A few years ago, Michael David Lukas wrote about what he calls the “polyphonic novel” for this site. His new novel is a jewel of the form, weaving voices of modern Cairo with those from the city’s millennium-plus history, and describing events leading to the discovery of the famed Genizah trove in the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Lukas is interested in the sites of Jewish history in Muslim-majority contexts–his first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, was a magical realist work about a Jewish girl during the waning days of the Ottoman empire. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo juxtaposes the peregrinations of Joseph–a young American graduate student with Egyptian Muslim and Jewish roots–with the life of a distant forbear and those of the so-called “Sisters of Sinai,” who played a critical role in the development of scriptural history. In addition to his novel-writing, Lukas works at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley (where I also used to work, although we didn’t overlap–we met on a losing team at a book trivia fundraiser thing, and now meet up every so often to discuss books and babies). At Berkeley, he runs an online exchange between students in the U.S. and the Middle East. I spoke with him about how this novel, like that work, looks for the sites of coexistence in a long shared past.
The Millions (TM): Tell me about the Genizah and the source material for the book.
Michael David Lukas (MDL): So, I’ll start with the first seed, which was that I studied abroad in Cairo during my junior year of college. It was a weird period in my life, and in the world, and it was my first time living in the Arab World. I was feeling somewhat alienated from my Jewishness. It was during the Second Intifada–I was hyper aware of, and also very conscious of, and also sort of defensive about, and alienated from my Jewishness all at the same time. I was really enjoying the city but having a hard time figuring out how I fit into it. And in the midst of this, I came upon the synagogue at the heart of the city. Seeing that, and realizing that there was thousand-year-old history of Jews in Cairo, I had a sense not only of the possibilities of coexistence, but also of how I fit into the place.
And then later on, I learned that this synagogue is the site of all these amazing stories and of the famed Genizah in its attic. Jews would hold onto any piece of paper that had the word “God” written on it; there was a prohibition against throwing away those pieces of paper. So for hundreds and hundreds of years, they kept these pieces of paper up in the attic because it was dry. They didn’t mold, and in the 19th century they were discovered by Solomon Schechter and the British twins, Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson.
That’s the first seed, and it was dormant for a long time. Then many years later I had an experience where I sat next to this woman on a plane and we ended up talking for basically the whole flight across the country, and she told me that her family had been the watchmen of a synagogue in Kolkata. She was Bengali Muslim. That sparked this memory of that other synagogue in Cairo and the Jewish-Muslim coexistence, and it all kind of came together.
TM: What sort of sources did you use to familiarize yourself with the twins, and with their part of the story?
MDL: They were so interesting. They were very Victorian, bible-hunter-type folks, but also very quirky. Luckily there are a few books written about them. One in particular called The Sisters of Sinai was useful. They actually wrote a couple of books about their experiences as well, so I knew their voices, and I knew how I wanted to position them in the narrative–kind of this driving force behind the discovery that didn’t really get recognized as a driving force at the time.
One thing that was difficult about it was that as much as they were proto-feminists, and really remarkable for what they were able to accomplish at a time that was quite misogynist and when women weren’t able to go to Cambridge, they were also, as one would imagine, pretty imperialistic. So I didn’t want to lionize them even though they are in one sense heroes of the story. Since it was such a close point of view, it was hard to figure out ways to show their colonialist mentality, without reifying it, or supporting it. I ended up having them be proven wrong in a number of ways about their assumptions about Egyptians, or about the way things work in Egypt, when these assumptions were undercut by events.
TM: Your last novel also had a Jewish protagonist in a Muslim-majority context,.
MDL: My brother-in-law was like, “You gotta stop writing these Jewish novels, no one cares.”
TM: Your novel-in-progress is also a Jewish novel, right?
MDL: My current novel is different because it’s set in the future. You don’t necessarily realize that it’s a Jewish protagonist, although it’s a rewriting of the Book of Esther. It’s more like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is a Christian novel. I think to a Jewish reader it feels very Jewish, but I think to other readers it might not.
TM: It’s an Abrahamic novel.
