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Matt McIrvin's Steam-Operated World of Yesteryear


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Moominsummer Madness, Tove Jansson
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Back in July, my kid and I read Tove Jansson's second Moomin book (and the first really well-known one), Comet in Moominland, as bedtime reading. At the time, I noted that, despite Jansson's reputation as a queer/feminist author, the gender roles in that early book are for the most part quite conventional: there are only two major female characters, and they function as a doting mother and a damsel-in-distress/love interest, though the latter does eventually hold her own and rescue the hero as well. Interestingly, several days ago Jed Hartman made a blog post noting the same thing.

I'd remembered at the time, though, that the number and variety of female roles multiplies later on. Recently we acquired the fourth and fifth books, Moominpapa's Memoirs and Moominsummer Madness, translated by Thomas Warburton. Jorie started in on reading Moominsummer Madness, having been intrigued by the book's central idea of an adventure in a floating theater, so I guess we're reading these very much out of sequence. (It doesn't matter much, though I suspect it's best not to start with the darker, more interior stories of the late books.)


At any rate, Moominsummer Madness, which I remember being one of my favorites of the series as a kid, is a complete delight. By this point the cast of characters has changed a bit: Sniff and the male Snork are absent without explanation, and Moomintroll is missing Snufkin, who is off voyaging somewhere. The family's hangers-on are the Mymble's Daughter and her sister, the minute and uncontrollable Little My, who can hide inside of skeins of yarn, ride in a hatband, and stare down biting insects, and likes to shout biting wisecracks and gleeful predictions of fatal disasters. Little My is one of Jansson's greatest creations, and though she only appears for the first time in the fourth volume, she becomes more and more prominent as the Moomin series goes on. Screen adaptations of the books often insert her into the earlier stories as well.


The story starts with another flood, which this time displaces the family to a strange, enormous "house" floating by. In the process they're joined by two new characters: the inquisitive Whomper, who is actually somewhat unnerved by the Moomins' preternatural, incurious calm in the face of bizarre events; and his depressed, anxious friend Misabel.

The house is actually a theater, or at least the stage of one, plus some backstage areas. Nobody knows what a theater is; but, except for Whomper, with typical equanimity they accept that their new home has giant pictures that drop from the ceiling, doors and stairs that go nowhere, and a strange collection of fake plaster objects apparently owned by a Mr. Properties. (It's never explained why the power seems to stay on.) They also accept that the place is haunted, until they realize that the mysterious thumps are caused by a still-living proprietor, a creature named Emma who is appalled that they think the prompter's box is a pantry and whistle on the stage. In a particularly touching passage, the Snork Maiden finds Misabel hesitatingly trying on wigs, and bonds with Misabel over her own Stendhalesque sensory overload after discovering the costume room.

A series of accidents eventually split up the cast three ways. Little My is cast adrift and meets up with Snufkin, who, after some anti-authoritarian mischief, somehow ends up having to take care of a crowd of twenty-four small children. Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden get stranded in the forest on Midsummer's Eve, cheer up a lonely Fillyjonk, and end up in jail for Snufkin's misdeeds.

Meanwhile, in the best plot thread of all, the rest of the crowd learn about the theater from Emma and decide to put on a play, a hilariously confused affair written by Moominpapa. Misabel decides she wants to be a leading lady, with a tragic death in the last act (and the Mymble's Daughter immediately wants to be one too, so there are two of them). A dress rehearsal, witnessed by various forest creatures in boats, collapses into chaos... but Misabel hears applause for the first time. The theater, even if it's an incompetent travesty of the theater, still becomes her means of personal growth.

After a comically polite jailbreak and some improvised foster parenting by Snufkin, everyone is finally drawn together by the opening of Moominpapa's play, which again collapses into chaos in a mostly happier manner: a big party ensues, the entire audience gets up on stage and a Hemulen cop attempts to storm the place. Exeunt pursued by the police as the floodwaters recede.


Anyway, after Comet it's interesting to see that, while the gender roles here aren't pointedly revolutionary, now more than half of the foreground cast is female, and Moomintroll isn't even the point-of-view character most of the time. Jansson seemed more comfortable breaking out of traditional adventure plots, exploring her characters' feelings and motivations more deeply, and writing multithreaded stories with lots of POV shifts as her confidence increased.

Though this is the book in which Little My becomes a really prominent character, and Snufkin has a great comic adventure, the one-shot character Misabel is actually the most interesting one here; but her story comes to a satisfying ending, and we're told she stayed on with Emma at the theater and became a successful actress. (Apparently she was a regular in the Moomin comic strips, as the family's domestic help. I think I like the novel's idea better.)

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Well, I always wondered a bit about Thingumy and Bob...

Yeah, Vanapagan's comment at the second link claims their original names (Tofslan and Vifslan) refer to Tove Jansson herself and her girlfriend Vivica Bandler. (The better-known case is Too-ticky from Moominland Midwinter, probably based on Jansson's partner of the time, Tuulikki Pietilä.)


Edited at 2013-09-09 06:28 pm (UTC)

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