In my opinion, Tove Jannson is the best children's author who ever lived and one of the ten greatest authors of the twentieth century. I have only read her Moomintroll work and not the work for adults, but I have read almost all of the Moomintroll books, picture books and comic strips. In this review I will focus on Moominpappa at Sea, but I will also try to give a sense of why I think that she deserves to be placed with the likes of Orwell, Nabakov, Hemingway and Selby, even though she wrote books about Finnish Hippo-like creatures.
Picking a favorite Moomintroll book is difficult for me, but it is probably between Moominpappa At Sea and Moominsummer Madness. Her novels along with the picture book Who Will Comfort Toffle are at the centre of her work and divide into two periods. There are the earlier books which are primarily adventure stories and the later books where the characters tend to go off into the woods and think alone. Of the Early books Comet In Moominland is the best. Moominsummer Madness is the transitional work and Moominpappa At Sea is the best of the later works.
There have been in picture books and in the graphic novel occasional works of genius where the producer of the text and the producer of the art being the same person fuse the art and the text into a seamless work of genius. In children's novels there is only one such writer and that is Tove Jannson. Her writing and her black and white line drawings are both great art and they are fused together allowing her to produce masterpiece after masterpiece.
Of course Jansson is primarily a writer and her prose is assured and masterful. For instance, the second paragraph of the book reads:
"Moominpappa aimlessly puttered about in his garden, his tail dragging along the ground in a melancholy way. Here, down in the valley, the heat was scorching; everything was still and silent, and not a little dusty. It was the month when there could be great forest fires, the month for taking great care."
I just finished Midnight's Children a week or two ago, which won the Booker of Bookers, and there is no paragraph in that work that is so assured, so subtle or that sets mood and tone so effectively. Jannson can write an effective adventure story and she knows how to focus a story. However, a lot of her writing involves setting out telling details, juxtaposing them in a controlled way and having the reader make the links. This is reminiscent of Hemingway and done about as well. If you don't believe me check out the following paragraph, which if it did not have a reference to tails might as well be by Hemingway:
"Moominpappa went to the window facing south and peered out. Moominmamma looked up quickly and noticed that his tail was quite stiff with irritation. She put some more wood on the fire and opened a can of herrings. Moominpappa drank his tea without saying a word. When Moominmamma had cleared away, she put the hurricane lamp on the table and said"I remember hearing once that some lighthouses use gas. When the gas is finished it's quite impossible to light them."
In context this is a quite subtle piece of writing. Moominpappa is having what amounts to an existential crises and this piece gets subtlety at his emotions and Moominmamma's attempt to deal with this crises. There is also in all the Moomintroll books a gentle sense of the magic of all things just under the surface that is reminiscent of Marquez. She can also do parody very well. Portions of The Exploits of Moominpappa parody Dicken's and in Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll she parodies in the character of the Muskrat professional philosophers in a gentle, but sharp way.
All these comparisons to Dickens, Hemingway, Marquez and others might suggest that she is too complex for children. This is absolutely not the case. I first read Comet In Moominland to my son when he was three and he absolutely loved it. Great books have meanings on multiple levels at once, and can so give up new meanings on multiple readings. The Moomintroll books are highly effective at entertaining children and furthermore are immensely gentle and charming works. It is Jannson's ability to appeal so deeply to all ages that is part of her greatness.
Her art is also outstanding (less so in the cartoons which are hurried). There is a great expressiveness in her characters which are essentially cartoons. A lot of her art involves lonely figures or groups dwarfed by vast natural landscapes, which at once invoke a feeling of solitude and the majesty of nature while having cute hippos in them that appeal to children.
Tove Jansson explores a variety of themes and has a peculiar philosophical vision. The Moomintroll books were written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, which hit Finland very hard. While there is no war and almost no violence in them I think that they are a sort of antidote to the inhumanity of that conflict. The books all have a moral core which is accepting individual idiosyncrasies while at the same time feeling that there is a sense of appropriateness to things. This is personified by the character of Moominmamma who is described as very moral but broad minded.
All of the Moomintroll books explore deep themes with a subtle charm. This book in particular is an exploration of the meaning and purpose of life and has a slightly melancholy tone. The events in the book are precipitated when Moominpappa who no longer has any purpose in Moominvalley abruptly moves the family to live in a remote abandoned lighthouse on an island. He then tries to find purpose by becoming the lighthouse keeper and then later by understanding the sea. Moominmomma has lost her old purpose as a mother in Moominvalley and tries varies ways to recreate it. Moomintroll is seaking independence and maturity and is trying to forge his own purpose which he accidentally stumbles into by reaching out to the Groke who is the very embodiment of fear and lonliness and which even the trees and the sand are afraid of. Meanwhile, Little My has no need for these kinds of existential meanderings as she is perfectly happy doing whatever it is she feels like at that moment.
The book I think is trying to elucidate a theory where for each person there is a specific purpose that will give their particular life meaning, and that this can be done through a variety of means. The moral aspect comes from the importance of developing a purpose that is respectful of the needs of other people in developing their own. It softly and gently and in a way that anyone of any age can enjoy, explores these themes.
Beautiful book and sometime in the future everyone will be surprised that she never won a nobel prize given that every third award is given to someone Swedish.