50 Women Artists You Should Know (2008)

This is a much better book than the Taschen volume which I’ve just read – Women artists in the 20th and 21st century edited by Uta Grosenick (2003) – for several reasons:

1. Although, like the Taschen book, this was also originally a German publication, it has been translated into much better English. It reads far more fluently and easily.

2. It is much bigger at 24cm by 19cm, so the illustrations are much bigger, clearer and more impactful. There is more art and less text and that, somehow, irrationally, but visually, makes women’s art seem a lot more significant and big and important.

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

3. It is a chronological overview of the last 500 years of women’s art. As I explained in my review of the Taschen book, because so many female artists have come to prominence since the 1960s and 70s when traditional art more or less collapsed into a welter of performance art, body art, conceptual art, video, photography, digital art and so on, that book gave an overall impression that 20th century women’s art was chaotic, messy and sex-obsessed, with only occasional oases of old-style painting to cling on to.

By contrast, this book gives a straightforward chronological list of important women artists starting with Catharina Van Hemessen born in 1528 and moving systematically forwards through all the major movements of Western art – Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Victorian Realist, Impressionist, Fauvist and so on. It kind of establishes and beds you in to the long line of successful women artists who worked in all the Western styles, long before it arrives at the chaotic 60s and beyond.

4. The Taschen book – again because of its modern focus – invoked a lot of critical theory to analyse and explicate its artists. Here, in stark contrast, the entries are overwhelming factual and biographical, focusing on family background, cultural and historical context, the careers and achievements of these women artists. Although this is, in principle, a more traditional and conservative way of writing about art, the net result is the opposite. Whereas you can dismiss great swathes of the Taschen book for being written in barely-comprehensible artspeak, this book states clearly and objectively the facts about a long succession of tremendously successful and influential women artists. It’s all the more effective for telling it straight.

To sum up, 50 Women Artists You Should Know makes a really powerful argument for asserting that there have been major women artists at every stage of Western art, holding important positions, forging successful careers, creating really great works, influencing others, contributing and shaping the whole tradition.

It is the History of Western Art, but done through women, and women only.

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Quite simply it destroys forever the idea that there haven’t been any significant women artists until the modern era. There were loads.

Ironically, this goes a long way to undermining the common feminist argument that women have been banned, held back, suppressed and prevented from engaging in art for most of history. This book proves the opposite is the case: again and again we read of women artists in the 17th and 18th centuries being encouraged by their fathers and families, supported through art school, securing important official positions (many becoming court painters), being given full membership of art academies, awarded prestigious prizes, and making lots of money. It’s quite a revelation. I never knew so many women artists were so very successful, rich and famous in their times.

Take some examples:

Surprisingly successful woman artists

1. Old Mistresses

Catharina Van Hemessen (1528-1587) Trained in the Netherlands by her father Jan van Hemessen, Catharina specialised in portraits which fetched a good price. She was invited to the court of Spain by the art-loving Mary of Hungary.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) her art studies paid for by her father who networked with rulers and artists to promote her career, Sofonisba was invited to Spain by King Philip II to become art teacher to 14-year-old Queen Isabella of Valois. By the time Isabella died, young Sofonisba had painted portraits of the entire Spanish court. She went to Italy where she taught pupils and was sought out by Rubens and Van Dyck.

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) Trained by her artist father, Fontana became a sought-after portraitist, even being commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to paint his portrait. She married a fellow artist who recognised her superior talent and became her manager, helping her paint a number of altar paintings. – Venus and Cupid (1592)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1598-1652) Taught by her father who was a successful baroque painter, Artemisia moved to Florence and was the only woman admitted to the Accademia del Disegno. She painted dynamic and strikingly realistic Bible scenes. In her 40s she was invited to paint at the court of King Charles I of England. – Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Judith Leyster (1609-1660) Unusually, Judith wasn’t the daughter of an artist but made her way independently, studying with the master of the Haarlem school, Frans Hals, before at the age of 24 applying to join the Guild of St Luke. – Boy playing the flute (1635)

Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) forged a lucrative career as a portraitist in pastels in her native Venice with a clientele which included the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, the Danish King Frederick IV. In 1739 the Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony bought her entire output of paintings which is why Dresden Art Gallery has 150 of her pastels. In 1720 she was invited to Paris by an eminent banker who gave her a large suite of rooms and introduced her to the court. – The Air (1746)

Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-1782) Seventh child of the Prussian court painter Georg Lisiewski, Anna received a thorough training and went on to a successful career painting portraits around the courts of Europe, being admitted to the Stuttgart Academy of Arts, the Academy in Bologna, the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in Paris, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, working at the end of  her life for Tsarina Catherine II of Russia. – Self-portrait (1776)

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) Kauffman was encouraged from an early age by her father, himself a portrait and fresco painter, who helped his child prodigy daughter go on to become one of the leading painters of her day, known across Europe as a painter of feminine subjects, of sensibility and feeling, praised by Goethe and all who met her. – Self-portrait torn between music and Painting (1792)

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was taught by her father the painter Louis Vigée, soon attracted the attention of aristocratic French society and was invited to Versailles by Marie-Antoinette to paint her portrait, eventually doing no fewer than 20. Forced into exile by the French revolution, she eventually returned to France, continuing to paint, in total some 800 works in the new classical, unadorned style and published three volumes of memoirs. – Portrait of Countess Golovine (1800)

Rosa Bonheur‘s father was a drawing master who encouraged her artistic tendencies. She sketched and then painted the animals of her native Bordeaux and struck it rich with a work called The Horse Market which made a sensation at the Salon of 1853. An enterprising dealer had it displayed all round the country, then sent to England where Queen Victoria gave it her endorsement, and then on to America. It toured for three years made her a name and rich. She bought a farmhouse with the proceeds and carried on working in it with her partner Nathalie Micas.

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

2. Modern women painters

Somewhere in the later 19th century in France, Modern Art starts and carries on for 50 or so years, till the end of the Great War.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was the female Impressionist, her family being close to that of Manet, so that she got to meet his circle which included Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley, Monet and Renoir. She had nine paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and exhibited in each of the subsequent Impressionist shows until 1886. – Reading with green umbrella (1873).

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia before moving to Paris where she was taken up by Degas and exhibited in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition. Later in life she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts Gold Medal. – Woman in a loge (1879)

By the time Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was 30 she was one of the leading portrait painters in America. I love Reverie or the Dreamer (1894).

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912) was Canadian, moved to New York, Venice, Munich, to Pont Aven where she experimented with the new plein air technique, but it was only when she moved on from London to Newlyn in Cornwall and married the artist Stanhope Alexander Forbes, that Elizabeth found a permanent home. The couple went ton to establish the Newlyn School of open air painting in Cornwall. – A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885)

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) progressed through the Munich Art Academy and is famous for the affair she had with Russian avant-garde painter Wassily Kandinsky. They bought a house in 1909 which became a focal point for the painters of the Blue Rider movement, Franz Marc, August Macke and so on. Her clear bold draughtsmanship and forceful colours are well suited to reproduction. – Self-portrait (1909), Jawlensky and Werefkin (1909).

3. Twentieth century great women artists

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was the first woman to be the subject of a major retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1946). Her paintings are super-real, occasionally sur-real, images of desert landscapes and flowers.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) famous for the photomontages she produced as part of the Dada movement. – Cut with Kitchen Knife DADA through Germany’s Last Weimar Beer Belly Culture Era (1920)

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) fabulously stylish images of 1920s women caught in a kind of shiny metallic blend of Art Deco and Futurism. What is not to worship? – The telephone (1930) Auto-portrait (1929)

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) politically active Mexican artist who painted herself obsessively, often in surreal settings although she denied being a Surrealist. – The Broken Column (1944).

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) American abstract expressionist, worked as a mural painting assistant for socially conscious works commissioned by the Federal Art Project before developing an interest in abstract art and exhibiting in the 1941 show by the Association of American Abstract Artists. In that year she met the king of the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock, and married him four years later leading to an intense period where they influenced each other. After his death in 1956 she developed a new style taking the natural world as subject. – Abstract number 2 (1948)

Louise Bourgeois (1911-1993)

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) was only 23 when she created the work she’s known for, Object – a cup, saucer and spoon covered in the furry skin of a gazelle. – Object (1936)

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) died tragically young but not before making a range of stimulating abstract sculptures. – Accession II (1967)

4. Contemporary women artists

With Hesse’s work (maybe with Louise Bourgeois’s) the book swings decisively away from traditional art, from oil painting and recognisable sculptures, into the world of installations, happenings, performances, body art, conceptual art, the style of art we still live among. This means, in practice, fewer reproductions of 2-D works and a lot of photographs.

Rebecca Horn (b.1944) German. Rooms filled with objects, photographs, films, video, mechanical works made from everyday objects. – River of the moon (1992)

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

Barbara Kruger (b.1945) American leading conceptual artist noted for large-format collages of images and texts. – Your body is a battleground (1989), We don’t need another hero (1987).

Marina Abramovic (b. 1946) Yugoslav performance artist often directly using her body, sometimes going to extremes and inflicting pain. In The Lovers: walk on the great wall of China her boyfriend started walking in the Gobi desert while she started from the Yellow Sea and they walked towards each other, meeting on the Great Wall whereupon they split up. In Balkan Baroque she spent four days surrounded by video installations and copper basins cleaning with a handbrush 5,500 pounds of cattle bones. – Balkan Baroque (1997)

Isa Genzken (b.1948) German artist producing abstract sculptures and large-scale installations. – Schauspieler II (2014)

Jenny Holzer (b.1950) American ‘neo-conceptualist’ famous for her projection of texts, often pretty trite, in large public spaces. – Jenny Holzer webpage. In her hands art really does become as trite and meaningless as T-shirt slogans.

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017)

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017) by Jenny Holzer

Mona Hatoum (b.1952) Palestinian video and installation artist, producing dramatic performances, videos and unnerving installations. – Undercurrent (2008). In 1982 she did a performance, standing naked in a plastic box half full of mud struggling to stand up and ‘escape’ for fours hours. – Under siege (1982) I love the look of the crowd, the sense of complete disengagement as a pack of blokes watch a naked woman covered in mud.

Kiki Smith (b.1954) German-born American who, like so many modern women artists, is obsessed with the female body, in this version stripped and flayed as per Gray’s Anatomy. – Untitled (1990)

Cindy Sherman (b.1954) American photographer and art film director. Lots of photos of herself dressed as historical characters or as stereotypical ‘types’ from Hollywood movies, ‘questioning stereotypical depictions of “the feminine”‘. As she’s gotten older her the subjects have changed to spoofing Old Master paintings, and she increasingly uses dummies and models in her mock-ups. – Untitled film still #206 (1989)

Shirin Neshat (b.1957) Iranian visual artist producing black and white photos of women in Iran e.g. her series Women of Allah. Her videos emphasise the distinction between West and East, men and women.

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Pipilotti Rist (b.1962) Video artist who works with video, film and moving images, generally of herself. – Selfless in the bath of lava (1994)

Tracey Emin CBE (b.1963) English artist making provocations, interventions, installations which are often powerfully autobiographical, like the tent, the unmade bed. Also hundreds of scratchy prints. – Everyone I have ever slept with (1995), My bed (1999).

Tacita Dean OBE (b.1965) English visual artist working in film and photography. – Bubble House (1999), The Green Ray (2001).

End thought

I’m not sure – it may be because I’m simply exhausted at the end of this thorough survey – but it does feel to me as if the contemporary art of women born in the 40s, 50s and 60s, with its interventions, installations, film and video and photos and happenings and performances – is somehow much the most unhappy, most neurotic, self-punishing and self-flagellating body of work, than that of any previous era.

Maybe their work simply reflects Western society as a whole, which has got richer and richer and somehow, as in a children’s fable, more and more miserable.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

Women artists in the 20th and 21st century ed. Uta Grosenick (2003)

Taschen is an art book publisher founded in 1980 by Benedikt Taschen in Cologne, Germany. They specialise in publishing art books about less well-covered topics including queer, fetish and erotic art. This relatively small-format (15.3 x 20 cm), high-gloss art book does what it says on the tin and features four-page spreads on 46 women artists of the 20th and 21st centuries – each gets two pages of text about them facing two pages of representative images, whether paintings, sculptures, photos of installations or performances etc.

German

The text is sourced from a range of experts on the various artists, but they and the introduction by Ute Grosenick, are all translated from the German. The resulting prose often feels heavy, in fact is sometimes incomprehensible – and is not helped by the liberal use of the kind of artbollocks which is required to explain and make sense of most of the artists from the 1960s onwards.

Wordy yet uninformative

Here’s the opening of the article about Andrea Zittel.

An inundation of stimuli and pressure to consume are two of the operative terms continually used with regard to the influence of mass culture on the individual. The former supposedly leads to distraction and nervous overloading, the latter to an awakening of futile needs, prestige thinking, and meaningless superficiality. Andreas Zittel’s blithe ‘applied art’, at first glance ascetic but in fact quite sensuous, can be interpreted against the background of this discussion. She stands, as it were, on the other shore and her mundane ‘art world’ lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism. Rather, the lifestyle she offers is rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire. (p.186)

On the basis of this passage what do you think Zittel’s art consists of or looks like? Would you expect to see paintings, installations, sculptures, film or video?

For me the key word in this verbose, pseudo-intellectual but strangely prim (‘with regard to’) and ultimately uninformative style is ‘supposedly’. The use of this word in the second sentence undermines the whole of the remainder of the paragraph. It indicates that the writer (Raimar Stange) is hedging their bets. Mass culture and consumer culture ‘supposedly’ lead to nervous overload and superficiality.

Stange invokes these concepts (which are key to understanding Zittel’s resistance to them) but is anxious to emphasise that she is not so naive as to actually ‘believe’ in them. No, the use of ‘supposedly’ indicates that she is dealing with ideas which may satisfy the mainstream media and uneducated plebs, but that you and I – who have read our Foucault and Lacan and Barthes and Derrida and Deleuze (heavily referenced in her text) always use with forceps (even if we are forced by the demands of publishing and writing for morons) to base our entire analysis of a living artist on them.

She wants to use pretty straightforward banal truisms of our time to explain Zittel’s work – but she is painfully aware that the ideas she’s invoking are, well, pretty commonplace, and so writes supposedly just to let us know that she’s cleverer than that. She’s having her cake and eating it.

(If you want to understand what Zittel’s very distinctive ‘art’ is like and how it ‘lacks every form of moralising attack, overhasty critique, or complaining cultural pessimism [but ] rather …. offers a lifestyle rife with both pragmatic and utopian aspects, and upholds the dignity of the individual within mass culture without losing sight of the factor of desire’ check out her Wikipedia page, where you will discover that some of those descriptions are actually very accurate – once her project has actually been explained a bit.)

Clichés

Alternatively, the writers resort to clichés and truisms. Admittedly, writing about art is difficult. Having read all the introductions and all the wall labels for over 100 exhibitions over the past five years I am all-too-aware of how you have to say something, and so there is a terrible temptation to just fill up the space with plausible-sounding padding. Still, there’s no excuse for just writing empty clichés.

Which artist would you say this is describing?

