The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Marvellous Moomins 1: Finn Family Moomintroll

It's been a while since I posted on Dusty Old Books. Work has kept me busy. But it's time to celebrate the printed page again, and I can think of nothing better to do that with than my favourite author: Tove Jansson.

Everywhere I’ve been this year I’ve seen Moomins in Bookshops, Kitchenware shops, Greetings card & gift shops. Bags, books and badges, knitted cuddly toys and cups; out of print titles reinstated; lectures given, articles published. Even in her lifetime, Tove Jansson felt overwhelmed by the “moomin-boom”. I wonder how she would feel now. Once, the Moomins seemed slightly exclusive, a delight that only a certain type of person really “got”. And I knew a lot of people who didn’t quite understand their brilliance. But now they have been embraced in our climate of retro-chic as must-haves for the Cath Kidston set.
So where has the Moomin-madness of this summer come from? The estate has been successfully exploited by Tove’s niece Sophia to celebrate 65 years of Moomins: for the first book was published in 1945. That particular book, “The Moomins and the Great Flood” was only very recently translated into English. The immediate sequel was “Comet in Moominland”, but this was not to be the first title to be published in English. That honour fell upon the third title “Finn Family Moomintroll” and so I am beginning my survey of Tove’s work – over several posts – with this book.
From my legendary Moomin cupboard I have – with trembling paws – taken out my first edition from 1950. Immediately hailed as a new children’s classic, this is beautifully produced, with embossed boards and a dust cover. Inside, the book has a magical map of Moominvalley which folds out to almost four times the size of the book. This was reproduced on a single page in later editions, and only the first edition has a fold out example of this exquisite, fantastical plan, which, on the reverse has an eccentric letter from Moominmamma herself (surely one of the greatest maternal figures in all literature).

The back flap of the dustwrapper asks if the reader “would like a picture of the Snork Maiden to put on the mantelpiece?”. And there she is, a voluptuous cut-out design. And who wouldn’t want the Snork Maiden on their mantle-piece?

For those unfamiliar with this book (shame on you), it tells the tale of one summer – from Hibernation and Spring through to Autumn, in Moominvalley. Here we are introduced to Moomintroll (son of Moominpappa and Moominmamma) and his friends Sniff and Snufkin who find a Hobgoblin’s hat that can enchant anything placed inside. This can be a good thing – like turning eggs shells into magic clouds. But it can also be a considerable problem, like when an encyclopaedia of Outlandish Words is brought to remarkable life. We also meet the Snorks, the Muskrat, the lugubrious Hemulen, the enigmatic Hattifattners, and the “Big grim and terrible” Groke, who freezes everything she touches. The adult domestic world of verandahs and stoves is beautifully caught by Jansson, and contrasts with the high adventure of the “children” of the story. Getting rid of the magic hat is not all that easy... and what would happen if the Hobgoblin himself – a great magician – came to Moominvalley?

What I like about Jansson’s storytelling is that little things matter, like the folklore of butterflies in spring or Snufkin’s need for solitude. And I like that while much is fun and frolicsome, there is often danger and threat lurking. It is an idyll... but sometimes one with dark clouds seen out of the corner of the eye. In fact this is one of the lighter and funnier stories. Later in the series the books become darker and more satisfying and, finally in Moominvalley in November, deeply moving.
Also tucked inside my copy of Finn Family Moomintroll is a letter. While I recognise that Tove Jansson, like the Moomins ,was not a person to whom possessions mattered, this letter is, I confess, valuable to me. In the event of a fire (and after securing safety for my family) this would surely be the first thing to rescue. For the letter is written to me, by Tove Jansson herself.

In 1993 I had a book published in Finnish. Although Tove was a Swedish speaking Finn, I felt excited and honoured to have a book published in “the land of the Moomins”. I wrote a long, rhapsodic letter to her. I had no address, so I drew a Moomin on the parcel and put, simply: To Tove Jansson, Helsinki, Finland.
I didn’t think anymore about it. There seemed no point dwelling on a parcel that might never arrive (and what a story Tove would have spun out of such a dwelling of thought). With the letter I had sent the Finnish edition of my book (“Madame Nightingale will sing Tonight) and some other books. And it wasn’t written or sent to expect a reply. It was sent with gratitude and admiration. A sort of gift.
Then, one quiet unassuming January day, a letter arrived. The carefully crafted handwriting , graphically clear and beautifully spaced, should have raised my expectations.
Surely this letter was a letter from my Finnish pen-friend Tarja, who I had corresponded with since we were both 7 or 8 years old? But then I saw the stamps.
Moomin stamps.

Inside was a letter from the great lady herself, with kind works about my illustrations (can you imagine how much that meant to a novice artist like myself?), and what seemed to be genuine gratitude and humility regarding my words about the Moomins. She seemed genuinely touched that my world had been coloured by her Moominvalley, and that their morals and eccentricities had reflected the foibles of myself and my family and that they had, I felt, projected themselves upon the minds and hearts of the next generation. Which can only be a good thing.
It would no doubt have horrified this most elusive, hermit-like author to know how I cherished the letter and how special it felt to have what seemed like a tiny part of her. But any writing is that. She gave the whole world a part of her with all her books and pictures.

In any case, she was one of the great observers and recorders of human life. She would have understood, just as she understood Sniff and his avarice as well as Snufkin and his solitude. For in the Moomins, these strange and melancholic trolls, we see ourselves, our lives, our families and our fears. The Moomins are in some ways more real than any gritty novel or PC picturebook. And that is what makes them the work of a genius.