, really they’re for everyone.
The Moomins are a family of nordic trolls with the benign good looks of hippos. They’re sensitive, gentle and pleasure-loving creatures, who like a good nap and a cup of sweet tea in the afternoons, but with a grandness of spirit described by some critics as tolerance, but which I see more as a generous imagination. Take Moominmamma, for example. Here she’s found her wayward son at the side of a pond.
Moominmamma nodded. She was dipping her snout in the water and looking at the bottom.
“There’s a nice gleam down there,” she said.
“It’s your golden bracelet,” said Moomintroll. “And the Snork Maiden’s necklace. Good idea, isn’t it?”
“Splendid,” said his mother. “We’ll always keep our bangles in brown pond water in the future. They’re so much more beautiful that way.”
It’s just such good sense, isn’t it? Not that Moominlife is not filled with incident. It is generally laced with catastrophe and adventure. In Moominsummer Madness, a volcano erupts in Moominvalley, creating a flood, forcing the Moominfamily to chose a new home from the assortment floating by. But the new house they select, in addtion to being haunted, happens to be a theater, requiring the family – of course – to put on some plays.
But after all, these are nordic books we’re talking about, and a certain pleasant melacholy suffuses the whole series. As the entry for “Moomin” from the Enpsychlopedia notes,
Some of Jansson’s characters are on the verge of melancholy, such as the always formal Hemulens, or the strange Hattifatteners who travel in concerted, ominous groups. The novelist Alison Lurie has described the Groke, a black, hill-shaped creation with glowing eyes, as a walking manifestation of Nordic gloominess – everyone she touches, dies and the ground freezes everywhere she sits.
The child is intransigent; the old woman is always on the cusp of tiredness, constantly dizzy, fearful of losing her balance in a landscape where “the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable”. The threat of brevity, even on this timeless island in this timeless, gorgeous summer, is very marked. But Jansson’s brilliance is to create a narrative that seems, at least, to have no forward motion, to exist in lit moments, gleaming dark moments, like lights on a string, each chapter its own beautifully constructed, random-seeming, complete story. Her writing is all magical deception, her sentences simple and loaded; the novel reads like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth. As Philip Pullman so succinctly puts it, Tove Jansson was a genius.
But really this applies to the whole series of Moomin family books — perfect, sometimes random-seeming moments all laid out in a story that once complete seems unthinkable any other way.
p.s. The Summer Book is also listed by Caine prizewinner Segun Afolabi as one of his top 10 novels featuring characters making transitional journeys.