This is an art on a continual search for the meaning and possibility of personal identity, which both emotionally appeals to and intellectually challenges the viewer. (p.44)

It could be quite literally about any artist, ever.

Alphabetic order

The artists are arranged in alphabetical order, which is one way to do it. But an unintended consequence is that the first 40 or 50 pages are of modern artists, whose work, dating from the 1960s and afterwards, tends to be highly experimental, with lots of installations, photos of performances, film and video and so on.

Women’s bodies / sex

Also women artists from this era often depicted the naked female body in ways designed to subvert the way it’s depicted in ‘traditional’ male art, undermine ‘the male gaze’ and so on. But the unintended cumulative effect is of lots of chaotic scenes and naked women. The Vanessa Beecroft entry features 16 colour photographs of extremely attractive naked or scantily clad woman. We’re still on B and this tends to set the tone for the way we read – and see the images of women in – the rest of the book.

Take, for example, the work of Viennese artist Elke Krystufek (b.1970). Her entry begins by describing  how, at a 1994 group exhibition JETZTZEIT, she bared her breasts and masturbated in a mock-up of a comfortable bathroom in front of gallery guests, starting with her hand and progressing to using a dildo and vibrator. After she climaxed in front of everyone, she got into the bathwater and relaxed.

As in many of Krystufek’s works, the performance addressed the interrelationship between (male) gaze and (auto)erotic pleasure, as well as the interplay between artistically staged identity, feminist emancipation, and the female body. What at first sight may seem like a crude and narcissistic provocation, brusquely ignoring the distinction between the public and private spheres, turns out in the end to be a deliberate game in which social orders and their unconscious normative ascription – intent on authoritatively determining all expressions of sexuality – are consciously subverted. (p.116)

I know plenty of men who’d love to have watched their ‘unconscious normative ascriptions’ being subverted in this way. I wonder if she videoed it? Can’t find it on YouTube, but there is this work, which, I think you’ll agree, pretty much annihilates the Male Gaze.

Here’s another ‘subversive’ work by Marlene Dumas.

‘Because the images are culled from porn magazines, sex in Dumas’ paintings is stripped of its erotic charge’. Got that? These images have no erotic content whatsoever.

Phallocentrism and the castrated woman

In  a 1973 essay titled ‘Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, the film director, scholar and feminist Laura Mulvey examined the relationship between the patriarchal unconscious, the pleasure derived from looking , and the conventional image of woman in cinema and society. Male phallocentrism, Mulvey observed, has defined woman’s role in society as ‘an image of the castrated woman.’ In order to ‘arrive at a new language of desire’, this definition must first be analysed, after which the (visual) pleasure derived from perceiving these images should be destroyed. (p.116)

44 years later I wonder how the project to destroy the visual pleasure to be derived from viewing ‘the conventional image of woman in cinema and society’ is getting on. Maybe it will take a few years more. Or decades. Or centuries.

Traditional art

Away from hard core sexual imagery, ‘traditional’ art – in the form of oil painting – is relatively rare in this book. The names which stand out are Sonia Delaunay, Natalia Goncharova, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, Tamara de Lempicka, Georgia O’Keeffe and Bridget Riley, with Barbara Hepworth as a ‘traditional’ Modernist sculptor. Reading their entries is a relief because there is a lot less about masturbation, sex, vaginas, gender and identity.

Also their work, being so traditionally restricted to painting and sculpture, has been thoroughly assimilated and so is easy and so is a ‘pleasure’ to read.

Middle way

But there is another group, a sort of middle way of plenty of women artists who don’t feel the need to masturbate in public, paint themselves or other women naked or generally harp on about female sexuality. There are plenty of strange and interesting women artists.

Hanne Darboven’s obsession with numbers which seems to have led to walls covered with sheets of papers with various mathematical formulae or combinations of numbers all over them – Wunschkonzert (1984)

Isa Genzken’s abstract sculptures – Guardini (1987)

Mona Hatoum’s cool detached sculptural objects – Kapan (2012). She is now widely acknowledged as one of the leading living artists in the world.

Eva Hesse’s minimalist sculptures – Right After (1969)

Rebecca Horn – admittedly more naked women, but in a genuinely beautiful, aesthetic way – Unicorn (1969), and the later work seems entirely abstract – High Noon (1991)

Kiki Smith – disturbing installations featuring animals and birds – Jersey Crows (1995)

The list of artists

I’ve read criticism saying there’s a bias in the artists selected towards German and European artists, though the bias I noticed was towards American artists. A third of them are or were based in New York, testimony to the centrality of that city – centre of global capitalism, awash with bankers’ money – to the post-war art world.

Here’s the full list. I indicate country of origin and country where they ended up working, link off to some works, and link their names to reviews of exhibitions about or featuring them:

  1. Marina Abramovic – b. 1946 birthplace Yugoslavia, Workplace Amsterdam – Performances
  2. Eija-Liisa Ahtila – b.1959 Finland, Finland – The House (2002) 14 min DVD
  3. Laurie Anderson – b.1947 Chicago, New YorkHome of the brave
  4. Vanessa Beecroft – b.1969 Italy, New York – VB45 (2001)
  5. Louise Bourgeois – b.1911 Paris, New YorkCell
  6. Lygia Clark – b.1920 Brazil, Brazil – A Morte do Plano (1960)
  7. Hanne Darboven – b.1941 Germany, New York
  8. Sonia Delaunay – b.1885 Ukraine, Paris
  9. Rineke Dijkstra – b.1959 Netherlands, Netherlands
  10. Marlene Dumas – b.1953 South Africa, Amsterdam
  11. Tracey Emin – b.1963 England, London
  12. VALIE EXPORT – b.1940 Austria, Cologne – Action Pants, Genital Panic (1969)
  13. Sylvie Fleury – b. 1961 Geneva, Geneva
  14. Isa Genzken – b.1948 Germany, Germany
  15. Nan Goldin – b.1953 Washington, New York
  16. Natalia Goncharova – b.1881 Russia, Paris
  17. Guerilla Girls –
  18. Mona Hatoum – b.1952 Beirut, London
  19. Barbara Hepworth – b.1903 Yorkshire, St Ives
  20. Eva Hesse – b.1936 Hamburg, New York
  21. Hannah Höch – b.1889 Germany, Berlin
  22. Candida Höfer – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  23. Jenny Holzer – b.1950 Ohio, New York
  24. Rebecca Horn – b.1944 Germany, Germany
  25. Frida Kahlo – b.1907 Mexico, Mexico
  26. Lee Krasner – b. 1908 New York, New York
  27. Barbara Kruger – b.1945 New Jersey, New York
  28. Elke Krystufek – b.1970 Vienna, Vienna
  29. Tamara de Lempicka – b.1898 Warsaw, Mexico
  30. Sarah Lucas – b.1962 London, London
  31. Annette Messager – b.1943 France, Paris
  32. Mariko Mori – b.1967 Tokyo, New York
  33. Shirin Neshat – b.1957 Iran, New York
  34. Louise Nevelson – b.1899 Kiev, New York
  35. Georgia O’Keeffe – b.1887 Wisconsin, Santa Fe
  36. Meret Oppenheim – b.1913 Berlin, Basle
  37. Elizabeth Peyton – b.1965 Connecticut, New York
  38. Adrian Piper – b.1948 New York, Cape Cod
  39. Bridget Riley – b.1931 London, London
  40. Pipilotti Rist – b.1962 Switzerland, Switzerland
  41. Niki de Saint Phalle – b.1930 France, California
  42. Cindy Sherman – b.1954 New Jersey, New York
  43. Kiki Smith – b.1954 Nuremberg, New York
  44. Rosemarie Trockel – b.1952 Germany, Germany
  45. Rachel Whiteread – b.1963 London, London – House (1993)
  46. Andrea Zittel – b. 1965 California, New YorkA-Z

Insights from Ute Grosenick’s introduction

In the second paragraph of the introduction Ute Grosenick says there is a ‘gender war’ going on. Alright. It does seem likely when you read any academic work about modern art or any newspaper.

It’s interesting to learn that the first women-only exhibition was held in Amsterdam in 1884. Women-only exhibitions were held in Paris in 1908 and 1918. But there were few female art teachers, women members of national art academies, women art dealers networking among women artists, as well as bans on women attending some or all classes in most art schools.

Grosenick gives the impression that there were two great boom periods in 20th century art:

  • The decade from just before to just after the Great War saw Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Vorticism, Constructivism, Dada, Abstract Art, Neue Sachlichkeit and Surrealism.
  • The decade from the mid-60s to the mid-70s saw an explosion in the possibilities and definitions of art, exemplified by Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, Land Art, Fluxus, Arte Povera, Happenings, Performance Art, Body Art and Minimalism.

She says the 1980s were ‘a decade of disillusionment for most women artists’.

She says that the rise of gender studies in universities reflects the way ‘the critical examination of the significance of one’s own and other people’s gender… is becoming ever more central to art’. In my experience of recent exhibitions, I would say that gender and identity are becoming almost the only way in which gallerists and curators can now relate to art.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

Rachel Whiteread @ Tate Britain

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an art exhibition in such a huge space.

Tate Britain has cleared all the walls out of the north wing exhibition rooms to create one enormous open space, 1,500 square metres, which is filled with casts in concrete, resin, papier mache and so on by Rachel Whiteread.

In fact the main impact of the show is being in such an enormous open space, walking round and savouring it. The size and lightness and openness brilliantly suit Whiteread’s mostly big and sometimes enormous casts of manufactured objects and internal spaces (houses, rooms, stairs).

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain, featuring Untitled (Staircase) (2001)

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain, featuring Untitled (Staircase) (2001)

It is really, really relaxing to wander round and eye up the exhibits and take in their scale and dimensions and angles and attributes. At most of the exhibitions I go to you have to put in quite a lot of effort reading the wall labels introducing each of the rooms and then read the label for every individual work.

Here there was no text at all on the walls. There is a foldout guide which every visitor is given, with 18 paragraphs (just counted them) dividing the works into themes or subjects (tables and bookshelves, public works, boxes, floors and stairs etc). But you don’t have to read it. And although there is a wall label for every work, most of these have very basic titles (Stair space, Room 101, Stairs, Light I), no explanatory text, and plenty of works are untitled.

Quite quickly this encourages you simply to enjoy the works as presences in their own right, unmediated by text or interpretation. The result is a wonderful sense of release and freedom, encouraging you just to wander round and – enjoy!

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Whiteread came to prominence when she won the Turner Prize in 1993, being – as every scrap of publicity about her emphasises – the first woman to do so. She hit the wider headlines when she cast the inside of a house in East London in concrete. The house was then demolished leaving only the cast in situ. In fact it only existed for a few months before angry locals got the work itself knocked down. There’s a video of the process of creation (shown here for those who want to sit and watch it) as well as documentary photos.

`House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition showcases her ability to cast objects in a variety of materials such as plaster, concrete, resin, rubber and metal. For example, a display case of hot water bottles (and enema bags!) demonstrating her use of different materials. These were made at different dates but all have the title Torso. The key thing is that the casts record the inside of the bottles and bags: they record the internal and empty space concealed within these everyday objects.

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain, featuring Torsos

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain, featuring Torsos

At the small end of the scale there are casts of the insides of individual cans, a row of toilet rolls in different colours (Line-up), the insides of circular cardboard cylinders you keep architects’ diagrams in and the insides of filing cabinets.

Getting a bit bigger in scale, there are casts of the insides of mattresses in various colours, some propped against the wall, although they are solid not soft and bendy.

Untitled (Amber Bed) (1991) © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

Untitled (Amber Bed) (1991) © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

But it’s the really monumental casts of architectural space which catch the eye. The stairs (in figure one, above) or the internal cast of the room at Broadcasting House which George Orwell supposedly used as the basis for Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Her work makes space visible. Emptiness becomes solid. Tangible. Walk aboutable. Think aboutable.

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain featuring Room 101 (2003) and Staircase (2001)

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain featuring Room 101 (2003) and Staircase (2001)

Away in one corner was a wall of sketches and 2-D works (in the background of this photo).

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Many are preparatory sketches for castings and show the same interest in interiors and architectural features. They range in media from pencil, varnish, correction fluid, watercolour and collage.

But some are not directly tied to the casting projects and are interesting free-standing works in their own right. I was taken by a small piece, which is a postcard of birds taking off (pigeons?) against the silhouette of buildings (Trafalgar Square?) which she has covered with white paint and then punched holes in. I liked it.

Untitled by Rachel Whiteread

Untitled by Rachel Whiteread

One of my favourite pieces was a set of bookshelves filled with books which seem to have been cast from the inside, so what is facing you is the pages-end of all the books, not (as you usually see in a library) the spines – Untitled (Book Corridors) 1997-8. In fact – it dawns on you as you wander round it – what you’re seeing is not bookshelves at all – but the space between bookshelves. The emptiness into which the books give.

The book theme looms large in the enormous Holocaust Memorial erected in Vienna in 2000, a memorial to the 65,000 Viennese Jews transported and exterminated by the Nazis, which consists of a room-sized cast, whose faces are made of the page-end sides of lined-up books i.e. not the spines. I find this absence or inaccessibility of the spines which usually carry the name and title of books i.e. their identity and meaning, especially powerful and disturbing.

This is just one of Whiteread’s numerous large and public sculptures. In the entrance hall there’s a display of photos of these public artworks.

A less earnest and more playful example was the work she made to top the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – a cast of the plinth itself, upside down, in resin. Being transparent, the work changed character with the changing light quality of the daylight. Genius.

The public, overt aspect of her work comes out in other ways. At some point she had the idea to cast the space underneath a chair. This sounds of quite limited interest or impact. But it turns out that if you cast this space underneath a whole range of different sizes and shapes of chairs, in different coloured resins, and then arrange them in neat rows – then they have a really massive impact. Hence Untitled (One Hundred Spaces, casts of chairs with all their imperfections and marks of wear and tear, lined up in five neat rows of 20, and filling Tate Modern’s long narrow atrium space (technically known as the Duveen Galleries).

Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) (1995) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley)

Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) (1995) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley)

(It’s worth mentioning that around the rest of the huge atrium space are key works from Tate’s collection selected by Whiteread herself as important for her practice and view of art.)

Whitereadiana

In the shop are posters, postcards, half a dozen books about Whiteread, as well as a number of videos and a Rachel Whiteread scarf, handkerchief and notebook, as well as a selection of paperbacks chosen by the woman herself (High Rise by J.G. Ballard, Depths and Quicksand by Henning Mankell, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson etc).

Outside the gallery, on the south lawn, is a new piece, the inside of a chicken shed cast in concrete.

Chicken Shed (2017) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate

Chicken Shed (2017) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate

The visitor handout, once I came to look at it, discusses the types of works (Early work, Works on paper, Public Commissions and so on) and raises various themes and issues which can be found in her work.

The most obvious ones are that:

  • It is a lot of hard work to make these apparently effortless sculptures.
  • And that all of the pieces are, in some sense, memorials: memorials of spaces which are transitory because the objects which frame them are transitory: the houses will be torn down, the mattresses will be thrown away, the water bottles will be junked. The rates of decay vary but she does what all artists do – captures some of the beauty and wonder of the world while it lasts.

