The Joy of Getting Lost Inside a Book:

A Review of “Adventures in Moominland”

/ by Elisa Biagini

If I became a poet, I owe it to Dickinson and Montale, to Rilke and to many other poets and fiction writers, but I also have a debt to a Troll. A Moomin Troll, to be precise. I met him and his family as a child, in the books of the now long-dead Italian publishing houses: Tove Jansson opened up to me a world of melancholy always veiled in irony, introduced me to the northern frost and its depressions, as well as to its endless summers, to the idea of ​​sudden departures for unknown worlds. Moominmamma and Moominpapa always welcomed the most incredible characters unflinchingly, and every problem ended up in a liberating party. Just because of their reassuring surrealism, I kept reading about their adventures over the years, both in the few comic book versions available in Italy, and in the short stories for children and adults. And that's why I'm happy to announce to you - if you haven’t heard it already - that the Moomins are back, and are here for the mournful and the cheerful, regardless of the age.


Actually, they never left but, until recent years, they had been hiding in certain areas: Besides the Scandinavian countries, for obvious cultural and linguistic reasons (Jansson was Finnish, but she wrote in Swedish), they have been thriving in Japan. So far away from their origin, these creatures have become increasingly popular in the last decades, and one can find, almost everywhere, trinkets with their effigies, and even a chain of cafes (only last year one opened in Helsinki). While in Kyoto for a poetry reading, I met a sophisticate young lute player: We started talking about Renaissance music, and we ended up spending the evening sharing bits of our favorite Moomin stories.


So, you can imagine my excitement when, while in London for work, I discovered that the show, Adventures in Moominland, was running at the Southbank Center.


It’s a strangely hot day, and I find myself waiting impatiently outside a huge book: I will soon be joined by other 10 people, interestingly all couples (the guys not looking that happy), and an actress/guide, who will lead us inside the tome. I have to be honest here: When I read about this exhibit, I expected either something cheesy for very young children, or an aseptic academic display of a few original drawings, but I decided to give it a try anyway. I got neither: I was the oldest member of the group in body, but definitely the youngest in spirit, and I immediately jumped into this fantastic adventure of sounds and images.


The exhibition explores how several of the Moomin stories, from Comet in Moominland (1946), Moominland Midwinter (1957) to Moominpapa at Sea (1965), were written against the backdrop of political and socio-economic change in Finland, and heavily influenced by Tove’s relationships with family, friends and lovers, which defined the narrative and character development. Written during a time of hardship in the wake of WWII, the tolerant world of Moominvalley offered a refuge from the harshness of reality. The trolls’ way of life was inspired by the bohemian environment in which Jansson grew up, while their escapades, in the forest and on the waves, were drawn from the summers Tove had spent in the idyllic island community of Pellinki, as a child. The dangers that threaten the Moomins, from a great flood to a terrible comet, were a response to frightening events on the world stage; the first books were written just after the war.


Sitting under Snufkin’s tent, or in her studio reproduced for the occasion, on an island surrounded by rocks, or walking through a luxuriant forest, we are allowed to look at over 40 original drawings and archival materials from Tove’s studio in Helsinki, and her family island of Klovharu (including the very earliest Moomintroll dolls to be sold commercially, Tove’s painting palette and painting utensils and flower headdress), starting from her first drawing of a Moomin, that was made when she was a young woman, during an argument about Kant with her brother Per Olov. She drew the ugliest figure that she could on the interior wall of a family outhouse. He popped up again as her signature in the political cartoons she drew for an anti-fascist magazine, before appearing in the middle of a wood, frightened and holding his mother’s hand, at the start of a children’s book she dubbed a “fairytale.”


Tove’s romantic life also enlivened the Moomin stories, where she explored her art and her own sexuality within the confines of a changing political landscape: Her friends, enemies, fears and hopes often found themselves manifested in the complex and emotional stories (including the troubled relationship with her father, who was a homophobic, and the very strong bond with her mother, whose death deeply affected Jansson). One drawing on display, for example, depicts Thingumy and Bob, who represent Tove and her lover, Vivica Bandler - a married woman with whom Tove had a brief and passionate affair. Homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971, but same-sex relationships could be represented in the world of the Moomins, where gender and species are vague.


Tove Jansson was born in 1914 in Helsinki, to a family of artists. She studied art both in Stockholm and Helsinki and, briefly, in Paris. During her first decades as an artist, Tove produced not only paintings, but also an astonishing variety of illustrations, and was a contributor of the liberal satire magazine, Garm, from the age of 15. The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) was the first volume in the series that was to become the most prominent and best-known part of Jansson’s career as an artist.


She spent most of her time in her studio in Helsinki but, since childhood, she had fallen in love with islands, and spent many summers on the tiny island of Klovharu in the Gulf of Finland. There, and in her frequent travels abroad, she was accompanied by her life partner, Tooti (Tuulikki Pietilä), a graphic artist and professor (the character Tootiki).


It’s hard to fully render the spirit of an artist in a show, but- in the time I spent in this intense maze of emotions and places - I could almost see Tove grinning in a dark corner, or under a leaf, and I always stayed behind, with one excuse or another, sure that I would eventually catch a glimpse of a troll. The vital and intricate jungle, born overnight from a box of mysterious seeds, or the desolate and lunar forest of birch trees and snow, where sits the Groke (a creature that turns into ice whatever she touches, a vivid and delicate depiction of the depression that affected Jansson) manage to really convey the rollercoaster of our feelings, the light and the darkness of our life. At the end, we arrived at the dining room of Moominhouse: The famous black bag of Moominmamma is on the table and we can hear a feeble sound coming from a nearby room. I almost decided not to look inside: Only a white tail pokes out from under a duvet. Here she is! I tiptoed out of that bedroom. Let her rest.

Elisa Biagini

born in Florence in 1970, has lived, studied and taught in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. at Rutgers University, taught Italian there and also taught at Columbia University and New York University. She translated Louise Glück, Sharon Olds and other American poets into Italian for the anthology Nuovi Poeti Americani (Einaudi, 2006), and her translation of Gerry LaFemina's collection, The Parakeets of Brooklyn, won the Bordighera Prize in 2003; it was published by Bordighera in a bilingual edition the next year.

Her poetry has been translated into a dozen languages or more, including French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.

Elisa Biagini lives in Florence and teaches creative writing, literature and art history in Italy and abroad.