Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tove Jansson - Bergman for Kids

BBC7's Summer Book is a celebration of the extraordinary work of one of the great authors of children's literature, Tove Jansson.

One of Finland's Swedish minority, Jansson's life after success with the Moomin phenomenon was conducted in demi-reclusive homebodiness on an island in the Gulf of Finland.
Tove, of course, is the name of the doomed heroine of the great Gurre poetic cycle by the Danish proto-Symbolist J.P.Jacobsen, one of the great forgotten works of European late Romanticism and immortalised by Schoenberg's magnificent and megalomaniacally huge setting - and Jansson's works share a predilection for nature and loneliness. But they are Romantic on a private level. Indeed they probably have inducted generations of children into the exisential idea of what constitues the private.

Nobody who 'gets' Jansson's work as a child is ever likely to forget them, for they are singularly adult in tone and feel. They are nothing less than Bergmanesque. This ain't Pippi Longstocking territory.

Beyond the Moomin family, all characters, more or less derived from Scandinavian folklore are loners. The WH Davies-derived Snufkin; the fantastically tantrumy midget Little My; and most hauntingly, the swarms of electrically-charged deaf-and-dumb willothewisps called Hattifattener, that can be grown from seeds and are forever asail except for a midsummer (what else?) gathering to worship an aneroid barometer. Equinoctial, pagan, white nights, the poetry of the Stockholm skerries.

The bucolic, petit-bourgeois domesticity of Finn Family Moomintroll (1948) - the Hattifatteners' finest and funniest moment - is analogous to Bergman's Smiles of A Summer Night, as are episodes of Moominsummer Madness , which has Fellini-esque overtones in its tale of a theatre proscenium swept away and recolonised after a summer flood. There are maniacal parkies, hysterics, clowns, rendered in a kind of sub-surreal, rodently bestiary. All the while there are hints of bourgeois repression - Moominpappa, the patriarch, perhaps an affectionate echo of Jansson's sculptor father Viktor, wears a stovepipe hat - and a constant striving against dun-coloured orthodoxy.But much of the rest of Jansson's output is much, much darker, a quietist sigh in an autumnal dusk. Tales from Moominvalley (1962) contains a series of vignettes, with titles like 'The Fillyjonk Who Believed In Disasters', 'The Last Dragon in the World' and 'The Hemulen Who Loved Silence' - almost impossibly sad writing, and even outdoes the heartbreaking, Andersenish story of the lost toy 'Cedric' because of a rare note of sentimentality which creeps in to close the latter. Moominvalley In November is almost unrelievedly miserabilist, and stunning. The Moomins have almost ceased to exist by now, and are treated practically as memories by friends who have previously been marginal characters in other books, and are waiting in rain and cold for the family's return.

It is all pinewoods, lone Friedrichesque figures on Baltic beaches in thin rain, mirroring Nordico-Romantic nature worship and sea worship - one considers the sea-music of Swedish composers from Alfven to Nystroem. Inwardly, it is all reflection - unlike any children's literature this writer knows.

The deceptively calm beauty of Moominland Midwinter (Trollvinter, 1957) uses the cute and smart conceit of the Everyman hero, the young Moomintroll, awaking irreparably from his winter hibernation into the Arctic darkness and having to adapt; the homeliness of the stoves-and-shelves surroundings of FFM alluded to with knowing mastery but they have become shadowy, alien, his sleeping family beings from another world. Very little happens in Moominland Midwinter, save for Moomintroll's slow feeling his way through a world known yet unknown, and evoked with precise, economical and always beautiful prose. In MM you want to turn up the thermostat every time the book is opened.

Jansson, tenebrous as her worldview might be, is even masterful at handling brightness; her evocation of femininity in the characters of Moominmamma and, most of all, the Snork Maiden, are tender and delightful and even arousing. I didn't know I wanted a girlfriend until, at the age of 9, I read Comet In Moominland, the first, raciest and most Hollywoodian of Jansson's oeuvre (1946, published as Kometjakten, a remnant of a putative film script?) - meteors, giant squids, nutty professors. When I read Jansson's description of the Snork Maiden's character - she changed colour depending on her level of pleasure - I knew things weren't going to be same again. The sensuality of chapter four of Moominsummer Madness - where the Snork Maiden discusses beauty, hair and the necessity of wearing frocks, grooming and sexual display with two other female characters - basically, girl-talk between three adolescents getting dressed - is almost embarrassing.

Tellingly, the enchanting, feisty Snork Maiden appears less and less as the stories darken. She isn't to be found in November or Tales. Nor in the enduring image (Jansson was a fine illustrator) of the Moomin family, staring blankly up at the (no doubt intentionally iconic post-Gibson/Woolf) lighthouse where they spend the whole of the thoroughly strange Moominpappa at Sea (Pappan och havet, Father and the Sea, 1965 - how Bergmanesque is that?). The chill of abandonment, of being watched by Death comes off the pages; this could be The Light at the Edge of the World, or Gibson's Flannan Isle. It's more than both. It is a masterwork.

Bergman for kids? Oh yes. These books scared, moved and spooked me then; they still do now.

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