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™
Categories: Translated Literature
The Midsummer Night Dream analogy is spot on – I too was reminded of that. I also love the miserable stage rat Emma who keeps telling them off for being such philistines!
Yes, poor old Emma. She turns out to be quite pleasant in the end. 😊
I agree of course that many of the names are onomatopoeic but in the case of Whomper I suspect it was the translator who added that particular meaning. At least I get no associations with rushing things from the name Homsan. Finnish-Swedish does occasionally differ from the Swedish spoken in Sweden and of course the novel is 65 years old so things could have changed, but I am sceptical.
That’s very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing this info. I must investigate further. 🧐
This is an alien world to me I’m sorry. I have no idea what the Moomins are……
Well, I suppose Moomins are rather bizarre creatures. It’s surprising just how many people have never heard of them. My mother knew nothing of them until I became smitten, although the first Moomin books appeared in the mid 1940s, when she was 10 or 11 years of age. Perhaps because Tove Jansson was Finnish, far less British children read her books. I think a lot more people became familiar with them when they appeared as cartoon strips in The Evening News from about 1947 until the mid ’70s.
I was wondering if the reason I had not heard of them was because they came after my childhood. But clearly not…
Great novel to start with! Just spent a few hours biking around the islands of Stockholm listening to Tove’s narration of it.
Agree with Ireadthatinabook that I don’t recognise “homsa” as meaning doing a half-assed job, but according to this essay on translation of Tove Jansson’s work your definition is correct. But it also points out that the name doesn’t seem to fit the various homsor we meet in the books – if anything, they tend to fuss too much over details. (I’ve also heard that “homsa” can be Finland-Swedish slang for “gay”, though I don’t know what’s the chicken or the egg there.) Of course Jansson would go on to give the lead role to a Homsa (and all but name him after herself) in the final book of the series.
I like your parallel with Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I think there’s a Hamlet reference or two in there as well – Homsan stabbing the curtain and the insistance that everyone has to die at the end… Does the English translation keep the hexameter in the play? (Tove’s narration of Moominpappa’s lines is laugh-out-loud hilarious.)
I’m struck again by two things about these novels:
1) How apocalyptic they are. Floods, comets, winter… While this is definitely a mostly pretty carefree children’s book, it shines through that Jansson lived in a society that had recently gone through three rather nasty wars and sat next to one of the leaders of the cold war. Later books would take it more seriously, but there’s always darkness and real danger there next to that beautiful melancholy.
2) The way they cope with it. With art – from Moominmamma’s boats to theatre, and the general bohemian bourgy anarchy of the Moomin family – and kindness and empathy (the novel starts with them taking in refugees). There’s no big moral, there’s no forced aesops; weirdos get to stay weirdos, hangups get to be taken seriously, families can break and reform. There’s that lovely exchange between Emma and Moominmamma, where Emma tries to explain what the theatre is, Moominmamma thinks she’s talking about a reform school educating people in how to act, and Emma has to explain it’s the exact opposite. Theatre is the most important thing in the world, because it shows people how they could be, and what they long to be even if they don’t dare, and what they are… There are big thoughts in there for a children’s book, but it’s never made complicated. “It’s nice to be kind,” thought the little hemul.
Again, thanks for starting this thing!
Ok, with that reference I do believe in it being Finnish-Swedish, interesting, thanks!
Thank you so much for your full and thoughtful comment, Björn. You’re absolutely right about the Hamlet reference but I hadn’t picked up on it before. There’s plenty more in your reply on which I will definitely cogitate. I’m so pleased you like this new project. 😃
They were trolls, weren’t they? I have in mind they were benevolent oddities that were singular to themselves. They always reminded me of hippos.
Quite right, they were definitely trolls. Very like hippos! 😊
Love your review of Moominsummer Madness, Paula, and the Shakespeare reference is much deserved, I believe – a little tongue in cheek, as the Bard’s name is the epitome of modern theatre.
I wanted to ask if I can join your Tove Trove initiative with an older post of mine describing the Moomin novels in mini reviews? Seems like I won’t have much time to create a new post, but would love to participate in your commemoration of the wonderful Moomin creator 🙂
Oh Ola, I almost missed your comment for some reason. Yes, I would be delighted for you to participate. I will, of course, link to your posts. Thank you! 😃
Thank you, Paula! I will put my post some time next week then, and, with your permission, use your logo and link 🙂
Please do, Ola. I really look forward to reading your post 😊
What a joy Paula! You’ve definitely prompted me to a reread. It sounds a lovely edition too.
Oh, I do hope so, Madame B. A life cannot be complete without the occasional Moomin. The Collector’s editions are wonderful – complete with fold-out maps showing the locations mentioned, loving drawn by Jansson. 😊
I love the Moomins and have done since I discovered them in my local library as a small girl over 50 years ago. I read the stories to both my daughters who are now grown-up fans as well. My elder daughter’s favourite is/was ‘Comet in Moominland’ which I read to her countless times! We used to watch the animated series on TV in the 90’s after she got home from school!
I’m so pleased you’re passing on your love of the Moomins to the next generation, Clare! 😊