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

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