The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Marvellous Moomins 3: The Moomins and The Great Flood

It’s extraordinary to realise that the very first Moomin book, published in Swedish in 1945, was not translated into English until 1991. Even then, it was issued by a Scandinavian publisher, never by a British company.

In truth this is very much an early book. The story seems a little like a draft for something not quite resolved, although it does enlighten the Moomin reader on certain points. In later books references are made to a great flood as well as a nasty incident involving Moominmamma and the Ant Lion. They are all explained here, as a bereft Moominmamma and Moomintroll search for the long lost Moominpappa (who has gone off with the dreaded Hattifattners), and meet “The Little Creature” (who we know now as Sniff) and the very strange Tulippa, an elegant woman with blue hair (surely modelled on the fairy in Pinocchio).

A much shorter book than the subsequent volumes, it hops and skips along introducing little gems and moments of peril alongside others of great charm in a typical Jansson way. Even if not fully formed, it is still an important book, filling so many gaps in Moomin mythology.

What really interests me is how different the Moomins look. Tove Jansson originally drew a Moomin on a wall at home to defy a relative, and subsequently used the character as a “signature” device on her political cartoons, published during the war. Only later did the Moomin develop the rounded and friendly snout and expressive features known and loved throughout the world. Even the mouth was to move! Traces of this development can just be seen in the illustrations for “Comet in Moominland” , but by “Finn Family Moomintroll” her drawing technique and her characters are completely resolved.

One other thing I noticed in these early drawings is the scale; the Moomins are tiny pint-sized creatures, as images of them alongside human-scale bottles and spectacles testify.

This is essential reading for any lover of the Moomins – or indeed anyone interested in the creative process. It’s like gaining a little glance at Tove’s secret cupboard of roughs and plans, a flick through her sketchbooks and a glimpse into her wonderfully creative, imaginative and surreal mind.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Marvellous Moomins 2: Comet in Moominland

"Strike me pink!"

This, the second Moomin book to be published in English (in 1951), actually (and confusingly) predates Finn Family Moointroll and introduces the first meeting between our heroes Sniff and Moomintroll and the remarkably self-contained Snufkin.

In this book we meet old Uncle Muskrat, the unusual Snorks, a poisonous Snork-eating bush and the short-term memory of the Silk Monkey (indeed this is her only book appearance).

When peculiar omens fortell catastrophe, our merry band of creatures set off to the Lonely Mountains to see if the "star-with-a-tail" warnings really mean a comet is on it's way. The story tumbles along in a cascade of adventures and its lightheartedness hides a deeper message: It was written in 1946; the idea of a Comet destroying the earth was Tove Jansson's response to the horror of Hiroshima in 1945.

Overcoming disaster and tragedy are playfully explored - this could be read to all but the youngest child, although I remember a big fear of comets for a while after reading this. I would worry about every shooting star I saw... but then I grew up during the cold war and the fear that gripped Tove was still part of the world we lived in then.

Significantly, this and Finn Family Moomintroll differ greatly in their overall feel to the later books. They are much more light-hearted and less introspective. Could that be something to do with the translator? (Elizabeth Portch only translated these two. The others are the work of Thomas Warburton). Or was it simply the case that Tove was gently finding her way, getting to know her characters? I love being able to trace a development from this book through to the last.

Comet in Moominland is full of Tolkein-like elements - they sing little parodies of those in the Lord of the Rings, and our heroes on a quest are very Hobbit-like in their innocence. It has a charm and deep understanding of the trials and ridiculousness of family and friendships. Sniff and Moomintroll bicker; eyes are rolled at Moomintroll's infatuation with the splendidly vain Snork Maiden; and Moominmamma sends her child out into the world with the quiet confidence that Tummy Powder is a necessary item of luggage...

There are very many editions of the book. The first, with it's remarkable scarlet cover is beautiful, but I suppose I have fondness also for the Puffin paperback, as that's the copy I first read around 40 years ago. Here are a selection from my Moomin cupboard. Enjoy... and "Strike me pink!"