The entire exhibition is blessedly free of the usual rhetoric about gender and identity although the fact that the artist is a woman might give some critics the opportunity to speak about these being mostly domestic spaces and domestic articles and taking it from there.

But, unlike so many recent shows I’ve been to, above all this one felt light and airy and uncluttered. It really is an amazing space and an amazing collocation of objects to fill it with. For some reason, T.S. Eliot’s lines come into my mind. You could ask what the works are about, or what they’re for or what they are saying. Or you could just enjoy them directly, engaging with them face to face without the intervention of curators or critics.

Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.

Treat yourself to a total immersion in Rachel-Whiteread-World.

Visitor demographics

 

I go to lots of exhibitions and am always alert to the popularity and the types of visitors they attract.

From a demographics point of view, what was really unusual about the visitors to this exhibition was the number of young people and, in particular, the large number of young women in evidence – singletons, pairs and groups of women in their 20s. It was really noticeable enough to be worth commenting on.

And this was another rather uplifting aspect to this exhibition – it felt younger than almost all the exhibitions I attend. Prompting the thought that it might be inspiring the next generation of women artists, students, writers and so on to create works as varied, as individual and as powerful as Whiteread’s.

The video

Every exhibition has at least one promotional video.

//players.brightcove.net/1854890877/4811b2e3-75b4-4489-b1a5-21a18a61075e_default/index.html


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972)

When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind. Papa worked at his desk. The nets were set out and taken in. They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace. (p.41)

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is famous for writing the Moomin comic strips, picture books and stories which are still phenomenally popular 70 years after the first book was published (1945), and have been turned into cartoons, animations, TV series, movies, plays and even an opera, as well as a world of merchandise.

The last Moomin book is the sad and melancholy Moominvalley in November, published in 1970. It’s around this time that she made the transition to writing fiction for adults. The semi-autobiographical Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir came out in 1968 (her father and mother were both artists). But her big breakthrough came with The Summer Book, published in 1972, which has come to be regarded as a classic across Scandinavia.

The Summer Book

It’s short, at just 150 pages of text. It’s divided into 22 ‘chapters’ or sections i.e. the average length is just under seven pages.

The shortest is Moonlight at just two pages. Little Sophia wakes in the middle of the night to see the fire in the stove reflected several times in the windows. She tugs her Grandmother’s plait and Grandmother wakes up and reassures her that all is well. Slowly little Sophia drifts off to sleep again. Her father gets up and puts more wood in the stove.

As this chapter/story/anecdote suggests, the tales are all set on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland (very like the ones Jansson spent her childhood on and, specifically, like the one where she built a cabin and lived with her partner for most of adult life).

They focus on the relationship between an unnamed Grandmother and little Sophia. Grandmother is 85 (p.108). Her husband is long dead and referred to only once. The only other member of the household is Sophia’s father – Papa – who occasionally appears but never speaks. He is in his room writing, tending the house, fixing things around the island or – in the one story he dominates, The Enormous Plastic Sausage – buying loads of bulbs and saplings to plant across the island.

We learn that Sophia’s mother is dead (p.25), not least in the story where they make a little model ‘Venice’ out of stones and twigs on a mossy bog near the house and Sophia imagines her mother living inside a splendid palace on the Grand Canal.

The family has lived on the island for 47 years (p.101). They know every inch, they know the impact of the seasons, they know the feel of all the winds and every type of sunrise or storm.

It’s not really a novel. Certainly the same characters recur in every ‘chapter’ but there is no continuous narrative and no attempt to explore the ‘development’ of character, two attributes of your traditional novel.

It’s more like a collection of epiphanies or insights, what reading the American Beat writers taught me to think of as moments of satori, a Buddhist term for enlightenment.

The cat

Their point is their apparent inconsequentiality, an elliptical quality which is, nonetheless, charged with meaning. In The Cat Sophia is given a fisherman’s kitten which quickly grows out of being fluffy and cuddly and turns into a lean killer. Sophia grows to hate the way it brings bird corpses into the house. She shouts at it but the indifferent cat stalks out to do more hunting. Neighbours arrive by boat with a fluffy cat which they thought would catch mice but doesn’t, so they agree to swap fluffy for Sophia’s killer. Sure enough fluffy is lovely and cuddly and docile to stroke, and snuggles on Sophia’s pillow at night. After a few days she wants her killer cat back.

What you make of that, what conclusions you draw about human nature, about love, about the relationship between humans and animals or their pets – well, it’s all entirely up to you.

Unsentimental

So the anecdotes are not sentimental, they are not ‘nice’. The blurb around the book suggests it’s about one summer when a grandmother and her grand-daughter grow close but that’s very misleading. Grandmother is not a nice old lady. She smokes (though she’s struggling to cut down), fumbles with her false teeth, feels dizzy, and needs regular rests – an accurate depiction of old age.

The old woman stood up too quickly. Her walking stick rolled down into the pool, and the whole rock became an uncertain, hostile surface, arching and twisting in front of her. (p.64)

And, strikingly, she’s not even that fond of the child.

‘Bloody nitwit,’ Grandmother muttered to herself. (p.63)

Quite regularly she just wants to get away from the needy, whining, little girl to have a nap or be by herself. She gets angry. She has another crafty fag. She swears.

‘The fishing’s bloody awful,’ Grandmother said. (p.62)

She creeps off into the little pine forest by herself or lies on the moss watching the leaves or looks down at the tadpoles in a pool. She is very ungrandmotherly. She is, in other words, entirely human and wonderful.

Sophia is persistent but capricious. She’s probably what middle-class English mums I know would call rude. Certainly blunt.

‘When are you going to die?’ the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, ‘Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.’
‘Why?’ her grandchild asked.
She didn’t answer. She walked out on the rock and on towards the ravine. (p.22)

Their lack of English good manners and hesitancy are a big part of the appeal. Quite routinely, they get pettish, fretsome and plain angry – very angry – with each other.

Both of them tend to obsess about little things and then forget them and walk away. Jannson magically conveys the strange, intense but shallow passions of childhood. ‘Oh well, it’s broken, let’s play a different game now.’

Many of these involve making and creating. Grandmother is always carving shapes out of driftwood or building a little Venetian palace out of balsa wood and she inspires her grand-daughter to follow suit.

Satori is a term from Zen Buddhism and the stories’ elliptical quality keeps prompting comparison with haikus or Chinese painting, with traditions of art which are a) set in an unspoilt natural world b) spare and minimal in style, with the minimum amount of brushstrokes or description c) hint and suggest some deeper meaning or purpose but are never vulgar enough to spell it out.

Nature notes

Sophia and Grandmother’s little adventures play out against the massive unchanging landscape of this isolated Nordic island and, like a painting, between the moving human figures, you see all kinds of glimpses of the natural world – the trees, the rocks, the moss, the lichens, the seaweed and driftwood, sometimes described plainly and factually, sometimes charged with Jansson’s special tone, a kind of matter-of-fact marvelling, or a matter-of-fact prose style in which the marvelling is implicit, immanent.

It’s a funny thing about bogs. You can fill them with rocks and sand and old logs and make a little fenced-in yard on top with a woodpile and a chopping block – but bogs go right on behaving like bogs. Early in the spring they breathe ice and make their own mist, in remembrance of the time when they had black water and their own sedge blossoming untouched. (p.32)

The poetry is in the simple knowledgeability which, because it is conveyed in such spare prose, reads like wisdom.

Moss is terribly frail. Step on it once and it rises the next time it rains. The second time, it doesn’t rise back up. And the third time you step on it, it dies. Eider ducks are the same – the third time you frighten them up from their nests, they never come back. (p.29)

Since most of us live in towns and cities and spend all our work time and most of our leisure staring at screens (as you are right now), anyone with real in-depth knowledge of the natural world now appears to us like a shaman from a distant tribe, bearing wisdom most of us have long lost. So there’s a basic nature nostalgia running through the book. This was, after all, 1972, 45 years ago. We’ve destroyed a lot of the natural world since then. Anyone who comes with reports of the world beyond our air-conditioned offices is treated like a messenger from exotic worlds.

She heard the cry of the long-tailed ducks. They are called scolders, because their cry is a steady, chiding chatter, farther and farther away, farther and farther out. People rarely see them. They are as secretive as corncrakes. But a corncrake hides in a meadow all alone, while the long-tails are out beyond the farthest islands in enormous wedding flocks, singing all through the spring night. (p. 33)

Some of the decorating and arts and crafts playing with bits and bobs from the natural world morph seamlessly from childreny crafts into the beginnings of pagan ritual.

Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk, and listen to the movements of the birds in the thicket. (p.31)

And some of the stories reference Nordic traditions which are novel to us Anglo-Saxons, like the big celebrations on Midsummer’s Eve which, however, are treated to Jansson’s anti-romantic, dis-illusioned approach. The Midsummer Eve described in Midsummer is a total washout, with torrential rain preventing almost any fires being lit, and all but one of the fireworks bought for the occasion being too wet to light.

Setting the tone

All these elements are very well announced in the opening paragraphs of the first story, which set the natural scene, the irritating inquisitiveness of the little girl and the short-tempered character of Grandmother.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Sophia.
‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’ (p.21)

Anthony Burgess suggested that all novels should be read twice, once to find out what happens, and once to see how it was done. But this is a book to read multiple times, in order to savour the sharp tang of the dry, astringent prose, and to let the brisk unsentimental depiction of people and the natural world sink really deep into your soul.


Credit

Sommarboken by Tove Jansson was published in Finland in 1972. This translation by Thomas Teal was published by Random House in 1974. Page references are to the Sort of Books paperback edition published in 2003.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson (1970)

Hardly had Fillyjonk thought of spring-cleaning when a wave of dizziness and nausea overcame her and for one terrifying moment she was hanging over the abyss. She knew: I shall never again be able to clean. How can I go on living if I can neither clean or prepare food? (p.72)

Tove Jansson and the Moomins

Jansson began her career as an illustrator in the late 1930s. The first sketches of the Moomins appeared late in the Second World War while she was producing adult caricatures for a Finnish satirical magazine, Garm. The first Moomin book was barely published (in 1945) before she was commissioned to produce a daily comic strip featuring the characters, in Finland. When this strip was picked up by the London Evening Standard and syndicated to other European newspapers in the early 1950s, it grew to reach a readership of 20 million people a day. The contract to produce these daily comic strips provided Jansson’s main income for nearly thirty years. It was the kind of long-running daily comic strip found in newspapers to put alongside the likes of Peanuts, The Far Side, Hagar the Horrible, B.C. etc.

Fairly quickly there came requests for other spin-offs, first the book-length novels, then large-format picture books, then real-world stuff like dolls & merchandise, plays, TV adaptations, even an opera, and so on.

a) Running the commercial empire while producing an entertaining comic strip every day must have been exhausting. b) It must have used up a lot of plots and stories and gags. Over the years Jansson must, presumably, have separated out the timely topical subjects for the strip, from the much deeper, stranger, humorous or elliptical plots for the books. c) 25 years – from 1945 to 1970 – is a long time in anyone’s artistic output. Much can change and develop.

d) The previous Moomin book, Moominpappa at Sea, seemed to me to have lost almost all the joie de vivre of the earlier books. It contained strange and eerie moments but hardly any real humour and was dominated by the settled depression of the main character, Moominpappa, and the less obvious discontent of Moominmamma and even Moomintroll. Above all, it dropped almost all of the big cast of ancillary characters to concentrate on this rather claustrophobic family triangle. Only the inclusion of Little My with her pert, rude humour stops the book becoming inconsolably gloomy.

e) As any glance at Jansson’s biography shows, during the writing of this, the final Moomin book, her beloved mother died. She struggled to the end of Moominvalley in November, but – for her – the Moomins were over. She could never go back to that happy valley.

Moominvalley in November

There are a lot of chapters, 21 to be precise, in this 157-page book (since the text starts on page 9, that’s 148 pages of actual text: 148/21 = 7 pages per chapter). So they’re more like short anecdotes than chapters in an ongoing narrative. One chapter is as short as two pages. They are quick impressions. Snapshots. Moments which provide insights into the characters.

And the narrative is very character-based, not event-based. Previous stories followed Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin as they, for example, set out for the Lonely Mountains as a team, a gang, a group of children on an adventure. Moominvalley in November concentrates on the individuals as monads, as solitary individuals thrown together by chance and only slowly learning to get on with each other.

The premise is simple: half a dozen disparate characters, in different ways and for different reasons, decide to shake off the winter blues by visiting Moominhouse in the Moomin Valley, to recapture memories of happy summers they’ve spent there.

But it isn’t summer, it is rainy winter. And the Moomins are not there. At the end of Moominpappa at Sea we saw them decide to really settle on the isolated island which Moominpappa had taken them to. This exile seems to be confirmed when Snufkin looks into Moominpappa’s magic crystal ball in the forest and sees an image, far away, in the deep depths of the ball, of a stormy sea and a light flashing with a regular beat. Obviously, the Moomins are still on lighthouse island.

And so the six characters bump into each other and, despite each of them wanting to be left alone with their memories (and fears and anxieties), slowly, one by one, they have to learn to rub along and live with each other.

Six characters in search of the Moomins

We all know Snufkin, the solitary traveller, from Comet in Moominland and its sequels. He heads vaguely towards the house trying to capture a tune which flits in and out of his head.

The Mymble decides to come and visit her kid sister, Little My. She doesn’t know that My is off with the Moomins on their desolate island.

Toft is a small boy who hides in the hemulen’s beached boat, and decides to go to the Moominhouse. No very clear reason is given except that he seems to have detailed dreams and fantasies about such a house, and spends hours longingly painting it in ideal features in his imagination. Once there, Toft discovers a big scientific book about creatures which live on electricity and becomes convinced such a creature is hiding in the house, or nearby woods. Again, he uses his imagination to paint the Creature in ever more vivid detail and almost – it seems – does actually conjure it into existence. He hears it roar in the woods. He sees it gnash its big teeth by the black pool in the forest.

So far, with these three characters, so relatively straightforward. What makes the book decidedly weird is that the other three characters all suffer from what might be termed quite serious mental disorders.

Grandpa-Grumble can’t remember who he is, what he’s doing or why. He quite cheerfully accepts his early Alzheimer’s, in fact he’s very proud of having forgotten almost everything, but occasionally gets very cross. Grandpa-Grumble isn’t his name, but he needs some kind of identity before he can get up and exist. This is one among many that floats through his mind soon after we meet him, so he adopts it. For the time being…

The Fillyjonk is as full of fear and anxiety as when we first encountered her in the short story collection, Tales from Moominvalley. Suburban breakdown neurosis.

As soon as the Fillyjonk touched a broom or a duster she felt dizzy, and a giddy feeling of fear started in her stomach and got stuck in her throat. (p.46)

Within moments of meeting her, as she anxiously goes about her housekeeping, she manages to fall out of window onto a sloped tiled roof and slither down towards the sheer drop, only just managing to cling to the guttering and then pull herself up by the lightning rod and back into the room. For a while she becomes nothing but a tatter of flesh clinging to the side of an enormous empty house.

Now she was nothing at all, just something that was trying to make itself as flat as possible and move on. (p.22)

Once she’s recovered she decides to travel to the Moomin house to seek out others, to be among other people whose bustle will fill her day so that ‘there was no time for terrible thoughts’. But once she’s there, the others automatically recoil, smelling the ‘fear’ which she emanates, fear of life, fear of existence. She reminds me a bit of a Samuel Beckett character.

