The international children’s laureate of disaster and displacement, Tove Jansson, was born one hundred years ago, on August 9, 1914, just as Europe was going to war. She is most famous for creating the Moomins, a family of hospitable and adventuresome trolls who vaguely resemble tubby two-legged hippos. Today, there is a thriving Moomin-industry around them: a theme park, a museum, a movie is on its way.
The Moomins emerged fully in a story written in 1939 during the attempted Soviet invasion of her Finnish homeland, Moomin and the Great Flood. At the end of that book, the reunited Moomin family find a house “like a tall stove” in a beautiful valley where “they spent the whole of their lives, apart from a few times when they left it and travelled for a change.”
The last phrase turned out to be misleading. Jansson still had catastrophes to get out of her system. In the next book, Moomintroll and friends undertake an epic quest to save the world from a comet, at one point memorably stilt-walking across a dried-up sea.
In Moominsummer Madness, another flood unhomes the family. But this disaster is like a gift from Pan: along with other houseless folk, they wash up in a floating theatre, entirely ignorant of what it is, and wonderful farce follows. Whatever the peril, the Moomins seem to get through it and get home.
Like the many refugees who follow them there in the sequels, readers quickly found in Moominvalley an open house so welcoming they wished it were their own. They still do, after millions of sales in 44 languages—and long after it all cloyed for Jansson. Despite her attempt to vacate the valley and dismantle all its comforts, in the public mind she remains firmly rooted there.
By the time she wrote the first Moomin book, she was already a successful artist and illustrator, following in the footsteps of her sculptor father and graphic designer mother. Indeed, she had created her first illustrated book at 13 and published it at 19. Painting Moominvalley in sepia to save print costs in The Great Flood, Jansson somehow makes it a riot of imagined color.
Once in her stride, she turned her Moomin books into masterpieces of word in consort with image. She may have felt that they took her away from the fine-art painting in which she (rightly) took great pleasure and pride, yet her Moomin illustrations are utterly distinctive and filled with a remarkable subtlety.
In her years of fame she also illustrated Lewis Carroll and The Hobbit, deliriously unconstrained either by Tenniel’s Alice illustrations or by Tolkien’s prose—her Gollum is a giant with a crown of weeds.
In her own books Moomintroll has a friendly, bulbous snout, but he had evolved from an angry little sharper-nosed creature, a signature figure in the corner of magazine cartoons in which Jansson made mock of Hitler and Stalin alike.
“It made her comfortably well off, but she tried to resist becoming a kind of Scandinavian Disney, and all she really wanted was an island to live on.”
Born into Helsinki’s Swedish-speaking enclave, Jansson nearly married a flamboyant left-wing politician before falling for the woman with whom she spent the rest of her life, fellow artist Tuulikki Pietilä. A minority within a minority in a nation kicked like a football between Russia and Germany, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jansson hated dictators and refused to be pinned down by anyone.
In one exuberant Moomin scene, the harmonica-playing, freewheelin’ Snufkin (a Bob Dylan before Dylan invented himself) uproots the signs posted all over a prim country park—“LAUGHING AND WHISTLING STRICTLY PROHIBITED’, ‘NO SMOKING” and suchlike (Jansson was an inveterate smoker).
The next arrivals on the scene find the heap of signs, and one character exclaims, ‘How wonderful, everything’s allowed!’—adding gleefully, ‘Let’s build our bonfire of the notices! And dance round it until they’ve burned to ashes!’
In like spirit, Moomin hospitality excludes no one—except those prone to electrify the furniture or freeze Moominmamma’s roses. Guests include shrewish Fillyjonks addicted to cleaning; large graceless Hemulens obsessed with classifying and organising; and a philosophical Muskrat who believes only in the pointlessness of everything.
There is also a mysterious Moomin ancestor who lives permanently in the stove. The biggest personality is Little My, utterly self-centred, mischievous, and rancidly funny. Just about the only visitors not welcome in the valley are the blobbish Groke, who edges in periodically from the outer darkness with winter in her touch; and the Hattifatteners, ghost-like, electrically charged nomads.
The gallery of characters gave rein to Jansson’s acute eye for personality, and also allowed her to inscribe her personal life—her proscribed lesbian life—into her fiction.
The inseparable Thingumy and Bob speak an argot of spoonerisms (“Nake no totice” and so on), and carry a secret ruby.
It’s all very innocent, perhaps, but their names in the original are Tofslan and Vifslan, and, as her biographer Boel Westin notes, these are echoes of Tove and Vivica, the name of Jansson’s first female lover. And in Moominland Midwinter Jansson immortalised her life-partner Tuulikki as wise, life-embracing Too-ticky.
Even during Jansson’s lifetime the Moomin industry exploded to encompass toys, treats, theatre and screen. It made her comfortably well off, but she tried to resist becoming a kind of Scandinavian Disney, and all she really wanted was an island to live on. She wore herself out producing cartoon strips for the London Evening Standard, and it may have been that as much as anything else that made her crave release from Moominprison.
