Moominvalley in November
written and illustrated by Tove Jansson,
translated by Kingsley Hart.
Puffin 2019 (1971)
Set as autumn is on the turn towards winter in Moominvalley, this last of all the Moomin novels is, as expected, a bittersweet tale of friendship, absence, loss and hope. Six disparate individuals feel a yearning to visit the Moomins in their valley, but when they all get there they find the family gone and the house empty. How do they react when they realise that and how do they get on with each other while they wait for the Moomins’ return?
I loved this for so many reasons — the apparent whimsy hiding psychological insights, the individual quests the characters found themselves on, the autumnal atmosphere beautifully recreated with hints of hibernation and the faint promise of spring, and of course for the delicate line drawings that delight the eye.
While it’s common knowledge that the author wrote this after losing her 88-year-old mother Signe, and that a deep sense of loss pervades the novel, most readers will be intrigued by the interaction between the six characters in search of a meaning for the empty home they visit, and of their reasons for undertaking their quests.
We are introduced to each character in turn in the opening chapters: Snufkin, Toft, Fillyjonk, a Hemulen, Grandpa-Grumble, and Mymble, Snufkin’s half-sister. They make their ways to the Moomin house for different reasons — to recall a forgotten five bars of music, to learn how to sail, to find ‘a Happy Family’, to see the fishes in a brook, to visit an adopted sister, or simply because the mood takes one. These are the ulterior motives; but as the story develops and the visitors meet up and stay in the valley, one begins to question whether these are the real reasons.
Of course they all have unspoken fears and obsessions and yearnings for being there, but they won’t realise that at first because they have to get along with each other, eating together, not talking at cross purposes, devising entertainments for mutual amusement. And maybe, just maybe, they will come to find what they’ve each come looking for before they depart back to their homes.
There are so many lingering images after reading this that it’s hard to refrain from listing them all. There’s the shadow play devised by the Fillyjonk with the silhouette of the Moomin family sailing (as they were in the preceding novel Moominpappa at Sea); Grandpa-Grumble searching for the hibernating Ancestor and losing the crucial message from the Moomins; the orphan Toft imagining a Creature born from electrical lightning, growing and creeping around the house, based on his confused reading about protozoic nummulites. The lenticular nummulite fossils when sectioned appear as spiral coils, a perfect symbol for Jansson’s narrative and the characters’ journeys to Moominvalley.
Ultimately it is the young Toft who remains when the others have gone, aching for the maternal figure of Moominmamma, looking out for the returning boat carrying the Moomins and Little My back home, their passage signalled by the storm lantern on the mast, a light in the darkness.
Oh what is life? ’tis nothing but a dream,
A vast and enigmatic flowing stream…
I ignored advice and went for this title before others in the series, but don’t regret it at all: the next book in my Tove Trove reading will be Finn Family Moomintroll. Tove Jansson was born on 9th August 1914
9th August 2020 is also designated Book Lovers Day; and August is Women in Translation Month