As does the hemulen, living in the same small seaside town as Toft. (In fact Toft hides in the hemulen’s sailing boat which he proudly owns but never in fact uses.) The very opening words of the hemulen’s introductory chapter describe a person who struggles to find a reason to live.

The hemulen woke up slowly and recognised himself and wished he had been someone that he didn’t know. He felt even tireder than when he went to bed, and here it was – another day which would go on until evening and then there would be another one and another one which would be the same as all days when they are lived by a hemulen. (p.28)

Quite grim, eh? Tired of living. An almost existentialist facing-up to the monotonous emptiness of existence, this could come from Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

The empty house

One by one they bump into each other, misunderstand each other, cautiously enter the cold empty house and commandeer rooms. Snufkin remains outside in his tent. Toft takes Moominpappa’s old room. The hemulen has a typical moment of existential crisis:

and then to undress and confess that yet another day had become yet another night. How did things get like this, he thought, quite dumbfounded. (p.40)

and so forces his way into Snufkin’s tent, boisterously declaring he wants to enjoy ‘the outdoors life’.

Things happen. There is a big rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The Mymble somehow absorbs all this lighting and becomes a ball of crackling energy. Grandpa-Grumble catches a big fish and Snufkin advises him that the Fillyjonk is a great cook. In fact, she finds that preparing a big meal for everyone does something to calm her nerves. Almost. Though when she opens the linen cupboard she has a terrifying vision of zillions of creepie-crawlies escaping everywhere and spends the rest of the book hearing them scuttling behind the wallpaper and the wainscoting in a barely controlled panic.

Grandpa-Grumble finds the Moomin’s little hairy ancestor hibernating in the cold stove. But he soon forgets what it looks like and, when he opens the cupboard door which has a mirror in it, he mistakes his own reflection for the ancestor and (comically) gets to like and respect him. His reflection, too, is old, eccentrically dressed, and knows how to keep quiet.

Towards the end of the book the Fillyjonk organises a big party, with welsh rarebit to eat and cider to drink. The hemulen recites a poem and then the Fillyjonk puts on a lantern show, hanging a white sheet from the ceiling, placing a lamp behind her and moving a cutout of a boat with the three Moomins and Little My in it in a boat-on-the-sea kind of way. Mymble is moved, so are the others.

Toft goes outside to find the Creature which he has created with his imagination in the pitch black night but it moves away, it is nowhere, it is nothing.

After the party, the Fillyjonk sits by herself amid the mess of the dining table, picks up Snufkin’s mouth organ and turns out to be brilliant at making music on it. Mymble had said she was ‘artistic’ earlier in the day. Maybe she is. Maybe things will be alright. Maybe she can put her fears and anxieties behind her.

Next day the Fillyjonk organises a massive clear-up of the house, dusting the surfaces, cleaning the windows, sweeping all the corners, and the others join in and make the place spic and span. Something has been achieved, something has been finished and the Fillyjonk and Mymble shake hands by the bridge and head off home. Grandpa-Grumble confronts his own reflection in the clothes-cupboard mirror and, when it doesn’t reply, pokes it with his stick. The mirror shatters, the fragments falling to the floor. There’s only one thing for it – to hibernate – he tucks himself up on the living room sofa and goes to sleep.

Snufkin invites the hemulen to come out in the sailing boat. The hemulen – who owns a dinghy back in the seaside town which, as we know, he never actually uses – is absolutely terrified, and thinks he’s going to throw up, but is forced to take the tiller when Snufkin simply moves forward into the bow leaving the tiller unmanned.

Back at the house the hemulen embarrassedly admits to Toft that he was terrified and that he will now never have to use the dinghy back home. He too has found some kind of resolution and sets off home the next day.

That leaves just Snufkin and Toft. The latter walks out to look at Moominpappa’s crystal ball deep in the forest. The first snow has come and the forest is white and frosty. The crystal ball is completely empty.

Next morning Snufkin strikes camp and walks down to the sea where the song at the edge of his mind finally comes into it, fully formed, simple and beautiful. He heaves his pack on his back and walks straight into the forest.

Next morning Toft goes to the crystal ball in the snow and sees a tiny lamp in it, the lamp attached to the Moomins’ sailing boat mast. He wanders into the forest, getting quite lost, and slowly his imaginings about the Moomins – and especially the mother that he never had and fantasises about – Moominmamma – fade out, his mind becomes completely blank, like the landscape.

Emerging from the forest at the foot of the hills.Toft climbs the biggest one and far, far out at sea, sees the Moomin sailing boat heading towards the land. If he walks straight back down, he calculates that he’ll get to the bathing house just in time to greet them, catch the line and tie the boat to the jetty.

And that is the last line and last thought in the complete set of Moomin novels.


The dialectic of fear and cosiness

By emphasising the mental problems of some of the characters I’m at risk of giving a misleading impression of the book. It contains plenty of very calm, semi-mystical passages about nature and the seasons, painted in Jansson’s beautifully crisp, descriptive prose. Here Snufkin and the hemulen wander down to the empty, disconsolate bathing house the morning after the big storm.

A dark bank of everything that storm and high water had thrown up, discarded things, forgotten things, all jumbled up under seaweed and reeds, heavy and blackened with water, covered the beach as far as the eye could see. The splintered timbers were full of old nails and bent cramp-irons. The sea had devoured the beach right up to the first trees, and there was seaweed hanging in the branches. (p.69)

But for every purely descriptive passage like that, there are many others which move from the outer world of nature to the troubled realm of the psyche within. For example:

The quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can. It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth and your thoughts and to burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own. Then the cold and the storms and the darkness can do their worst. They can grope their way up the walls looking for a way in, but they won’t find one, everything is shut, and you sit inside, laughing in your warmth and your solitude… (p.10)

Many of the descriptions do this – they tend to become psychologised, to switch from the outer world to dramatise internal feelings – often of a rather troubled kind.

Because the same overall feeling emerges again and again. Repeatedly, whatever the situation, each of the characters, or the narrator in her generalisations, seeks for peace and solitude and escape from others.

All the creatures want to be by themselves, repeating what is very obviously their author’s mantra, that peace and quiet and solitude are best.

[Toft] wished that the whole valley had been empty with plenty of room for dreams, you need space and silence to be able to fashion things sufficiently carefully. (p.88)

[Toft] wanted to be alone to try and work out why he had been so terribly angry at the Sunday dinner. It frightened him to realise that there was a completely different toft in him, a toft which he didn’t know and which might come back and disgrace him in front of all the others. (p.116)

Snufkin overcomes his longing for the Moomin family by realising that maybe they, too, just want to be left alone in peace (p.92).

Hemulen likes Moominpappa’s old room because it is ‘a place where one could be by oneself’ (p.94).

Because I happen to have recently read the famous play by Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis Clos, I couldn’t help finding echoes of it in the plight of six characters who have all converged on one place, seeking solitude and summer only to find the exact reverse, bleak winter and irritating company. The text is alive with the idea of places of refuge and sanctuary, of just being left alone:

  • The big pool was a gloomy place in the autumn, a place to hide oneself and wait. (p.117)
  • ‘[The Moomins] went to the back garden when they were fed up and angry and wanted a bit of peace and quiet.’ (p.119)
  • Of course, when you hibernate you’re much younger when you wake up, and you don’t need anything but to be left in peace. (p.144)
  • [The dark forest] is where Moominmamma had walked when she was tired and cross and disappointed and wanted to be on her own… (p.156)

There is one way out, one way to escape other people or your own alienated or anxious thoughts – and that is to cease being conscious altogether.

This, maybe, explains why there are so many scenes where one or other of the characters makes themselves a cosy little snug and goes to sleep. (Obviously, children’s stories are more often than not designed to be read to children at bed-time, so this partly explains why the little creatures fall asleep at the end of almost every chapter.)

But still – falling asleep in the dark Nordic nights is a recurring leitmotif. Despite the ‘optimistic’ ending, the text tells us that the creatures (before they all leave) are sleeping longer and longer as the nights draw in.

And we know that even though the Moomin family are (supposedly) heading home, they will barely have arrived before they, too, have their last meal of pine needles and bed down for the long winter hibernation. One day, perhaps, they’ll go to sleep and never wake up.

As we all do.


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson (1965)

Moominpappa went and sat on the lighthouse-keeper’s little ledge and thought: ‘I must do something different, something new. Something tremendous.’ But he didn’t know what it was he wanted to do. He was quite bewitched and confused. (p.114)

This is a sad and troubling book. Moominpappa mopes about the house because everything in Moomin Valley is fixed and everything is taken care of.  Little My says he needs to get angry and let off steam, and indeed he bickers with Moominmamma in a way unimaginable in the earlier, innocent books. A little fire starts in the wood and he is irritated because his family puts it out before he even gets there. The Groke slides up to the house and Moominpappa likes to think of himself as the manly protector of his family, even though he joins the others in locking and bolting the door and hiding under the table.

He needs to ‘get away’, and decides to take his family to a remote island to start again. There’s a tiny dot on the map in the middle of sea. An island, reputedly with a lighthouse. Yes, they’ll go there.

A reduced Moomin family

Apart from the prevalent sad, middle-aged storyline, another way in which this book is very different from the earlier ones is that the family is massively reduced. The only people who sail with him to the new island are Moominmamma, Moomintroll and Little My. My has to be in the book to provide her own brand of malicious mischief, otherwise it really would just be the story of a man having a sad, mid-life crisis. Luckily she’s there to burst everyone’s balloon with the most cynical, quick, heartless attitude imaginable. Always bracing, sometimes really funny.

Little My was sitting on the steps, singing one of her monotonous wet-weather songs.
‘Hallo,’ said Moominpappa. ‘I’m angry.’
‘Good!’ said little My with approval. ‘You look as though you’d made a proper enemy of someone. It always helps.’ (p.102)

But whatever happened to Sniff, Moomintroll’s babysh companion? Or Snufkin? Or the Muskrat or the Mymble, the Whomper, Gaffsie, Too-ticky and all the other friends they’ve acquired in the previous books? They have all disappeared, are not mentioned – everything is subsumed to Moominpappa’s unhappiness.

The Groke

I was particularly struck by the way that the Groke – the big sad lonely figure which radiates deathly cold wherever she goes – previously a strange and ominous and fleeting figure – is handled in this book. Previously she appeared and disappeared for no reason, adding to the eerily wonderful sense of magic about Moomin Valley. But now Jansson dwells on her character and her immense loneliness at some length. She is attracted to the lamp back in Moomin Valley and when she sees the family sailing away with the lamp tied to the mast she determines to follow it and she does, by placing one foot in front of another on the restless sea, making it freeze solid at her touch. Thus she creates an ice bridge all the way to the island, following the little Moomin family like some kind of avenging angel or bad conscience.

The laughing children of the earlier books have all been swept away. Sad middle-aged characters are centre stage.

Compare and contrast the small, human-scale, comedy Moominhouse which Moominpappa builds back in The Exploits of Moominpappa.

with the way the tiny Moomin figures are intimidated and overwhelmed by the enormous, bare, bleak lighthouse they find when they arrive at the barren island in this book –

And what was often left powerfully unstated in the previous books is now made brutally explicit. Previously we were told that grass or flowers where the Groke passed were instantly frozen, in a rather wonderful fairy-tale way. Now Jannson makes it brutally clear that wherever the Groke sits for any length of time is killed stone dead and nothing will ever grow there again. This is a small but significant example of the way the tone has shifted from things withheld and, so, magical – and things stated explicitly and so become much more human and upsetting.

Moominpappa’s desperate enthusiasms

Again and again Moominpappa finds a project – lighting the lighthouse lamp, setting nets at sea, fishing in the black pool, building a breakwater out of big rocks – which fire and invigorate him but which, somehow, in the event, fizzle out in failure and disappointment.

Again and again he tries to assert his authority over his tiny family, declaring there is a fixed order to unpack the boat, to decorate the lighthouse, that only he knows about the sea or fishing or nets, or anything. And the others listen politely, then go about their business regardless, and on more than one occasion a frustrated Moominpappa is driven to declaring that he hates family life.

One such failure is the great effort to take out the old lighthouse-keeper’s nets and set them in just the right place off the coast. A huge storm blows up. Next day Moomintroll rows Moominpappa out and they both feel how heavy the nets are – boy, they’re going to be full of fish!

But as they struggle to drag the nets aboard their little dinghy it becomes clear the nets are full of nothing but seaweed; there isn’t a single fish. Fail.

Moominpappa felt quite deflated. This seaweed had come right after that wretched business of the lamp, it wasn’t fair. One toiled and toiled and nothing worked. Things just seemed to slip through one’s fingers. (p.91)

Moominmamma is endlessly supportive with her ‘Yes dear’, with her stoic agreement to leave her whole household and life behind her and settle in the unfriendly, damp surroundings of the half-ruined lighthouse, and Moomintroll is puzzled and confused. Neither of them can help the unhappy middle-aged man at the centre of the story.

Keeping bad thoughts at bay

What comes over from the text is the sense of someone deeply troubled by life and constantly looking to find a safe haven, a home, a secure place where the ‘black thoughts’ won’t start up and take over.

They come across a deep black pool among the rocks, which Moominpappa ends up being attracted to and fishing in for hours at a time, in quiet desperation.

Moominpappa was convinced with a kind of desperate certainty that at the bottom of [the pool] secrets were waiting for him. And there might be just anything down there. He thought that if he could only get everything up he would understand the sea, everything would fall into place. He felt he would fit in, too. (p.122)

This desperate search to ‘fit in’.

When Moominmamma decides to collect all the driftwood and timber she can find on the island and uses it to build a snug in the lee of the lighthouse and then starts sawing it all to the same length – this activity sort of has the reassuring feel of her quiet domestic tasks back in Moomin Valley – but it also feels slightly mad, a kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour designed to keep things at bay, the ‘things’ being doubts and worries about the future. She does it to fill the long empty days. She does it to avoid feeling ‘so much alone.’ (p.118)

They are both stricken.

Island mysticism

With most of the childish comedy stripped away, and putting on one side the middle-aged depression, the other strain which emerges most strongly is the strange and eerie, the almost mystical strain, in Jansson’s writing. The island they sail to is said to be ‘watching’ the little boat. The abandoned lighthouse is looking at them.

Moomintroll wanders off and discovered a secret dell amid the stunted little trees of the island. He also discovers a silver horseshoe on the beach and waits and waits until one magical evening he sees the sea horses dancing on the sand, kicking up rainbows from their hooves.

But more than these rather obviously magic moments, there are lots of quiet paragraphs where one or other character really communes with the strange, alien, intractable but deeply magnetic island.

Now that he was alone Moomintroll could begin to look at the island and smell it in the right way. He could feel it with his paws, prick up his ears and listen to it. Away from the roar of the sea the island was quieter than the valley at home, completely silent and terribly, terribly old. (p38)

It isn’t a pleasant place. It isn’t a friendly environment. It isn’t a sunny Greek island. It’s a hard, barren, stony, inhospitable place with a few patches of stunted wind-battered trees, with hardly any soil to grow anything in, and a derelict lighthouse with mud floors and dripping ceilings and a lamp which won’t light.

