Tuesday, August 12, 2014

They "had no idea what fun the whole thing was, which served them right" - Tove Jansson's catastrophes

Tove Jansson’s 100th birthday was  August 9.  Please see the pictures posted at the NYRB Classics Tumblr (sic) to get an immediate sense of who Jansson was.  I believe they will be putting up more Jansson stuff for the centennial.  Much of what I see on Twitter is just photographs of Moomin-related coffee mugs or Japanese Moomin restaurants.  This is not what I have found interesting in Jansson’s books, the opportunity to collect mugs.

No, there are two things I have found in Jansson that are unusual.  One or both themes run through all of her work that I have read.

The first is a strong sense of the sublime.  Her books are full of catastrophes – hurricanes, tidal waves, and floods, or even the destruction of the earth by a comet (Comet in Moominland, 1946).  The date of the latter suggests that she is, in part, allegorizing the external catastrophe of World War II, but there is something else at work.  Jansson’s books are set in coastal Finland, and on little rocky islands in the Gulf of Finland.  Readers of the novel The Summer Book (1972) are likely to remember the little girl who thrills in the massive August storm that hits them, but also fears that she summoned it, that it is her storm, her possession, which is exciting, but also her fault.

In Sculptor’s Daughter (1968), a memoir from the point of view of young Tove circa age six or seven, the storm is nothing but fun.

Everything lying on the slope below the house had floated out to sea and the off-shore wind was carrying it out towards the sound and the wind was getting stronger and stronger and the water was rising higher and higher.  I was shouting with glee, too, as I waded up and down and felt the floating grass getting tangled round my legs…

And the visitors hauled on the rope and were soaked to the skin in their nightshirts and had no idea what fun the whole thing was, which served them right…

Then Daddy went out again.  Mummy poured out tea for us all.  It was the best storm we ever had.  (“High Water,” 103-4)

For example.  Or see “The Tulle Skirt,” in which a little girl crawls around in a big black skirt which creates, in a mirror, a shapeless monster with its own frightening existence, at least until Tove tires of the game.  Or try “Snow,” where the girl and her mother are alone in a big house during a long blizzard.

The snow on the ground began to slither away.  It slid in an enormous avalanche which grew and grew over the edge of the world…  oh no! oh no!

I rolled backwards and forwards on the carpet to make the horror of it seem greater, and in the end I saw the wall heave over me and the pictures hung straight out on their wires.

What are you doing? Mummy asked.  (“Snow,” 163-4)

This is all just child’s play, but of a kind Jansson kept doing in her fiction.  The chapter in the memoir parallels the earlier Moomintroll Midwinter (1957) – the Swedish title, Trollvinter, is unimprovable – in which the young Moomintroll inexplicably awakes from hibernation and experiences, for the first time, winter, which from his point of view is a kind of catastrophe, unknown and frightening, but is really just an ordinary winter.

Thus, the sense of sublimity, the aesthetic pleasure that comes fear at a distance, from danger that is real but remote or controlled.

Kingsley Hart translated Sculptor’s Daughter.


  1. I'm reading the Moonmin books at a leisurely place, two so far in four or so years. I maintain that, from a design point of view, the Moonins are the cutest little things ever created.

  2. I agree. I don't look at photos of the Japanese Moomin restaurant and think "how strange" but rather "yes, why not?" Lunch with a big stuffed Moomin, of course.

    The Moomin books - spoiler alert, ha ha ha - get better as they go along. Jansson did some things that truly surprised me.

  3. I must buy some of these before the kids grow up...