Jansson began to bend the bars of her self-made cell. She abandoned straightforward disaster as a disorienting literary device, and found a much more profound one: the sub-arctic winter. It had been established early that Moomins sleep through the winter with tummies full of pine needles.
But Moomintroll awakes from hibernation early, and finds that, out of season, the valley houses a different population, furtive and sometimes downright hostile. They have rites and desires he cannot grasp. Only Too—ticky helps him learn to respect them in their otherness. Still he wants his mamma.
Jansson’s interest in shifting personalities is clear. Even in one of the earliest books, the Muskrat philosopher ends up seeing the point of things. A late short story stars a repressed Fillyjonk (all Fillyjonks are repressed) who has lived her life anticipating disaster round every corner.
When it finally arrives the burden of fear is lifted and she throws caution to the winds—literally: in the starkest of Jansson’s line-drawings we see her standing on the beach thrilling at the sight of the gigantic waterspout that is just about to lift the roof off her home.
In 1965’s Moominpappa at Sea, Jansson begins to undo our comfortable certainties about the Moomins themselves. We see Moominpappa nearly wreck his family because of his mid-life crisis. We go inside Moominmamma’s mind as she seeks escape through art—and vanishes into her own painting, in a moment of magical realism befitting Rushdie or Kundera.
Even the Groke, we discover, is not the elementally elementary creature we had thought: she is drawn to light because she is so desperately lonely, though she always ends up extinguishing it. Most of us, at some point, have met a Groke personally.
In a melancholy companion piece, Moominvalley in November, neighbours descend on the deserted Moominhouse, trying to get some of that Moomin spirit for themselves while awaiting the family’s return; but they do not quite find what they came for. The writing is extraordinary for a series ostensibly for children:
His dream about meeting the family again had become so enormous that it made him feel tired. Every time he thought about Moominmamma he got a headache. She had grown so perfect and gentle and consoling that it was unbearable, she was a big, round smooth balloon without a face. The whole of Moominvalley had somehow become unreal, the house, the garden and the river were nothing but a play of shadows on the screen and Toft no longer knew what was real and what was only his imagination. He had been made to wait too long and now he was angry.
Toft’s name is another Jansson signature, and perhaps his disappointed hope is hers too. On the closing page he does go down to the jetty with something like equanimity to await the Moomins in their boat, but this final time we never see them get home.
Like Moominpappa, Jansson eventually built a house on a speck of rock in the Gulf of Finland—an island called Klovharun, where she and Tuulikki lived when weather permitted (and sometimes when, strictly, it did not). It was here, with a dinner of crayfish, that Jansson celebrated winning the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her contribution to children’s literature in 1966.
Yet she did not wish to be defined and confined as a children’s author. After the final Moomin books, it is perhaps artificial to call the series children’s literature anyway—classifying them would stump a Hemulen. Eventually she handed over the Moomin cartoon strip to her brother Lars.
After Moominvalley in November (1970) Jansson wrote no more Moomin novels, though she could not quite let go of what was now a franchise. She produced several exquisite illustrated books in verse, including The Book of Moomin, Mymble and Little My, with its ingenious cutaway holes that give an always-misleading glimpse of what’s over on the next page. She advised on a delightful Polish-made television series using felt animation.
But now Jansson’s heart and chief industry was in fiction for adults, beginning with The Summer Book, a contemplative, stripped-down narrative of a little girl and her grandmother on an island. It was rather a surprise detour from Jansson’s usual haunts in fiction is 1974’s Sun City, set in an old folks’ home in St Petersburg, Florida. By now the biggest disaster is either the fire one resident makes in his fireplace—not realising there is no flue—or the woeful innocence in the heart of Bounty Joe, a young biker who longs to join ‘the Jesus people’ awaiting the Second Coming with their massed guitars on Miami Beach.
I wonder whether St Petersburg caught Jansson’s imagination partly because it was so unlike the St Petersburg of Russia—Soviet Leningrad. Though she portrays the Gulf Coast city as sterile, she also writes about it as a kind of haven. She and Tuulikki had stayed there a while during a round-the-world tour.
Jansson died in 2001. Today the Moomin industry sails merrily along without her restraining hand on the tiller. Finland has a Moomin theme park and a Moomin museum. A Moomin shop in London sells Little My t-shirts, plush Moomintrolls, Snufkin luggage tags. A film based on the cartoon strips, Moomins on the Riviera, is out this year. Moomins are big in Japan.
The resurgence of interest has also seen the republication in English or first-time translation of her novels for adults, her comic strips, and her illustrated books. We are beginning to see a clutch of books about Jansson—a biography earlier this year by friend Boel Westin, another biography from Tuula Karjalainen on its way, and further along in the pipeline an edition of letters.
Some day we will have a proper book on Tove Jansson the fine artist, with lush reproductions of her work. Yet I hope it will have room for her Moomin work too, in which she made her truly unique mark on the world.