I DISCOVERED TOVE JANSSON AT AN AGE WHEN other kids were gathering their dignity about them and wouldn't have been caught dead with a book whose main character, Moomintroll, looked more than anything like a hippopotamus with a funny tail. I kept quiet about it, but I went on reading, though with a shameful sense that I was postponing the moment when I would have to learn to like real fiction, in which investment bankers and cocktail parties would no doubt play major roles. When instead I encountered Kafka's operatic mice, Calvino's mollusk and Gogol's ambulatory nose, I felt amazement and relief, but also recognition. Somewhere before I had met a writer who could be funny and dire at the same time, a whiz of tomfoolery who was also a profound guide to the human heart.
Jansson, who died last year, was born in Helsinki in 1914 to artists. Her father was a bit of a Moominpappa, dictatorial and self-centered. Her mother, whose own art was squeezed onto a corner of the kitchen table, supplied love, stories and good cooking. In this environment Tove became an artist almost as a matter of course; writing was "mainly for myself," she said. Yet she is Finland's most successful literary export, translated into some 33 languages, and her Moomin books have spawned theme parks, a cartoon series (in Japan) and a legion of spinoff products, many of which can be acquired on eBay at inflated prices. I own a Snufkin fridge magnet and a Little My piggy bank. The effect of these trinkets is eerie to someone with a sense of the solemnity of Jansson's books, something like a Gregor Samsa action figure (morphs into a giant beetle!) or a Waiting for Godot snow globe. But then this is part of the appeal of the Moomins: They give a friendly, even cute, face to the saddest, strangest feelings -- feelings to which even children are susceptible.
Melancholy, ambivalence, loss and disillusionment, yearning and disappointment are Tove Jansson's great themes; she is also really, really funny. The unnameable may be no farther away than the bottom of the garden, but it is also no closer. Moominland has floods, comets and tornadoes, but it also has Moominmamma, who can banish most terrors with weapons no stronger than a cup of coffee and a good spring cleaning. We can rely, too, on the gnomic Snufkin, who drops by every spring clad in a pointy hat and the smell of faraway places; sturdy fisherwoman Tooticky, modeled on Tove's own female companion, and a bit of a Zen master ("All things are so very uncertain, and that's exactly what makes me feel reassured"); and above all stubborn, fearless Little My, who looks something like an angry tea cozy, and very nearly stole my heart away from Pippi Longstocking.
But the farther you get from Moominmamma's hearth, the more the inhabitants of Moominvalley begin to resemble Beckett characters with tails. Consider Thingumy and Bob, with their curious speech impediment ("'Man you cake it out?' asked Thingumy. 'Mot nutch,' said Bob"); the taciturn Dweller Under the Sink; the eight tiny shrews "so shy they became invisible" who wait upon Tooticky; and the enigmatic Hattifatteners, who spring up from the ground like the skeleton army of Greek myth and travel in hordes seeking electrical storms. Most desolate of all is the terrible Groke, who freezes the ground wherever she walks and, when she sits on them in search of a little warmth, puts out fires.
Moominland is not an entirely friendly place. It is full of private, curmudgeonly types who huddle in their houses, and even more private, curmudgeonly types who huddle in the stoves, cupboards and closets inside those houses. This may say something about the weather in Finland, and it says even more about Tove Jansson, who didn't leave home until the age of 28. But these private types have their secrets, as private types will, and one secret a lot of them share is a gloating sense that inside their fussy rotundity is an adventurer of the first water, and that if they felt like it, they could show a few people a thing or two.
THE OTHER SECRET, AND IT'S A BIG ONE, IS THAT these prudent, small, fearful critters don't always feel like being safe. Someone is always wandering away from the party and staring wistfully at something terrible and fascinating: the black water, the toothy mountain range, the distant sails of the Hattifatteners. Jansson knows that a sincere love of picnics and lemonade can coexist with a yearning for the dark, huge, awful and inhuman. The house-proud Fillyjonk, terrified of disasters, watches in ecstasy when all her belongings are vacuumed up by a tornado. Reading Jansson is, by turns, like curling up under the covers with a flashlight and a book, and perching rapt and naked on an iceberg. (Maybe this is a particularly Finnish predilection -- the icy plunge after the sauna?)
That the homebody has itchy feet and the wanderer gets homesick will not surprise children, making their way between the womb and the wild blue yonder. Jansson once said, by way of explaining her exodus from Moominland, that Moomintroll had reached puberty (and, presumably, needed his privacy). If he did, it happened in the last book but one, Moominpappa at Sea, in which, while his elders negotiate their own identity crises, he first falls vainly in love with the Moomin equivalent of a supermodel, the frivolous, coked-up sea horse, then finds himself drawn into what, to my grown-up eye at least, resembles a sort of S&M relationship -- with the Groke, of all people. (He swings the lantern back and forth. She watches, swaying.)
Clearly Moomintroll has some issues. But then desire, in Moominworld, is generally a misunderstanding. The element of self-deception in all fantasies always gets shown up, though it is a gentle comeuppance that leaves the dreamer wiser, if a little deflated, and often secretly relieved at his narrow escape. The Hemulen who likes to sing sea chanteys and rhapsodize about the firm pressure of the rudder on his paw discovers he's prone to seasickness; the little dog Sorry-oo, who wants to run with the wolves, realizes they regard him as dinner, and being a pet suddenly doesn't look so bad.
In the last Moomin book, Moominvalley in November, that lesson is turned back upon itself. Maybe even wholesome, redemptive Moominvalley is a fantasy that must be put aside to make room for something cooler, more difficult, complicated and real. In the last pages of the book, the orphan Toft finds, "Every time he thought about Moominmamma he got a headache. She had grown so perfect and gentle and consoling that it was unbearable, she was a big round smooth balloon without a face." It is not until he lets go of this mother-balloon that he spots the faraway light of the family sailing home, though the book ends before they can be united. When I realized Jansson wrote this the year her own mother died, all the hair on my arms stood up.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
LOOKING BACK, I CAN SEE A STORY TELLING itself through these books, a story about leaving home. The sense of paradise lost grows more acute with each succeeding book. In midwinter, Moomintroll wakes up alone in an icy, unfamiliar world. In Moominpappa at Sea, the family leave their home behind. By the last book, they have disappeared altogether. A party of seekers gathers in the empty kitchen, and, while they wait for the family to come back, undertake the slow, adult task of replacing them. One by one, they go home alone.
Jansson never wrote another Moomin book. She said, "I couldn't go back and find that happy Moominvalley again." And if she had? When I try to imagine the book that would come next, only one thing comes to mind: the Groke's own story. A story about death, imagined as a sympathetic character.
In Moominland Midwinter, a vain and forgetful squirrel -- "the squirrel with the marvelous tail," as he likes to call himself -- is chucked under the chin by the Lady of the Cold, and freezes solid. Little My, with characteristic pragmatism, proposes to harvest the squirrel's tail for a muff. Moomintroll the bourgeois sentimentalist holds a funeral instead. In the spring, he spots a vain and forgetful squirrel running through the woods. Is it the same one? The squirrel, being a squirrel, can't remember and does not care. This is all the comfort we are offered, and it is a stern comfort, but a real one: What we love is taken away, and we may never get it back; but spring returns. The Lady of the Cold has touched Tove Jansson, and we won't get her back. But Snufkin returns every spring.
Shelley Jackson is the author of The Melancholy of Anatomy: Stories, just published by Anchor Books. She lives in Brooklyn.