Monday, 9 August 2010

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson

Yesterday I had two separate discussions with family members about Moomintroll (partly because the New Scientist had published this picture of a marmoset, which reminded me of the Dweller Under the Sink), and by bedtime I felt a need to immerse myself in the quiet of Moominvalley for a while. I promptly picked out Moominpappa at Sea, which is only about Moominvalley at a remove - it's a book which leaves one filled with strange yearnings, and by the time I finished it this morning I was feeling distinctly wistful.

At the start of the book it is Moominpappa who is feeling strange yearnings. He's also feeling disgruntled, because the family aren't according him the respect he feels is his due - they even put out a forest fire without consulting him! His real strength, he decides, lies in his deep understanding of the sea, so they will set sail for the island where he knows his lighthouse stands, and everything will fall into its allotted place again. Moominmamma is, as ever, indulgent and understanding, and for Pappa's sake she is prepared to forsake the valley she loves. Moomintroll and Little My are quite prepared to set off just for the sake of adventure, so Pappa's boat, the Adventure, is loaded up and they set sail at dusk (because that's when events of such significance ought to happen). What they don't know is that someone has followed them...

Anyone who hadn't met the Moomins might think that these stories about small, stout Finnish trolls were for small children. In fact they are amongst the most poignant and expressive in European literature, on the face of it simple little stories about the not-very-exciting daily round of these small creatures and their friends, but which reach deep into the uncertainties and insecurities we all carry around with us. In Moominpappa at Sea, Moomintroll and his parents must face the anguish of displacement, Moomintroll and his mother dealing with the physical loss of the valley, Moominpappa with the loss of his role as head of the family, as the others make their own accommodations. "Don't you do anything," he keeps telling Mamma, as he constrains her ever more tightly in a coccoon of protectiveness, which only serves to further aggravate her sense of loss. 

The restricted set of characters - unlike in most of the books where there is both extended family and a wide assortment of Rabbit-type friends-and-relations - serves to underline the claustrophobia of the tiny island, battered on all sides by a not-entirely-amenable Sea. Moomintroll's own sadness is made worse by an unattainable love, which can't be articulated to anyone else. Only Little My is untroubled, rising above her circumstances with all the aplomb (if not actual callousness) that readers will remember from earlier books:
"I'm not saying anything about some mothers and fathers," drawled Little My. "If I do, the first thing you'll say is that they're never silly. They're up to something, those two. I'd eat a bushel of sand if I knew what it was." "You're not supposed to know," said Moomintroll sharply. "They know perfectly well why they're behaving a little oddly. Some people think they're so superior and have to know everything just because they've been adopted!"
All my adult life I've had Moominmamma in the back of my mind as a role model - always unruffled, understanding, warm and kind, bottle of raspberry syrup at the ready. I was glad to find that, determined to create a garden in the scattered rocks of the island, she's as sensibly practical as ever: "Moominmamma pushed the dirty dishes under the bed to make the room look tidier, and then she went out to look for soil." On this reading, though, it's her unhappiness which most deeply affects me, her uprootedness that is continually exacerbated by the failure of her rose plants to grow in inhospitable soil. Her homesickness must be dealt with quietly and discreetly, without impinging on the rest of the family - Moominpappa, of course, is much too wrapped up in his own concerns, as the sea resists his efforts to comprehend its moods.

The end of the book, typically of Tove Jansson, is low-key - fortunately, her adult readers, at least, probably know better than to expect a "story-book" happy ending. There's a resolution of sorts, and for one character, at least, things turn out better than we might have expected. But, as I said at the outset, the end leaves one more wistful than anything else - really, you have to wait for the end of the next (and final) book, Moominvalley in November, for the end of this one. All the Moomin books are ideal for reading aloud to children, but I remember finding that more and more discussion was needed with the later books. For adult readers, however, they are perfect for autumnal days of indulgent melancholia, to be savoured alone and at leisure.


  1. I read these books to my children when they were small and we all loved them.
    I make a no-bake chocolate cake which we love, but which is a bit of a mouthful to say, so I asked the kids to think of an easier name. They chose 'Hemulen' and that's what we still call it, as does everyone I've given the recipe to!

  2. I know these are not sweety-sweet twee little books, but they really look like they are, which has kept me off them the past few years. One of these days I'll shake off that impression and read them.

  3. A lovely review of what sounds like a lovely book! I remember a story in Tales from Moominvalley about Moominpappa's longing for a different life. It sounds like this takes the same theme and develops it further.

  4. Penny, that's lovely -and the cake sounds good too!

    Jenny, they really aren't, they are just wonderful, wise and funny and gentle. They have a superb way of expressing, in quite simple and straightforward words, feelings and doubts that are very hard to articulate.

    Nymeth, yes, he went off and discovered the secret of the hattifatteners. Although he was determined to be contented afterwards, he obviously forgot his good intentions.

  5. Considering Tove Jansson is one of my favourite authors, it is absurd that I haven't read any of the Moomin books - after Peter recommended this book to me, and after reading your beautiful, almost elegiac review, I am determined to rectify this. Does it matter if I read them out of order?

  6. Simon, I don't think it does matter which order you read them in - the first I read was Finn Family Moomintroll, which still feels like a
    natural place to start for me, though the first published here was Comet in Moominland, and the real first was The Moomins and the Great Flood, which wasn't published here until recently. I can't believe that you won't fall in love with them.

  7. Hi - just read your review, very nice and brought back happy memories of reading them, mostly as a child. I've just read the Summer Book which is a grown-up book based around Tove Janssen's own experiences of living on a tiny island off Finland - now I can see that these experiences also went into this book. I love the one with the floating theatre which I think is Moominsummer Madness. I like the way she puts in negative emotions without making much fuss over them, and yet you end up having a positive feeling about life.