In the ‘difficult’ final Moomin novel, Tove Jansson takes the audacious step of entirely excising her core cast, focusing instead on a disparate group visitors who gather at the family’s home, but find them missing. It was a move that didn’t exactly go down well with readers at the time; Moominvalley in November was as anticipated as a new Harry Potter, and people gathered together and read the book aloud.
One adult reader / reviewer, Ulla Stina Nilsson wrote that ‘the atmosphere of the Moomin house spread through the room. We felt angry, disappointed, cheated … A fairy tale of of uncertainty and frustration! Must the Moomin family and Moominvalley be taken from us! Our last refuge!.’
Imagine if J.K Rowling had got sick of Harry Potter and co. and sent them off on a French exchange in the final novel, focusing instead on the adventures of Filch, Winky the house elf and a new pupil based on herself. How exciting would it have been to read 700 pages of them tidying up the Griffindor common room and bickering about who knew the boy wizard the best?
The story appears to run concurrently with the events seen in the previous novel, Moominpappa at Sea (an equally bleak sort of a book). That story saw the restless patriarch taking his brood away from the valley and off to an exposed lighthouse, apparently for good.
‘Toft looked deeper and deeper and waited patiently. At last deep down inside the ball, he could see a faint point of light. It shone and then disappeared at regular intervals, like a lighthouse.
Moominvalley in November has been described as being closer to Waiting to Godot than the sunny fantasy world of Moominsummer Madness. There are no adventures to speak of, this is a novel almost entirely about waiting. The tension of whether the family will return hangs over the novel, an almighty tease for readers, who want nothing more. ‘They can’t have moved away just like that without saying a word! exclaimed the Fillyjonk.’
With the Moomins absent, this becomes a story about unfulfilled desires. The visitors all gravitate at the house in search of something that each of the inhabitants represent, something they so dearly lack in their own characters, but which they must now search out by themselves.
Fillyjonk is a lady suffering from a mixture of agoraphobia and OCD, confined to her house in a cycle of perpetual dusting, scrubbing and fretting. She seeks Moominmamma, in who she sees the ideal homemaker. Somehow the uptight dowager manages to be one of the most sympathetic characters in all of Moominvalley.
Tove gives her the book’s one and only moment of real drama; when a spot of extreme spring cleaning goes wrong Fillyjonk is left clinging to the roof of her house. Saved by a new duster (‘I shall never use old dusters again’) Fillyjonk enjoys an awakening – momentarily seeing the world from a new angle.
‘Never before had she noticed that the lamp shade was red, a very beautiful red reminding her of a sunset. Even the hook on the ceiling had an unusual shape.’
Mymble turns up in search of her sister, the devilish adopted child of the Moomins, Little My. She’s a character defined by her selfishness – ‘Mymble never dreamed, she slept when she felt like it and woke when there was anything worthwhile waking up for.’ But I’ve always been rather fond of her – much preferable to the equally vain but far more neurotic Snork Maiden.
Mymble is endowed with superhuman levels of self assurance, ‘It’s nice being a Mymble. I feel splendid from top to toe.’ And although she continues to live her life in a constant state of personal pleasure, Mymble uses her unwavering nature to help the other visitors become happy with who they are.
‘Will you always be the same?’ Fillyjonk asked her out of curiosity. ‘I certainly hope so!’ Mymble answered.’
The only main cast member paying a visit is Snufkin, the musical hobo, who I’ve never quite trusted. He always seemed a little self satisfied to me, like one of those hippies who uses their perceived freedom as a reason to look down on others. Here though he’s lost something, a song that appears to have vanished along with the family.
We meet him as he makes his annual emigration away from the approaching winter. But he is forced to return in search of the lost notes. At first he’s grumpy and depressed by having to live with the imposter family, but salvation comes when he helps Fillyjonk discover the music within her. Snufkin’s final five bars of music finally return on the wind.
Toft simply seeks a ‘Happy Family’; he’s the perpetual outsider who attempts to turn dreams into reality. Toft is based on Tove herself – something that provides a huge amount of resonance. The author is finally stepping into the pages, and searching out the creatures who have shaped her entire adult life. And she’s still there waiting in the last pages. It’s an almost unbearably poignant end, as the author disappears inside her own dreams.
‘His descriptions of the Happy Family faded and slipped away, Moominmamma glided away and became remote, an impersonal picture, he didn’t even know what she looked like.’
Tove’s own mother Ham passed away in 1970, the year Tove finished writing the book. It was a massive blow, as her biographer Boel Westin observes ‘Toft’s longing for Moomimamma became her own’. But in her grief she still had to create over 80 pictures for the book. She lost herself in her work shut in her island hut, which she described in a letter as being surrounded by ‘a thick fog; all four windows white and the cottage seems to be sailing through empty space.
The black and white illustrations are suffused with the melancholy that filled Tove and her story. Where previously there had been action and interaction in her lively drawings, here there is a stately isolation.
The month of November, engulfed in fog and lashed with rain hangs over this story like another character. It’s the month where decay sets in, decay that feeds new life. For Tove this meant a goodbye (for the most part) to Moominvalley, making way for a new chapter in her artistic and personal life