But this makes the moments when the rain stops and the sun comes out, or the sudden quiet when the wind drops, all the more impermanent, fragile and important.

The lighthouse-keeper

… isn’t there. That’s the point. No one knows who he was or where he went or why. His absence drips from the rainy eaves of the abandoned lighthouse. Moominpappa discovers poems the lighthouse-keeper had scribbled in charcoal on the walls of the lamp room. Still others he’d written and then feverishly scribbled over. Why? What drove this lonely man in his high house overlooking the never-still grey sea? Moominpappa discovers the lighthouse-keeper’s old notebook and skips though it looking for clues, but it only has records of wind speeds and directions. Moominpappa starts keeping his own diary.

Moominmamma starts painting on the lighthouse wall all the flowers and shrubs she left at home in Moomin Valley. In one hallucinatory moment, as the others are coming into the room, she steps smartly into her painting, hiding behind a painted tree and watching her family from inside the wall. In fact, she curls up and goes to sleep inside her mural and the others get so concerned they set off on a search party for her round the island.

By the time they get back Moominmamma has stepped out of the mural and is calmly making a towel. From then on she starts painting copies of herself into the mural of an increasingly large and brightly coloured garden.

‘Well, that really is the last word in madness,’ says Little My, and it’s hard not to agree that madness, a really genuine insane paranoia, fear and anxiety – stalk all through these pages.

The old fisherman

There is one inhabitant of the island, though – an old fisherman who lives in a concrete hut right out on a point at the extreme other end of the island. His boat goes past while Moominpappa is fishing and he tries to engage him in conversation but the old boy just mutters and won’t reply. Towards the end of the novel, a really massive storm blows up and the sea sweeps away the old man’s hut leaving him quivering under his upturned boat. Moomintroll and Moominpappa rope themselves together and one swims out to the point, once he’s safe the other swims out too. It gives both the Moomins a reassuring sense that they have somehow overcome the sea, which Moominpappa generally finds so troubling and incomprehensible.

They fetch the old man to safety, give him a tot of whiskey and some hot coffee but he refuses to stay in the lighthouse. Then they find out his birthday is coming up and Moominmama sets about making a cake and presents.

In the end

I haven’t yet mentioned a slightly nightmareish element of the story which is that Moomintroll wakes one night in his secret glade to find that it is moving. The entire glade, the woods, the trees, have pulled up their roots and are slowly moving up away from the sea. In a freakish moment Moomintroll thinks he sees the very sand of the beach moving upwards. They are all scared of the Groke. Every living thing is moving up closer to the lighthouse, for safety. The others notice it, too.

A juniper was moving slowly through the heather like an undulating green carpet. Moominpappa scrambled out of its way, and stood stock-still, frozen to the spot. He could see the island moving, a living thing crouching on the bottom of the sea, helpless with fear. ‘Fear is a terrible thing, Moominpappa thought. ‘It can come suddenly and take hold of everything…’ (p.192)

When Moominpappa puts his ear to the ground, he believes he can hear the beating heart of the island palpitating with fear.

Fear.

In the last ten pages several things happen. Moominpappa goes to the steepest cliff and tells the sea off for terrifying the poor little island. Doesn’t it give the sea pleasure to break and crash over its rocks? Well, stop being such a bully! Almost as if in apology, out of the chastened sea come some rather lovely planks, good for making shelves out of. He and the family quickly rescue them from the waves.

Moomintroll has been going down to the beach to confront the motionless, unspeaking Groke, not in aggression but in eerie silence, taking with him the lit lamp which she so worships. Now the family have run out of paraffin to light it. One nightfall Moomintroll goes down to the beach anyway and an odd thing happens: the Groke dances with delight. It wasn’t the lamp, she is just happy that someone wants to see her. After she has drifted away in the usual spooky manner, Moomintroll goes stands where she was and discovers the sand isn’t frozen as it usually is. Has she… has the Groke… stopped killing things with her coldness? Was all that was needed a little love?

Lastly, they find the old fisherman hiding and – much against his will – persuade him to come up to the lighthouse for a party. He has to close his eyes and take Moominmamma’s hand to enter the lighthouse, which he clearly has a great aversion to. He doesn’t want to go up the stairs to the main room.

But once there, he begins to thaw. He sips and then drinks a whole cup of coffee. He accepts the presents they’ve wrapped for him. He notices the bird’s nest they’ve taken out of the chimney. He spots the jigsaw puzzle they’ve been struggling with for months on a table, goes over and completes it in a few swift moves. He asks for the lighthouse-keeper’s hat – which Moominpappa has been wearing – back. In fact in the last few pages we watch him metamorphose back into the lighthouse-keeper because… that is who he is!

Somehow things have clicked back into place. The sea, if not tamed, has been understood. The lighthouse-keeper has, somehow, been cured and restored. The Groke, of all creatures, somehow seems happy. Moominpappa walks down to the sea feeling wonderfully alive. And as he stares at the ever-restless sea, communing with it, the lighthouse lamp suddenly comes on.

Thoughts

This is very clearly intended as a Happy Ending and maybe it ties up enough loose ends to please children readers. But I think it is forced.

Towards the end of his life my father developed dementia. You and I may be puzzled and unhappy and blocked and frustrated by something, but we have the mental wherewithal to think it through, discuss it with others, and find solutions or just move on. What I saw in my father – and in some other people I’ve known who’ve developed mental illness – is they lose that ability to work things through. They become stuck or trapped by even simple things, and then terrified because they think they’ll never get out.

In my experience, even seriously depressed people can be shown a way out by modern medication and once they’re out you can develop techniques to make that roadway out of unhappiness as wide and easy as possible. Just knowing there is a way out immediately reduces the level of stress they experience when they next go into a black depression.

But the really ill, or demented, can’t find a way out and are caught in a bewildering and terrifying series of traps with no hope of escape. Hence the wailing, the panic attacks, the desperate need to share their burden, even though they can’t put it into words any more.

Maybe I’m overdoing it, but on every other page of this 200-page book there are words like fear, terror, anxiety, small, worry, helpless, and prolonged descriptions of the characters – especially Moominpappa – trying to grasp the situation, trying to act the hero or strong family man or expert on the sea, in order to properly, fully become himself – and failing, failing, failing. And the more Moominmamma and Moomintroll indulge him and say ‘Yes, dear’ the worse it gets. Nobody understands!

Taken along with the disturbing story in the previous book, The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters, this novel goes a long way to eclipse the happy, carefree impression given by the earlier, genuinely happy Moomin stories.

Illustrations

None of the illustrations are as clean and crisp as those in the earlier books; but then they aren’t as sketchy and half-finished as those in Tales of Moominvalley. Somewhere in-between. And some – if you identify with the rather tortured, anxious mood of much of the writing, as I certainly did – have an unprecedented intensity.


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson (1962)

The most obvious thing about this book is the quality of the illustrations: in contrast to the crystal clear, crisply drawn illustrations of all the previous books, the pictures in Tales from Moominvalley are rough and sketchy i.e. where one precise line did the job in earlier books, here they take multiple lines to sketch out a character’s outline or other objects, giving a far rougher, hastier, smudgier appearance to the pictures and to the entire page.

Why? Are they early works saved up for this relatively late publication (1962)? Is this her late style? Or did she make a conscious decision to explore a rougher, more sketchy style? In some of the illustrations the familiar Moomin characters barely look themselves. Compare early and late:

Here’s a gallery of illustrations from the book. Judge for yourself how rough-hewn, primitive and unfinished they look, compared with the earlier style.

Nine stories

The book consists of nine short stories. They are all more elliptical and serious than in the previous books. Instead of carefree childhood adventures – as the previous books – they investigate what are essentially adult psychological states.

Thus in the first story Snufkin is happy walking alone through the woods on the verge of creating a new song. He stops to camp by a stream but a little woodland creature plucks up the courage to speak to him, then comes over and starts a nattery conversation and, when he finally leaves, Snufkin discovers to his frustration that the idea for the new song has been completely driven out of his head.

But that’s not all, the little creature had heard of the famous traveller Snufkin, and before he left asked if he could give him a name. A bit irritated, Snufkin names him Teety-woo after birds he can hear singing in the treetops. Next morning Snufkin, still irritated at this intrusion into his solitude, sets off north but can’t get the little creature’s babbling chatter out of his head and eventually turns round and walks back to the woods to find him.

Here he finds Teety-woo and discovers that, now he’s got a name, he is making up for lost time and running round experiencing everything for the first time as Teety-woo! In fact, he’s far too busy living to listen to Snufkin who, only yesterday, he sought out all timid and shy: now he is the brave confident Teety-woo.

He runs off and Snufkin sits, pondering, as does the reader, this parable about identity and existence. Then gets up and sets back off towards the north, whistling. Soon a tune begins to form in his mind. A lesson learned.

See? Not a kiddy adventure, is it? More a life lesson. I wonder what on earth my 8-year-old self made of it.

The stories

All the others are all like this. In one a very nervous fillyjonk, always worrying and fretting about the worst, actually does experience the worst when a terrific tornado blows in from the sea and lays waste her home and, in the end – you know what – it turns out not to matter.

The fillyjonk drew a deep breath. Now I’ll never be afraid again, she said to herself. Now I’m free. Now I can do anything. (p.58)

So far so sort of Moominish. But I haven’t mentioned that the main part of the story consists of a tea party the fillyjonk gives for her ‘friend’, Gaffsie, who is depicted as an empty-headed housewife. The fillyjonk gets more and more frustrated with gossip about the best way to clean carpets and so on and, suddenly – out of nowhere – erupts into a great speech about how disaster is going to strike the world, everything is going to be destroyed, ‘they’ are coming to get us all! Gaffsie looks into her teacup, deeply embarrassed. It is the story of a suburban nervous breakdown.

Maybe this is why the pictures are so different, so much rougher, in this book. Jansson wanted to indicate this was a different, more teenage (at least) type of book.

Other stories are about:

A Tale of Horror A little whomper who tells such lies his parents send him to bed without tea, so he runs away and, after a scary spell in the dark, stumbles into a house where Little My is hiding on top of the wardrobe and she proceeds to tell such outrageous lies (about a man-eating fungus) that the little whomper is relieved when his daddy knocks on the door and comes to take him home, a chastened little boy.

The Last Dragon in the World Moomintroll catches a teeny, tiny dragon which fits into a jam jar but, when he shows it to the others, it immediately flies to Snufkin and refuses to leave. This makes Moomintroll sad and sulky. Realising this, Snufkin who’s fishing down by the river, eases the sleeping dragon into his kettle and gives it to a hemulen skippering a passing boat, asking him to slip flies down the spout to feed it, and then, after a few days, to release the dragon somewhere miles downstream. When Moomintroll moodily comes down to the river, Snufkin says he hasn’t seen the dragon, they’re notoriously flighty and go their own way, it’s probably flown off. And Moomintroll, reconciled, sits down to fish with him. It has a baby dragon at its centre, but this is quite obviously a story about friendship and understanding.

The Hemulen who loved silence The old hemulen works at a pleasure ground punching the visitors’ tickets and has got sick of the endless people and the blaring noise and can’t wait to retire. One day it starts raining and doesn’t stop for eight weeks. Bit by bit the pleasure ground attractions are washed away and he is glad. All the children are stuck inside their homes with their noses pressed to the windows. The hemulen uncles who owned the park decide they’ll abandon it and build an ice rink. When they offer him a job there, the hemulen says, ‘No, he wants to retire’. The hemulen uncles fall about laughing and give him the key to his grandmother’s old park.

Slowly, at length, the hemulen explores the overgrown gardens – described with typically Jansson-like wondrous spookiness – and settles into his new life of silence. But — the children have followed him and bang at the gates. They tell him they’ve recovered lots of bits of the pleasure ground from the rain and flood and can he put them together again. So, very reluctantly, the hemulen opens the locked gates and drags some of the wreckage inside. Long story short: the parts are too damaged and random to rebuild any of the rides but it does occur to him that he can create a sort of theme park with magic bits and painted faces and so on scattered through the underbrush, and so he does. He lets all the children in on condition they play very quietly. And they do, for that is part of the game in the marvellous jungle playground the hemulen who loved silence has built.

The Invisible Child Too-tickey comes home to the Moomin house one day with a completely invisible friend, Ninny. (Note, this strange new addition to the household, as so many, is a girl. It’s reassuring, the way so many of the characters are female.) Moominmamma makes up a traditional medicine handed down from her grandmother (note the importance of the matriarchy, as in Moominland Midwinter) and it helps start to make some of Ninny visible, but she also requires quite a bit of coaxing and reassurance from the others.

Little My diagnoses the real problem – Ninny has never been really angry and never laughed. They try to teach her games but she doesn’t get them. She doesn’t know how to have fun. Until one day they take her down to the seaside where they’re fixing up the old boat. First of all Ninny is terrified and appalled by the sea, which she’s never seen before – it’s just too big! And then she spies Moominpappa creeping up behind Moominmamma to give her a friendly fright, and Ninny leaps to mamma’s defence, giving Moominpappa a hard bite in the tail. She starts to laugh as Moominpappa curses and, reaching for his top hat which has fallen into the sea, tips over and falls headfirst into the waves. At which Ninny roars with delight and becomes fully visible.

So maybe the story could be retitled ‘the girl who learned how to laugh’. It seems pregnant with significance and meaning, like a fable.

The Secret of the Hattifatteners We’ve met the hattifatteners in numerous previous books. This tale describes how Moominpappa came to feel asphyxiated by happy Moomin family life and just had to get away. Moominmamma encouraged him. So he went to explore a secret bay he had once glimpsed from their boat and is surprised when a little boat with hattifatteners in it floats out. He hops in and spends the next few weeks journeying with the hattifatteners. He discovers they go to remote islands (of which there are thousands on the coast of Finland) and leave rolled-up birch bark scrolls. Not with any hidden messages or treasure maps. Just rolled-up birch bark scrolls.

Slowly Moominpappa feels his own mind becoming flattened and emptied. Sometimes he finds himself staring out over the sea as empty-mindedly as a hattifattener. Eventually they congregate with other boats of hattifatteners at a particular island and there is a big thunderstorm with plenty of lightning.

Moominpappa is knocked flat by a gust of wind and woken from his daze. Looking round at the hattifatteners yearning up into the sky, he realises they seek the lightning in order to come alive.

Only in the presence of electricity were they able to live at last, strongly and with great and intense feelings. (p.141)

Chastened by his adventure, Moominpappa realises that he not only misses home and wants to be back on the Moomin veranda – but that it is only there that he can feel free and adventurous.

Running through this story is a disconcerting anxiety about the act of thinking itself and the kinds of thoughts people have. Right at the start, Moominmamma rationalises her husband’s decision to go by saying that he’d been acting oddly for a while. But is that right? Or was it:

… just one of those things one thinks up afterwards when one’s bewildered and sad and wants the comfort of an explanation. (p.120)

This is a bit more unhappy and psychologically searching than any of the previous books. Later Moominpappa wishes he could communicate with the hattifatteners because talking:

‘is such a good way to keep one from thinking. And it was no use to leave the big and dangerous thoughts aside and concentrate on the small and friendly sort… (p.126)

Suddenly these are characters who have to keep from thinking.

