My first Janssonian contribution to the Tove Trove Library
“A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that’s where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they’d like to be if they dared to and what they really are.”
Moominsummer Madness is the fourth title in Tove Jansson’s series of stories about a family of benevolent, philosophical trolls with downy fur and soft round snouts, who reside in a rather unusual house in an attractive woodland valley by the sea.
I initially chose to explore this work out of chronological order since it was seasonally appropriate (and as such, appears on my 10 Books of Summer list), but also because it seemed only proper to re-read such an old favourite when I was at sea enjoying a cruise (sadly, aside from the on-board entertainment lounge, the only theatres I spotted were land based).
“‘There’s a lot of things one can’t understand,’ Moominmamma said to herself. ‘But why should everything be exactly as one is used to having it?’”
Moominites tend to consider this book, first published in 1954, the final title in the series written with only children in mind. As with the earlier stories, the scenery is pleasingly verdant, but the setting isn’t specifically Finnish, and the plot is driven by a natural disaster as opposed to internal conflict.
The story begins with a rumbling volcano, raining ash down on Moominmamma’s clean washing, leading to Moominvalley being flooded. The family are forced to leave their beloved home and seek sanctuary on a floating theatre. However, they are deliberately cast adrift during the night, leaving Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden and Little My stranded (on account of them sleeping in a tree). Much Moomin summer madness follows and we are left wondering if they will find each other before taking their final bows.
We are at a point in the series when Jansson knew the characters well and they had become familiar to her readers – she therefore does not attempt any kind of introduction – indeed, there is little need to as her wonderfully idiosyncratic illustrations do the job perfectly. These individuals are often given onomatopoeic names, for example, Whomper, who appears for the first time in this book. He is a serious but kindly little fellow with large, dark eyes and a messy head of hair who wears a black coat and a scarf around his neck, held in place by a safety pin. His name is Homsan in Swedish, meaning rush about or do something carelessly, often with unfortunate results. The name suits him well because although he tries hard to comprehend the world around him, he finds it utterly baffling. He does, however, discover his perfect vocation in the theatre.
There is much irony and artful humour in all Jansson’s Moomin books, though never at the expense of her child readers, and Moominsummer Madness is no exception. The characters’ feelings and the difficulties they experience are always of the utmost importance. In fact, it is often the adults in the story who behave irrationally while the young ones are filled with intelligent curiosity and an eagerness to please.
The book captures the mood of summer quite beautifully: the lethargy of an afternoon spent gazing into a pond, the buzzing of bees and the balmy light nights. In many ways it isn’t dissimilar to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in so much as characters often misconstrue one another’s words and actions and stubbornly continue to be desirous of things they cannot have or achieve. A play is also enacted in which there is a lion.
I found re-reading this tale of Moomin wisdom and shenanigans every bit as charming and bizarre as I did as a child. Jansson’s unpredictable creatures and her anarchic illustrations still captivate and amuse me almost 50 years on.
My copy of the book is a Collector’s Edition Moomin Hardback edition published in 2018 by Sort of Books, which has been “lovingly restored” to its former striking design. It was translated by Thomas Warburton (1918-2016). Jansson dedicated it to her old-flame and lifelong friend, Vivica (Bandler). It originally remained in print for over sixty years, appearing in more than fifty languages.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki on 9th August 1914, the daughter of a Swedish-Finnish father who worked as a sculptor and a mother who was a graphic designer. She first trained as an artist and made a name for herself in her homeland as a painter and cartoonist. She became internationally famous after creating the Moomins. She later went on to write novels and short fiction for adults. She worked in her Helsinki studio, moving to a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland during the summer months with her partner, Tuulikki Pietilä. She died on 27th June 2001 at the age of 86.
“Moomin people thank each other not only for tea but after every meal they eat together. They like to feel polite.” — Translator’s note.
All images © Moomin Characters™