Book: Moominvalley in November (Tove Jannson)

November used to be one of my least favorite months.  It always felt like a time in limbo, a sort of non-month. 

In the past few years, it has come to be my second-most favorite, just behind October and essentially a coda of that month.  It is like the last note of October is held for an extended period, stretching time as thin as the streaks of clouds in the sky and the branches of the bare trees reaching up to them.  There is a bittersweet tinge in watching those limbs gradually surrender the last of their leaves.

This spirit is captured beautifully in Mooninvalley in November, the last of the Moomin books penned by Tove Jannson.  The reviews I have read of it have been overwhelmingly negative, with many readers appalled by the complete lack of the beloved titular characters.  What I feel many readers seem to have overlooked is they are still there in spirit, while being so conspicuous in their absence there is a noticeable Moomin-shaped hole in the narrative. 

As for the characters that are here, none were ever very popular except Moomin’s best friend, Snufkin.  The book begins with this wanderer breaking camp and feeling a calmness that is “like a solitary tree with every single leaf completely still.”  I’m not sure I have ever read a better description of how November makes me feel inside.

Snufkin thinks of the Moomin family as he walks away, and it is as if his thoughts make the characters briefly materialize.  He especially thinks of Moomin opening the letterbox and discovering Snufkin forgot to leave the goodbye note he leaves each year before setting off.

As Snufkin goes on his way, he passes the silent houses of various characters, some of whom will come back into the story later.  Of those characters, the best known is probably the fussy Fillijonk, who will nearly kill herself in a housecleaning mishap.  This near-death experience gives her a fresh outlook on life.  I love her realization in the moment immediately after, that “how strange it was that everything that hangs from a hook really goes on hanging downwards and not in any other direction.”  She decides she wants to see people, and so sets out to visit the Moomins.  Other characters, some of whom are in no other books in the series, find themselves struck by the same urge.

One such character is Toft, and he is really the star of this volume.  Unbeknownst to its owner, he lives in the prow of a boat the Hemulen has never put in the water.  Every night, Toft sends himself to sleep by conjuring stories of the Happy Family.  He has never been to Moominvalley, or met the family that lives there, but he imagines the journey to there so thoroughly that he seems to arrive at their house.  But he never imagines going into the house at the end of that journey, instead choosing to wait outside “for Moominmamma to come out on the steps.”

One day, Toft will undertake the journey for real this time.  He will not get lost, because every step is exactly as he always imagined it would be.  When he gets close to the house, he hears the sounds of wood being chopped and knows it must be Moonminpappa.

Except it isn’t.  It’s the Hemulen, and this is the first time Toft has seen the owner of the boat he lives in.  The family has gone away and the Hemulen does not know where they’ve gone to.  The two go into the house and have an awkward conversation about how the image of the family is unclear in their minds. The exception for Toft is Mooninmamma, the only one he has imagined before, but “the others are a little hazy in my mind.”  The Hemulen agrees: “I never looked at them very closely, they were just there, you know…” Not only are the Moomins absent here, it’s almost like they never existed outside the minds of these characters.

Other visitors begin trickling in.  There’s Grandpa-Gumble, who is so old he has forgotten his own name, yet he takes comfort in that: “It’s a little sad when you forget other people’s names, but it’s lovely to be able to completely forget your own.”  There’s the Mymble, self-assured to the point of a slight smugness, thinking she’ll drop in on the Moomin household to see her sister, Little My.  Naturally, she’ll arrive to discover the sister has gone off with the family to wherever they disappeared.  Finally, the Fillijonk will have arrived.  Surprisingly, Snufkin has returned as well.

So now you have a group of people who barely know each other, if at all, awkwardly gathered together in the house of a family who isn’t there.  And, honestly, not much happens.  The Hemulen finally attempts camping and boating, activities he has always wanted to do, and discovers he likes neither.  Granda-Grumble ties to catch a fish in a body of water that isn’t as robust as he recalls it once being.  The Fillyjonk fusses about a house that isn’t hers.  Toft’s strong imagination creates visions so overwhelming that he finds himself in fear of them.  Snufkin and Mymble largely stay in the margins, watching the proceedings with mild irritation or faint bemusement.

The culmination of these various threads is a party where each character makes a contribution.  The Fillijonk, in particular, astounds everybody like a shadow play of the Moomins and Little My on a boat.  It is presciently titled “The Return”. 

For a period of time after that party, the characters wander out of the house, out of the story and back to their own homes.  It feels like the book is slowly undoing itself as gradually as the story materialized at the beginning, until the world is once again only Toft.

In the end, it is he at the shore to meet their returning boat at the shore.  But is this real, or more of his vivid imaginings, perhaps inspired by the Fillijonk’s shadow play at the party? He “saw the storm-lantern Moominpappa had hung up at the top of the mast.  It threw a gentle, warm light and burnt steadily.  The boat was a very long way away.  Toft had plenty of time to do down through the forest and along the beach to the jetty, and be just in time to catch the line and tie up the boat.”  And so the book ends.

I have read Moominvalley in November each year, in that month, for many years now.  Each time I read it, I am left equally believing the possibility these events really happened or that they are only happening in Toft’s mind.  Or maybe Toft’s imagination is so powerful, as happens elsewhere in the text, that he fully materializes the world of the Moomins himself.  I like to puzzle over this, like how it can feel good to have an interesting rock you like just like to work between your fingers.

I don’t know if anybody will ever read the words I put down here.  If I can convince even one person to discover this wonder of a book, I will feel I have accomplished something.  It is a unique reading experience, akin only to movies and television shows I have seen.  If Seinfeld was a witty show about nothing, here is a clever and funny book where nothing significant happens.  It is like Waiting for Godot, in that the people all the other characters are centered around never actually appear.  It’s like Last Year in Marienbad, as each additional reading reinforces the feeling the world in which the book takes place exists eternally in this weird loop outside of time.

But most of all, the book channels that certain aspect of November I find difficult to describe, but which feels to me like what yoga helps one to achieve: that feeling of the living in the moment, the “now”, and the wonder one might experience there.  And there is no longer individual moment, a sustained “now”, than November.