As Moominpappa slowly falls in with the hattifattener way of life he finds his thoughts becoming white and empty. It is only the gust of wind which blows him over during the storm which makes him realise the whole situation and leads to his ‘happy’ realisation that home is where the heart is.

But to the adult reader, this all sounds like a fable working through real mental unhappiness and distress. ‘Fear of the big thoughts’ which make you so unhappy? A wish for an end to thinking, to the hattifatteners’ mindlessness? This is not the clever, warm humour of the earlier books, but something much darker.

Cedric Cedric is the name of Sniff’s toy dog. Moomintroll persuaded him to give it away to Gaffsie’s daughter because he said giving gifts makes you feel good – but in fact it’s made Sniff feel miserable.

‘When Sniff’s thoughts became too black’ he jumped out of bed and went to see Snufkin. Snufkin tells him a fable, the story of an aunt of his who had no husband or children or friends but a house stuffed full of belongings. One day she swallowed the bone in a lamb cutlet and went to see the doctor who told her she had only a few weeks to live. She’d always had an ambition to see the Amazonas and go deep sea diving so she decided to give away all her things and set off. But giving away everything turned into quite a project, especially since she wanted to give some thought to giving the correct things to the right people.

The more she gave away, the lighter and brighter the house became, and friends popped round to thank her. She laughed more, people enjoyed her company, came round for the evening and told funny stories and one day she was laughing so hard at one of these stories that the stuck bone popped up out of her mouth.

Sniff thinks it’s a foolish story and goes back to bed.

The adult reader gets the point – stop being a lonely miser, give away your belongings and become a happy person with lots of friends.

But the acute reader also notices the little trills and grace notes in the prose. In all the previous books these notes and details pointed upwards, they delighted you with sweet and touching details. But in every one of the stories in this volume the details point downwards. Moominpappa can’t bear to be at home any more. Sniff doesn’t just get restless; he gets out of his bed when his thoughts become too ‘black’.

(Compared to the masterpieces of her earlier illustrations, this picture feels roughly done and poor.)

The Fir Tree In which the Moomins are woken from their winter hibernation by a thoughtless hemulen who warns them about Christmas. On the surface the story is meant to be a joke, because the hemulen unwittingly gives the panic-stricken impression that ‘Christmas’ is a monster who has to be placated with a cut fir tree and presents, so the Moomins chop down a fir tree and each chooses a gift to give to the awful god ‘Christmas’.

And the joke is maintained by the way the hemulen is so stressed with all the gifts he has to give, and also by the hemulen’s aunt rushing to and fro in a sledge packed with presents, loudly fretting about what she’s going to cook because, oh dear, Christmas it always requires such a massive meal, and so on.

All round, this ‘Christmas’ thing is presented as an awful, stressful time which makes everyone unhappy and miserable.

The joke ends fairly humorously as a shy timid woody and his family come out, awe-struck, to look at the decorated tree and all the presents in the Moominhouse. ‘Is Christmas coming?’ ask the Moomintrolls, full of anxiety. ‘Why this is it!’ smile the woody and his family. Still scared, the Moomins declare the woody and his family are welcome to it all and sneak off to the veranda to await the disaster.

But there is no disaster. They peek through the window and see the woody and his family merrily eating and drinking and opening presents. Maybe the hemulen and his aunt got it wrong all along. Maybe Christmas isn’t about stress and lists and social obligations and worrying about food. Maybe it is about eating what you like and simply giving something meaningful to others.

Hopelessly confused, the Moomin family sneaks back to their bedrooms to carry on sleeping through till the spring.

The illustrations

I can’t get over how different the illustrations are. Here is Moomintroll from an earlier book, depicted with great clarity and precision, in perfect outlines set against a background created by incredibly detailed shading.

And here is Moomintroll as he appears in this book, looking at the baby dragon in its jam jar. There’s no comparison in the level of artistry. It looks like the roughest or preparatory sketches. Was she ill? Had she lost interest?

Moomintroll

Moomintroll and the last dragon in the world


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (1957)

Moomins hibernate from November to April, but not this winter. A stray moonbeam wakens Moomintroll and he can’t get back to sleep. He tugs at Moominmamma, but she is dead to the world. Thus he is condemned to go exploring the mysterious and rather scary, silent, snow-covered world of winter, beginning with the mysterious pair of eyes under the cold sink in the kitchen. The Dweller Under The Sink.

He meets Too-tickey, a plump practical person in a red-and-white striped jumper, who lives in the Moomins’ bathing house during the winter, with a suite of shrews who are so shy and retiring they have become completely invisible. When they serve dinner it looks like the plates and bowls are floating.

Little My is woken by a brainless squirrel nipping at her sleeping bag, gets up and quickly adapts to the new conditions. She cuts holes in a tea cosy and borrows a Moomin tea tray to go tobogganing. Little My emerged in the last book, Moominsummer Madness, as a favourite character. Very small, very feisty, she looks forward to disasters and embarrassments with relish. A canny contrast to the timid, over-polite Moomintroll.

Back in the cold, empty Moomin house, a spooked Moomintroll discovers random objects have disappeared, including a tea cosy and a tray. Outside he discovers someone has built an enormous snow horse with a broom for a tail and small mirrors for eyes, which disconcert the young Moomin. Too-Ticky refuses to be worried or upset, and tells Moomintroll about the Great Cold that is coming, and begins to sing a winter song.

Suddenly Moomintroll snaps and starts bawling out a song of summer. He is so lonely, so wants someone to talk to, someone from the summer world to share memories with. At that moment there’s a swoosh and out of nowhere flies a high-speed tea tray which knocks him over into the snow. He hears cackling laughter which can only come from one person, Little My!

He gushes with relief at having a friend from the summer days but, characteristically, Little My doesn’t give a cuss for his sentimental maunderings – she wonders whether greasing the tin with candle wax will make it go faster. Too-ticky immediately joins in with suggestions. Moomintroll looks at them both and reluctantly realises he has to join their world.

Too-ticky warns all the snow animals, namely the brainless squirrel, that the Lady of the Cold is coming.

Too-ticky, Moomintroll and Little My retreat to the bathing house and fuel up the stove, then go out to scan the horizon. There is one among many, many beautifully simple and evocative descriptions of this mysterious midwinter landscape.

They went out onto the landing-stage and sniffed towards the sea. The evening sky was green all over, and all the world seemed to be made of thin glass. All was silent, nothing stirred, and slender stars were shining everywhere and twinkling in the ice. It was terribly cold. (p.46)

Descriptions which transported me as a child and which I still find powerful and evocative as an adult.

They retreat inside the bathing house as the Lady of the Cold walks by, beautiful and terrible, shedding freezing rays in her path. They watch her stop to tickle the brainless squirrel under the chin and he drops, frozen solid. Moomintoll is upset; Little My wonders if she can make a muff out of its tail!

They hold an impromptu funeral procession for the brainless squirrel, laying its frozen body at the feet of the snow horse. To their surprise, the snow horse comes to life, chucks the squirrel onto its back and goes cantering and neighing over the frozen lake and into the distance. Moomintroll feels oppressed by a strange magic he doesn’t understand. He asks Too-Tickey to get his old blue bath gown out of the cupboard in the bathing house. Too-Tickey makes him turn his back and promise never, ever, ever to open the cupboard door himself. She hands him the gown and Moomintroll rummages in it for some memory of happy summer days. He finds a pebble from the beach, perfectly round and smooth.

He closed his paws round the pebble. Its roundness held all the security of summer. He could even imagine that it was still a little warm from lying in the sun. (p.50)

The Moomin books are full of unexpectedly poignant and moving moments like this, unnecessary to the plot, but bathing them in a wonderful sense of human feeling, depths of feeling and oddities of feeling, which you don’t often encounter even in supposedly ‘adult’ fiction.

Moomintroll goes along to the great Midwinter Fire. Too-tickey explains that this ritual marks the return of the sun. Hosts of strange creatures dance and frolic round an enormous bonfire but Moomintroll, once again, feels left out, a spectator at other people’s festivities. The Dweller Under the Sink is there and Moomintroll tries to make friends with it but the little furry thing doesn’t speak his language and becomes progressively more irritated by Moomintroll’s clumsy attempts at friendship. ‘Radamsah!’ it exclaims. ‘Radamsah! RADAMSAH!’ and scuttles off.

Then the Groke comes. The Groke wanders the world trying to be warm but takes with her everywhere her eerie, extinguishing cold. She sits on the fire to warm herself but there is a great ssssssss and when the Groke gets up the fire has frozen. She ambles over to Moomintroll’s lamp, goes to hold it and puts it out.  The winter creatures disperse. The fire ceremony is over.

It’s worth pointing out how many of these characters are female. Little My is a feisty, fearless little tomboy. Too-ticky is an imperturbably practical female (apparently based on Jansson’s female partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä). The Groke in her bewildered search for warmth, is female. And so too is the tall and terribly beautiful Lady of the Cold. And underpinning the whole narrative is the calm, accepting figure of Moominmamma who occasionally mutters reassurance to her son, even in her deep winter sleep.

I love this femininity of the books. I love the way that, if in doubt, chances are a new character will be female, and interesting. With no special pleading or fussing, Jansson offers a bewitching array of female types and possibilities.

Next day Moomintroll finds Too-ticky fishing beneath the ice. Sometimes the sea level sinks and leaves a space between water and the frozen ice sheet. She loves to sit on a rock there, quietly fishing and enjoying the view of miles of spectral green under-ice seascape.

I say ‘day’ but one of the things depressing Moomintroll has been the way the wintertime ‘day’ means only a sort of grey smudgy light which appears briefly and is gone. Now, for the first time, actual daylight appears and a thin sliver of red sun crosses the frozen horizon. He dances and sings and slides about on the ice. Little My watches him with disdain. Then the sun disappears back below the horizon. ‘Well, you wouldn’t expect it to come all at one, would you?’ says Too-tickey.

Angry and frustrated Moomintroll storms off to the bathing house and does what he’s been told not to, wrenches open the cupboard door. Is there some terrible monster behind it? No. A little grey thing is sitting there staring at him, then scuttles for the door. A remorseful Moomintroll tells Too-tickey what he’s done, she tuts and explains that the wizened old troll is his ancestor, the Moomin ancestor from 1,000 years ago.

It is another one of those breathtakingly odd and imaginative moments which fill this (and the other) books. Wow.

Moomintroll is appalled by this wizened old spectre and rushes home to leaf through the family album for reassurance. Yes, there they all are, generations of fine upstanding Moomins, big-snouted and formally dressed. Surely their ancestor can’t have been that funny little hairy thing. But then he hears a jingling in the chandelier.

When Moomintroll approaches, it scoots into the cold stove and slams the door behind it. Discombobulated, Moomintroll climbs out of the attic window and down the rope ladder he’s arranged over the surrounding snowdrift, to go see the others. Little My is waiting with a caustic word, as usual.

‘Well, how d’you like Grandfather!’ Little My shouted from her sledge-slide.
‘An excellent person,’ Moomintroll remarked with dignity. ‘In an old family like ours people know how to behave.’ Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. (p.73)

Dry humour. Character-based humour.

That night the ancestor rearranges every single item in the Moomin house to suit its tastes, hanging all the pictures upside down. In the morning Moomintroll finds this strangely reassuring and makes a new base for himself in the cosy space behind the stove. Maybe they are more closely related than he first thought.

Although the sun rises a little higher each day it is still bitterly cold and the frozen valley starts to see the arrival of refugees from the cold. Sorry-oo the dog comes howling along with a Little Creep, a distressed Fillyjonk and many others. Little My lets on about the big supply of jam stashed in Moomin house and the starving creatures beg Moomintroll for food. Reluctantly, Moomintroll excavates a tunnel through the snow to a window of Moomin house and finds himself doling out provisions to an ever-growing horde of visitors.

Brashest of all the new arrivals is a loud sporty Hemulen, who arrives skiing, blaring on a trumpet and wearing a jazzy, striped yellow jumper. He tries to organise everyone for winter sports, insists on early starts and cold baths in the frozen river. All the other creatures hate him; they want to curl up next to fires.

The Hemulen teaches Little My to ski. She is of course a natural, learns everything she can, and then goes off by herself to the highest mountains to take insane risks. By contrast the Hemulen only manages to get Moomintroll onto skis once and he has a disaster, his legs getting all criss-crossed and crashes into a deep snowdrift.

The creatures all skulk away to hide with Too-tickey under the ice. The Hemulen tries to recruit Sorry-oo but even the sad dog slinks away. Sorry-oo dreams of running with the wolves he hears howling every night.

In a comic but typically touching sequence, Too-ticky and Moomintroll agree that they’ve got to get rid of the sporty Hemulen who is driving everyone nuts, and suggest they tell him the Lonely Mountains are the best place ever for skiing. ‘But the Lonely Mountains are all crags and precipices,’ Moomintroll wails. ‘He’ll love it,’ Too-ticky replies in her no-nonsense way.

So a bit later Moomintroll stiffens his nerve and, as agreed, sets about telling the Hemulen what fabulous skiing there is in the Lonely Mountains. But as the Hemulen gets more excited, Moomintroll feels more guilty about lying to him until he snaps, abruptly reversing his story, back-tracking and telling the Hemulen how dangerous it would be in the mountains, and in his gushing guilt goes on to tell him how much they all like him and they don’t want him to go, anyway. The Hemulen is touched and promises to stay. Moomintroll is humiliated at his failure and wanders off into a snowstorm which, to his surprise, he finds rather bracing and lifts his mood.

Eventually making it back to the bathing house, Moomintroll finds all the creatures gathered round the fire and Too-ticky gently mocks him. They’ve heard about his miserable failure to persuade the Hemulen to leave.

More importantly, Salome the Little Creep has got lost in the snowstorm. (They don’t know it but Salome had overheard Too-ticky and Moomintroll conspiring to send the Hemulen to the Lonely Mountains. She set off to warn him not to go, but is too small and got caught in the snowstorm.)

They set off to find her but it is the Hemulen who, now he stops to think about it, realises that she often pestered him for a chat and for advice on winter sports but he was in too much of a hurry to listen. Now he feels guilty and pads over the snow in his tennis-racket snowshoes seeking her trail. Hemulens are good at this kind of thing and so he quickly comes to the spot where she’s buried in snow and gently excavates her, tucking her up in his warm jumper and taking her back to the bathing house. All is well.

And you know what? He tells Moomintroll he’s going off to the Lonely Mountains anyway, yes yes they’re dangerous but the snowstorm will have filled in the crevices and, besides, think of the fresh air! Off he sets, blowing his Hemulen horn, while Moomintroll and Too-ticky exchange glances.

Meanwhile the little doggy Sorry-oo has decided to make his fantasy come true and has set off for the woods at dusk determined to join the wolf pack. It gets dark. The howling of the wolves gets closer. Yellow eyes appear in the black under the trees. He realises he’s made a terrible mistake.

Just at that moment, as the danger is drawing near, he hears the blowing of the Hemulen horn and the big yellow-jumpered Hemulen yomps into the clearing on his snow shoes, as the wolf eyes disappear. ‘Ah, nice doggy,’ he says, ‘waiting here for me. Coming to the Lonely Mountains with me?’ and the Hemulen yomps off with Sorry-oo scampering behind him.

This extended sequence, starting with the little creep’s unrequited devotion to him and then the big blustering Hemulen realising he’s ignored her and, almost carelessly, saving her life, and then – again without realising it – blundering into the clearing and saving Sorry-oo’s life – is not only sweet and touching but feels like it’s telling you something quite profound about the confusions and unintended complexities of life, all cast in a happy mood but none the less moving for that.

The creatures celebrate by having a wild winter olympics.

Then they all pack up and start drifting home. Too-tickey turns her red cap inside out to mark the approach of spring. Moomintroll surveys the Moomin house – what a mess! He struggles with the snowed-in front door and finally manages to open it against the weakening snowdrift. A big night cold gale sweeps in the door and through the house. ‘The room was filled with the smell of night and firs.’

In the final chapter spring slowly arrives. Every day the sun rises a little higher. Jansson’s observations of the changes in the natural world are quite marvellous. How the red bark of the birch trees slowly becomes noticeable through their snow covering, how the sun melts the drifts creating intricate dripping honeycombs of ice.

Little My is out skating at top speed over the ice when Too-ticky and Moomintroll, standing on the shore, hear far out at sea the first reports of the ice cracking and breaking up. On the horizon are angry white waves. Black cracks spread over the thick ice. Little My, the devil, skates right out to the outermost extent of the ice sheet, where the sea is lapping, just to see it and then turns and skates at top speed towards the shore. The description of ice cracking and fissuring as Little My skates away from it is thrilling.

She’s nearly at the shore when the entire ice sheet disintegrates into little floes. Moomintroll goes jumping out from floe to floe to rescue her. Little My climbs on his head and clutches his ears as he jumps back towards the shore. At the very last jump he slips and falls into the freezing sea (Little My, of course, skipping free to land at the last moment – her sort always come out on top).

Too-ticky helps pull Moomintroll out and takes him to the bathing-hut but Moomintroll bad-temperedly refuses her ministrations and insists on going home. He snuggles down under duvets and sneezes loudly.

And it is the distressed sneeze of her son, not the howling storm or the winter snows nor the cracking ice, but the sound of her son in distress, which wakes Moominmamma.

She quickly takes everything in hand, not minding at all about the mess, fixing Moomintroll a cold cure and, while he sleeps, tidying up. When he wakes he feels better, and notices everything is back in its proper place, the pictures have been rehung and there is the cosy sound of washing dishes from the kitchen. Little My and Too-ticky have told Moominmamma what a hero Moomintroll was to save her. She is glad the jam was all used to feed hungry people. She is an unflappable, calm, accepting force of nature.

Next day the rest of the Moomin clan are woken up by the sound of Too-ticky playing an old-fashioned barrel organ. One by one they come to life and set about their habitual occupations, mother making food, father off to fix something, the Snork maiden finds the first crocus of spring. Moomintroll is so overcome with happiness that he breaks into a run down to the now-completely-defrosted bathing house and sits watching the waves of the sea, remembering when it was all solid ice stretching to the horizon.

Deeper style

All the books have magical marvellous moments but I remember as a child being that much more entranced by Moominland MidwinterAll of it is strange and uncanny.

In the previous books the extended Moomin family or Sniff or Snufkin are there to reassure Moomintroll and give him courage. Here, he has to survive by himself in an alien landscape. None of it is genuinely scary or threatening; but it is strange and uncanny throughout. If children’s fiction is meant to teach anything, this book presents numerous scenes in which Moomintroll learns to overcome his fears and nervousness, to be sensitive to the wishes and personalities of other people very different from himself (Too-ticky, Little My, the Hemulen), to make his own decisions, to become a person.

Which is why the final chapter about the return of spring contains paragraphs of real wisdom, paragraphs which could come from a grown-ups’ book.

Now came spring but not at all as he had imagined its coming. He had thought that it would deliver him from a strange and hostile world, but now it was simply a continuation of his new experiences, of something he had already conquered and made his own. (p.118)

And a little later, when Moomintroll asks Too-tickey why she wasn’t more sympathetic to him when they first me:

Too-tickey shrugged her shoulders. ‘One has to discover everything for oneself,’ she replied. ‘And get over it all alone.’

Marvellous Moominmamma

Moominland Midwinter is dedicated to Jansson’s mother. Her avatar in the stories, Moominmamma, even though she doesn’t much appear and certainly doesn’t wake up until the very end – hovers over the whole story, a protecting guardian for lonely Moomintroll, the wisdom of the house, the wisdom of countless female ancestors.

This female inheritance is brought out more explicitly than in any previous book. When Moomintroll creeps up to his mother’s sleeping body and asks her where the things they’ll need for the squirrel’s funeral are, even in her sleep Moominmamma is wonderfully helpful and reassuring:

Then Moominmamma answered, from the depths of her womanly understanding of all that preserves tradition… (p.52)

When, right at the end, Moominmamma has woken up, she not only swiftly restores the house to complete order, rehanging the paintings, putting the furniture back in place, sweeping, dusting and tidying up, she makes a special traditional remedy for Moomintroll, who caught a cold rescuing Little My from the breaking-up ice.

She found a few sticks of wood from behind the slop-pail. She took a bottle of currant syrup  from her secret cupboard, as well as a powder and a flannel scarf.
When the water boiled she mixed a strong influenza medicine of sugar and ginger, and an old lemon that used to lie behind the tea-cosy on the topmost shelf but one.
There was no tea-cosy, nor any teapot. But Moominmamma never noticed that. For safety’s sake she mumbled a short charm over the influenza medicine. That was something her grandmother had taught her…. (p.129)

A bit later Moominmamma comes out to join her son and the other little ones playing snowballs. As she makes one she casually mentions that she’s not upset about her entire store of jam having been eaten by the guest, nor the furniture being rearranged or having gone missing. The house will look a lot less cluttered without it! Moomintroll watches and listens to her and a great feeling wells up in his chest to have such a wonderful wonderful mother.

Moominmamma scooped up a handful of snow and made a snowball. She threw it clumsily as mothers do, and it plopped to the ground not very far away.
‘I’m no good at that,’ said Moominmamma with a laugh. ‘Even Sorry-oo would have made a better throw.’
‘Mother, I love you terribly,’ said Moomintroll. (p.134)

And it’s hard, at the end of this short but quite intense, wonderfully imaginative and sometimes quite moving story, not to feel that this is Jansson’s heartfelt tribute to her own mother. Did any mother ever have a better tribute than the Moomin books?


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson (1954)

The plot is a little easier to summarise than the previous books. It is an unusually hot June, there are grumblings in the ground, the phlegmatic Moomins say it’s the volcano, drat all this soot. Cracks appear in the ground and frighten Moomintroll and the Snork maiden as they walk in the woods.

Then there is a particularly big crash and far out at sea an enormous tsunami is formed which comes rushing in over the beach and floods Moomin Valley.

The water level in Moominhouse slowly rises and the family enjoys drilling a hole in the drawing room floor to look down into the flooded kitchen.

They become friends with Misabel and the Whomper, refugees from the flood who are floating past on a tree. Misabel turns out to be a young person who cries almost all the time. The water continues rising till they are all forced to retreat right up to the roof of the Moominhouse. From here they watch a large object they’ve been observing for a while, coming closer and closer. It is a theatre, cut loose from its foundations (though none of the Moomin family has ever seen one before).

As the theatre floats past they all step aboard and it floats merrily on, past the Moominhouse and beyond. They set about exploring. They discover how the curtains and the backdrops work, the prompter’s box (which becomes the larder) and secret corridors leading to changing rooms, costume rooms and a room full of wigs.

There’s a strong female element about this story: we have the trio of the Snork maiden, the Mymble’s daughter and Misabel, who all comb their hair, fuss about their looks and are quick to be a bit hurt, wandering off among the strange building to discover treasure (wigs and gowns!)

For the first few days they’re aware of strange snickerings from the darkness and practical jokes – for example, all the stage lights suddenly flaring on at once. After a few days Emma the old stage rat appears, a downtrodden cleaner who complains that they only ever leave her porridge in a bowl, and she hates porridge!

The theatre floats into a forest and Moomintroll says he’d love to sleep up a tree, so they moor the theatre and Moomintroll and the Snork maiden climb into a high tree and make themselves comfortable. Everyone goes to sleep. In the middle of the night Emma the old theatre rat, poking about, finds the makeshift hawser Moominpappa has made – the rope to the tree tied round his stick which is poked into the prompter’s box  – and throws it away. Slowly the theatre drifts onwards, leaving Moomintroll and the Snork maiden – asleep and all unknowing – abandoned.

Next morning Moomintroll and the Snork maiden awaken desolated to discover the theatre and their whole family has floated away. The Snork maiden asks Moomintroll to protect her; maybe they can play a game that he’s kidnapped her. He feels all manly. They go exploring through the connected treetops and eventually come – oh bliss! – to dry land.

They discover little forest creatures lighting fires and dancing, for it is Midsummer Eve, an important festival in Scandinavian countries. They remember the loving preparations of his family for this festival. The Snork maiden says girls had to pick nine types of flower and place them under their pillows to make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, the Moomin family wake up to the calamity that they have sailed far away from Moomintroll and the Snork maiden. Moominmamma is, for once, inconsolable and Misabel is in floods of tears. Little My is exploring the trap door which looks down into the black waves when the theatre runs aground on dry land with a bump and she is tipped into the sea. She is so tiny that she floats and soon sees a biscuit tin and a work basket floating by. She picks the work basket, climbs in and curls up among the rolls of wool and knitting needles and falls fast asleep.

The work basket drifts slowly ashore and comes to rest in a bed of reeds. Now it just so happens that Snufkin – Moomintroll’s oldest bestest friend, who he met in Comet in Moominland and who then left to travel the world in Finn Family Moomintroll – is quietly fishing nearby. He sees ther basket come to rest, discovers Little My, wakens her, pops her in his pocket and carries her away. She knows the words to his favourite tune on the mouth organ, ‘All small beasts should have bows in their tails’.

It turns out that Snufkin has a plan to discomfit his perennial enemy – the Park Keeper! The Park Keeper and the Park Wardress are responsible for banning Fun, for putting up signs in the park which read ‘No Smoking’, ‘Do not sit on the grass’, ‘Laughing and whistling strictly prohibited’ etc and generally intimidating all the little children who go there into sitting motionless and silent.

Snufkin has a cunning plan. He tells Little My that the Hattifatteners actually grow from seeds!! but only if they’re sown on Midsummer Eve.

Little My is filled with her usual naughty glee! She asks to come and watch and so, as the sun sets, Snufkin carefully moves round the perimeter of the park scattering handfuls of Hattifattener seeds. And they start to sprout and tingle with electricity. And before you know it they are chasing the Park Keeper and Lady Wardess away, the latter yelping from little electric shocks.

Then Snufkin tears down all the signs which ban things, makes a bonfire out of them and burns them to ashes. All the time the little ones from the woods, the ‘woodies’, are looking at with him with big eyes. ‘Well, go and play,’ he shouts at them – but instead they follow him, and as he leaves the park and heads home he is trailed by a posse of twenty-four little ones. Oh dear. He hadn’t counted on this at all.

Meanwhile Moomintroll and the Snork maiden come across the lonely Fillyjonk, crying and wailing in her house where she’s laid the table for a Midsummer Feast but, as usual, she knows her uncle and his wife won’t come, as they always don’t.

‘Well, you don’t have to invite people who refuse invitations, you know,’ says Moomintroll confidently. ‘Really?’ says the Fillyjonk, and suddenly feels free and liberated 🙂 At which, she promptly invites Moomintroll and the Snork maiden to join her for the meal.

After dining and drinking well they set out to look for the Midsummer Eve fire and stumble across a load of old park signs which have been torn down (aha – so they are not far at all from Snufkin and Little My). The Snork maiden tells the Fillyjonk about more folk traditions – like you must turn round seven times and walk backwards up to a well and the face you see in it will be the face of the person you’re going to marry!

Alas, when they daintily and gaily carry out this ritual, first picking sweet summer flowers, then turning then walking backwards to the well, the face they see in it – is the face of a very angry Park Keeper who promptly arrests them for burning all his signs!

In chapter eight, the distraught Moomin family settle down to make the most of it without Moomintroll and the Snork maiden. They have run aground in Spruce Creek and the theatre is sloping at an alarming angle. Emma reveals she was once married to a Mr Fillyjonk but he passed away (aha, that links to the sad Fillyjonk in the clearing who invites her uncle and wife to Midsummer supper but they never come – same people).

Emma comes out of her shell and explains to everyone what a THEATRE is along with diagrams. Moominpappa gets fired up to write a play.

THE LION’S BRIDES or BLOOD WILL OUT

Then it is the afternoon of the first dress rehearsal. Everyone is fussing and panicking and wants their lines rewritten. Emma the old stage rat has stopped being grumpy and turns out to be amazingly calm and reassuring and supportive. She is in her element.

This chapter, complete with all the characters speaking Moominpappa’s heroic blank verse, and missing every cue, dropping the props and bumping into each other, is really funny.

Meanwhile the Hemulen policeman is tremendously enjoying having three prisoners in his gaol (Moomintroll, the Snork maiden, the Fillyjonk). But when passing birds drop playbills advertising the forthcoming play at the floating theatre he remembers the gay days of his youth and realises he has to go. He deputes guarding the prisoners to a very timid Hemulen relation and goes to get dressed. Quite quickly Moomintroll and the Snork maiden persuade the little hemulen to take them to her place for tea and cakes and they offer practical advice on her crocheting. Then after tea they simply announce that they are not going back to prison but to the play. Oh dear. She says she’d better go along, too.

Meanwhile the playbills have fallen on the Fillyjonk’s house (abandoned because she’s in prison) which Snufkin and his twenty-four woodies have moved into. He announces he’ll take them to see a play. Thus Snufkin and his woodies, the Hemulen Policeman, and Moomintroll, the Snork maiden and the Fillyjonk all row out that evening to the theatre in Spruce Creek, along with lots of other little forest folk and watch the first half of the play from an armada of little boats. They gaze at Moominpappa’s masterpiece in blank verse in complete perplexity.

But when the (stage) lion starts chasing the Mymble’s daughter, Little My (not understanding it’s all pretend) leaps up on the stage and bites his leg. This leads the entire cast to stop acting and greet Little My with tears of relief – but the audience in the boats, in their simplicity, think this is all part of the play which has – thank goodness – stopped being performed in impenetrable verse and is suddenly being told in normal language. From what the audience can make out, the play seems to be about a family which has been split up and is now being tearfully reunited. Ah, isn’t that nice. They applaud.

This impression is all the more confirmed when Moomintroll rows up to the stage and climbs aboard. Tears, hugs, laughter, the audience of wood folk applauds wildly this happy ending, then starts getting up on stage and joining in themselves.

The Hemulen Policeman spots his prisoners and also climbs up on stage. Just as he is accusing Moomintroll et al of tearing down the signs, Snufkin announces that it was he who pulled up the forbidding notices and burned them all. In the ensuing dramatic pause, Snufkin evades the Policeman’s grasp, jumps into his boat – Moomintroll jumps into the creek and climbs into Snufkin’s boat – and they row off into the darkness leaving pandemonium behind them.

Snufkin hides his boat in an inlet and they hear the big heavy Hemulen Policeman row clean past, not spotting them. Snufkin tells Moomintroll to go back to the theatre and fetch the others, leave everything, meet him back here, he’ll take them home.

Next thing the entire family is in Snufkin’s rowing boat as he lazily rows them back into Moomin Valley. The flood waters are finally retreating, exposing all the well-loved landmarks. They’ve been rowing for three days. They left Misable and the Whomper at the theatre, she to act in grand tragedies where she’ll get to cry every night, and he to be the practical stage manager, which will suit him down to the ground. The little woodies will be looked after by the Fillyjonk who was very lonely before. The Little Hemulen is still cowering in the middle of Snufkin’s rowing boat.

Now Snufkin’s boat runs aground on grassy banks covered with summer flowers and they wade through the receding waters back to Moomin House. At the last moment there’s a police whistle and the Hemulen and several assistant constables corner them. But it turns out that the Little Hemulen had all this time been doing the ‘punishment’ which Snufkin would have been sentenced to, namely writing out ‘Strictly forbidden’ five thousand times!

She hands the punishment over to the Hemulen Policeman who is non-plussed. She also says that Snufkin apologises fulsomely (and when Snufkin goes to protest, sharply shuts him up). Well, hmmm, alright, the Hemulen Policeman grumpily admits he’ll have to let him go and whistles his men together. The Little Hemulen tells the Moomin family she’s going back with him. She thanks the Moomins for their kind suggestions about her crocheting, and all the hemulens leave.

And so the Moomins finally arrive home, after another satisfying adventure.

Everything felt right… It was if nothing had ever happened and as if no danger could ever threaten them again. (p.142)

Comments

I always felt that the intrusion of the Hobgoblin flying round the solar system broke the fourth wall of Finn Family Moomintroll. Basically a science fiction idea, it felt like it came from a different world than the cosy woods full of the snug little creatures of Moomin Valley.

Similarly, The Exploits of Moominpappa is a) a bit much about men and their pompous pretensions b) also has a kind of ex machina device – the enormous dragon, Edward the Booble – who is dragged in at key moments to sort out the plot.

These divagations in the scale of the plot didn’t seriously trouble me when I was a boy, maybe I liked them. But as an adult I find Moominsummer Madness has much more unity of tone: there are some striking coincidences but they are acceptable, they are part of the Moomin world, they don’t require giants or Hobgoblins from space to interfere. The whole thing feels much more of a piece, more unified, hugely more content and homely.

If you could bottle family love this is how it would taste.


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

The Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson (1950)

As a father of a family and owner of a house I look with sadness on the stormy youth I am about to describe. I feel a tremble of hesitation in my paw as I poise my memoir-pen! (p.7)

The tone and style of this, the fourth Moomintroll book, is notably different from the previous ones. It is, after all, told in the first person by Moominpappa himself and this is why it is cast in an entertainingly pompous and self-important style.

The characters we’re introduced to also speak less clearly, with more mannerisms and clipped adult speech, than the essentially childish dialogue of the earlier books. It is a children’s view of the silly mannerisms of adults. Hodgkins in particular has the style of speaking sometimes called ‘telegraphese’, which appeared in Dickens’s Mr Jingle or Jimmy in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Would be interesting to know whether he speaks like this in the original or whether it is the translator’s idea of a stiff-upper lipped, English military type:

‘No dinghy,’ said Hodgkins. ‘Takes too long to weigh anchor. Motor’s tricky. Too late.’ (p.39)

‘Hattifattener,’ said Hodgkins, ‘Never seen one? No peace, no rest. Always travelling. Travel and travel without a word. Dumb.’ (p.50)

That said, almost all the chapters cut between two narrative voices: one part is Moominpappa’s memoirs (which, we learn, he is reading aloud as he writes them, to the young persons in the household), humorously pompous, self-important and moralising – and another voice, that of the familiar omniscient narrator, which shows the (generally humorous) reactions of the children he’s reading to, Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin et al.

It’s just as well because the style of the memoirs is very different from the norm; it’s funny for spells, but it’s a relief to come back to the familiar, warm tones of Tove.

The plot

Glorious times! Immortal deeds!

Baby Moominpappa is left wrapped in a newspaper on the steps of the Home for Moomin Foundlings. This is run by the stern Hemulen who believes in astrology. As soon as possible he runs away and walks through the scarey woods, until he reaches a clearing where he builds a Moomin house, you know, a good one, with lots of secret corners, balconies and towers.

Bored, he wanders down the stream and bumps into Hodgkins who shows him how to build a waterwheel (there’s an illustration to show how). Hodgkins takes him to the boat he’s built and introduces him to his nephew, the confused young thing with a saucepan on  his head, the Muddler. He has the brainwave of moving Moominpappa’s house onto his boat to create a houseboat.

Moominpappa and (the odd-looking) Hodgkins dandling their feet in the stream

It takes all three quite a lot of effort and when the house falls over on the way out tumbles the Joxter who was hiding inside. He becomes their friend. Now they are a foursome.

The key fact here is that each of the four turns out to be the father of one of the childish characters who accompany Moomintroll. Thus the Joxter is Snufkin’s father and the Muddler is Sniff’s father. As they realise this it makes the interjections and comments of the children animals pointed and comic as they comment on their daddies’ activities. Y ou can see that there’s a kind of practical requirement for this: if it had just been Moominpappa’s memoirs, only Moomintroll would really have been interested in them. By making his friends the fathers of Moomintroll’s friends, the net is widened to a) include everyone b) set up all kinds of comic comments and ironies.

They erect the Moominhouse on the deck of the boat and commission the Muddler to paint it and name it. In the process he paints everything a vivid red, including half the forest and himself. Hodgkins wanted the boat named the Ocean Orchestra which proves beyond the Muddler’s abilities, who writes Oshun Oxtra on the side. Oh well.

The Muddler painting Oshun Oxtra while the Joxter takes a nap

The Muddler makes a nice hot dinner but some of the bric-a-brac in his huge tin of bits and bobs get into it, specifically some cog wheels.Hodgkins isn’t upset, but delighted: the cogs are just what he needed to make the ship go (there’s an illustration to show how they fit into the boat). (The houseboat also has rubber wheels for driving over sandbanks. Hodgkins is that kind of a practical chap!)

Hodgkins, Moominpappa, the Joxter and the Muddler finding cogs in the meal the Muddler’s made

Now how to get it afloat out of the boatyard. Hodgkins takes Moominpappa to meet Edward the Booble. This is a huge, a truly enormous dragon. They persuade him to sit down in the stream, thereby blocking and flooding it. Away Oshun Oxtra speeds on the crest of a wave, down the stream and out towards the sea.

Here they anchor in a bay only to hear scarey sounds from the shore. It is the dreaded Groke out hunting and they can hear one of its victims shrieking for help. The others freeze but Moominpappa goes to the rescue. Since the ship’s dinghy is tied up and this calls for instant action, he chucks the ship’s kettle overboard then leaps into the river and propels it to the shore with his nose. Here the shrieking victim jumps in and Moominpappa noses the heavy kettle back to the Oshun Oxtra.

Glorious feat! Lonely deed! (p.40)

Only when she clambers out does everyone realise that Moominpappa has saved a prim and proper maiden Hemulen. Oh dear. She immediately starts telling them all how to behave, to wash and stand up straight and address her correctly. Suddenly a vast swarm of Niblings swim out to the boat, seize the Maiden Aunt Hemulen, chuck her over the side and swim off with her. The others look at each other shamefacedly but are relieved that she’s gone.

The Oshun Oxtra arrives at the sea and the crew disembark for a typical bit of Jansson exploration and cave-finding conveyed with some of her beautifully pellucid prose.

Now evening came, very slowly and carefully, to give the day ample time to go to bed. Small clouds lay strewn over the sky like dabs of pink whipped cream. They were reflected in the ocean that rested calm and smooth. (p.51)

Hodgkins tells Moominpappa about the Hattifatteners, who sail the ocean and travel the world, deaf and mute, staring with their big eyes, in search of who knows what, and Moominpappa is entranced by this image of eternal voyaging, eternal questing (p.52).

That night they discover everything is sticky including their beds. One of the Niblings was left behind and gnawed through the painter. Oh well. They welcome him onto the crew.

Three little clouds are passing overhead being chased by a black looking gale. They use a rope to lassoo the clouds and rescue them, bringing them down to the ship’s deck where they turn out to be soft and fluffy. This is lucky because an enormous storm blows up which threatens to sink the Oshun Oxtra, but the clouds come in handy as sails which help them run before the storm and weather it.

What joy when the storm has passed and the sun comes out again! It reveals that the Oshun Oxtra has been pretty beaten up and is covered in seaweed and a few sea spooks. Still Moominpappa is happy to have weathered it. They set sail towards an island with a tall spindly mountain sticking up. Too late, they realise it is Edward the Booble and he is not happy with them!

Characteristically the memoir reading stops there, to reveal that Moominpappa was reading this chapter to an enthralled Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin by the seaside. As they stroll around suddenly they see a shiny object bobbing in the waves. it is the very top knob of the Oshun Oxtra which must have been floating the seven seas all this time! Moominpappa clutches it tight and goes off alone to have a deep and spiritual moment!

Back in the memoirs, our crew quick-wittedly offer Edward the three soft clouds to soothe his sore bottom (scraped by the gnarly streambed they persuaded him to sit on earlier) and while he is nestling down on them, they make their escape to land and go exploring the island.

First they come across the naughty little Mymble’s daughter in her house of wood planks and leaves, who explains what all the dry stone walls are for and then that her mother (the Mymble) is at the King’s Surprise Garden Party. The Mymble’s daughter tells them he allows his subjects to call him Daddy Jones (though Moominpappa, a stern royalist, will insist on calling him Your Autocratic Highness).

So off they all set to the party which actually is full of surprises – first of all they have to cross a cleft in which is a giant spider (which turns out to be made of spring). On the other side is a big sign reading SCARED – WEREN’T YOU? Then they take to rowing boats to cross a lake but half way across huge water spouts erupt drenching them. There’s a sign on the other side reading WET – AREN’T YOU? and so on.

They take part in the lottery, picking up eggs with numbers painted on them and then Daddy Jones, who is a cheerful bald old man, hands out prizes to all his subjects who he addresses as ‘My dear muddle-headed, fuzzy and thoughtless subjects!’ The party ends with a mad go for all on a merry-go-round.

Next morning they set off to colonise an island in the name of his Autocratic Majesty. It is two miles north of Daddy Jones’s island. They land and unload the Moominhouse, placing it on a high promontory and split up to explore (as always, as in the best summer holidays by the sea).

That night Moominpappa is woken up by creepy footsteps creaking up the stairs. He  hides under the bed. But when the door opens it reveals a soggy ghost who sneezes and apologises. It becomes clear the ghost is full of the best intentions of scaring everyone’s pants off but is very bad at it. They invite him to a Council meeting of the explorers, where he tries to scare them but they end up becoming friends and he joins the gang. They make up a nice bed for him in a packing case, where he snuggles down and gets on with his knitting.

The Joxter, Moominpappa, Hodgkins, the Muddler and the Mymble’s daughter confront the island ghost

The Mymble (who has a vast array of children) gives birth to Little My, who is to go on and have a great career in the later books as a world-class irritant and naughty urchin. Hodgkins has been appointed Royal Surprise Inventor to His Royal Highness Daddy Jones and now unveils the Amphibian, a machine which can fly but is also a submarine.

There is a grand unveiling where all the people come from miles around, our heroes climb in and it flies up into the air. Then Hodgkins depresses the lever and it dives into the depths of the sea. As usual, the sea brings out the most poetic in Jansson as she describes the different shades of seawater as they dive deeper. We overhear the sea creatures discussing this new arrival and declaring it won’t last long when the Sea Hound appears.

The Sea Hound? It appears and all the fishes scarper in fear. The Sea Hound grabs the Amphibian by the tail and begins shaking it with predictable consequences for all our friends inside. Then everything is suddenly still and ominously silent. Until they hear the booming voice of their old friend, Edward the Booble. He has stepped on the Sea Hound by accident. Not only our friends rejoice but all the sea creatures who have lived in fear of the Sea Hound all their lives rejoice and all of them turn on the lamps and flashlights they all have but never turn on for fear of the monster. The entire sea is illuminated by a dazzling display of light!

The sea lit up by the Amphibian and all the other fish turn on their lights

They surface to see a dinghy carrying the eccentric Daddy Jones who tells them to come back to the mainland because the Muddler is getting married! To a Fuzzy!

At this point the excited children interrupt the narration and insist that Moominpappa clarifies their family relationships. So it turns out that the Muddle marries a Fuzzy and they are parents to Sniff – while the Joxter marries the Mymble and they have Snufkin. The children let this soak in. So Little My is Snufkin’s sister! Well, well.

The wedding is a great affair, the entire population turns out for it, the Hemulic Band plays the national anthem – ‘Save our silly people’ – fog horns blare and some kiddies fall into the sea from sheer excitement. It turns out the Muddler invited the Hemulen Aunt and all 7,000 Niblings and when a Packet Boat hoves into sight everyone thinks it must be them. But it turns out that boat is empty apart from one Nibling who delivers a message from the Hemulen Aunt declaring that she has never been happier than living in the Nibling kingdom where she is teaching them the joys of quizzes and multiplication contests.

Momminpappa tells the assembled audience that his memoirs are complete. He has finished.

I believe many of my readers will thoughtfully lift their snout from the pages of this book every once in a while to exclaim: ‘What a Moomin!’ or: ‘This indeed is life!’ (p.8)

All except for one tiny last detail. How he met his wife, the wonderful Moominmamma.

Well, it was Autumn and the gales had started and he was sitting in front of a cosy fire with the Island Ghost, the Mymble, the Muddler and the Fuzzy listening to the seas raging wilder and wilder down by the shore. On an impulse he goes down to confront the tumultuous waves and there, clinging to a spar, is the most perfect of Moomins, Moominmamma, being washed in and dragged out again by the roaring waves. Moominpappa bravely wades in and grabs her, hauling her to shore. ‘My handbag, my handbag,’ she cries. But it is in her hand. Alas her facepowder is all soggy, though. ‘You look beautiful without it,’ says Moominpappa, and a great romance is born.

Moominpappa rescues Moominmamma from a raging storm

And at that, Moominpappa lays down his memoir pen.

There remains only a brief epilogue to the book in which, to everyone’s amazement, there’s a knock at the door and all Moominpappa’s old gang is there, not looking a day older than when he last saw them: Hodgkins, the Muddler and the Fuzzy, the Joxter and the Mymble. Never has the Moomin verandah held so many questions, exclamations and embraces! Hodgkins announces that the new, improved Amphibian is parked outside. Tomorrow they will all go for a flight. ‘Why wait for tomorrow,’ cries Moomintroll. ‘Let’s all go now!’

And in the foggy dawn they all tumbled out in the garden. The eastern sky was a wonderful rose-petal pink, promising a fine clear August day. A new door to the Unbelievable, to the Possible, a new day that can always bring you anything if you have no objections to it. (p.130)


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

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