MDL: Exactly, Abrahamic. That was really the whole point. That’s the idea behind the original title, which was the 43rd Name of God. The idea being, there are lots of names for God, to encapsulate one entity or one way of being.
TM: I love how The Last Watchman highlights the fact that Jewish history–and Arab history, and Muslim history–is so rich and complex as a result of the interplay of cultural and religious traditions. When you talk to Jewish people and tell them you’re writing about Jews in a Muslim-majority context, what kind of responses do you get?
MDL: I think about it this way: Jews have been in the United States for 350 years. Jews were in Cairo for a thousand. Within that kind of time span, you have ups and downs, obviously. But that long history of Jews in the Arab world has been erased in a lot of ways, for political means, or political purposes, by all parties.
I’m very careful to paint neither too rosy a picture, nor too much of a picture of conflict. I chose the time period of the novel specifically to be able to paint a picture that was complex. The two books that I can think of about Cairene or Egyptian Jews are Lucette Lagnado, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, and André Aciman’s Out of Egypt. Those are both personal memoirs about the expulsion of the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled foreigners from Egypt and put Jews in that category. Some Jews were foreigners, from Italy, France, or what have you, but there were other Jews who were from Cairo, whose families had lived there for a thousand years.
In terms of the response I get, generally people are pretty interested. There’s a kind of wide appetite for this sort of thing, if only because it stakes a Jewish claim in this place. Then there are a lot of Jews who are very focused on the late twentieth-century conflict, and that history. So they aren’t really trying to hear the previous history, which doesn’t fit into the narratives of “it was really bad and then Israel came along and they were saved,” which sort of reverses the chain of events as they actually happened.
Generally, people are pretty happy to read about Jewish lives. The book is so much about this interplay between Muslim and Jewish identity, I’ll be curious to how people react to that.
TM: What is the Cairene Jewish community like today?
MDL: There aren’t that many Jews who still live in Cairo. When I was there in the year 2000, I went to Rosh Hashanah services and the synagogue was completely full, but it was mostly staffers from the American and Israeli embassies, and oil company employees. There were a few Cairene Jews who were there, and I based some characters in the book on them, like sort of seeing them from a distance.
But apparently there’s been a real resurgence in interest in Jewish history in Egypt. There was a little mini-series on TV and there have been a few people who have rediscovered their Jewish roots, including one famous actor who came out as Jewish, with a Jewish mother. There were a couple of famous Jewish actors during the golden age of Egyptian cinema, one of whom converted to Islam in order to advance her career. Which sounds crazy, but it happened in Hollywood all the time.
Jews were a part of the cultural fabric. You can see these little traces of that history if you know what to look for, but you really have to know what to look for.
TM: You were an undergraduate when you were in Cairo the first time. Did you go back and do more research for this book?
MDL: Well I set it in the year 2000, which is when I was still there, which is sort of a cop-out. I went back a couple times subsequently, just to get a sense of the place and the feeling of being there. Being in Cairo is such a visceral experience, the sweaty taxi seat sticking to your back–that’s basically what I went back for, to reacquaint myself with what it’s like to be in the city.
TM: Why do you say cop-out?
MDL: I wanted the book to take place before the Arab Spring, because that’s the city I’m familiar with. When the Arab Spring was happening, I was two or three years into writing the book, and every person I would talk to about the book would say something like “Oh, that’s so relevant. You’re going to work in some Arab Spring angle.” And I really didn’t want to do that. In part because it was happening as we were talking, and in part because I knew I wouldn’t do it justice.
TM: Well it seems that few people who tried to sound authoritative about it at the time did it justice.
MDL: Yes, looking now–where the security apparatus is deeply paranoid, even more so than it was, even more authoritarian and regressive than it was.
TM: I think the angle of your story is so specific, and it’s looking at a kind of interaction and historical mosaic that is not usually emphasized in discussions about the so-called “Middle East” in the United States. But you’re still an American writing about Egypt in a weird American moment. Did you feel anxious about how to fairly depict Egyptians?
MDL: I definitely thought about it a lot. The answer that I came to is that it’s sort of a story that would be difficult to be told by anybody, because there are so many different perspectives and identities at play. That was sort of the point, was to create a mosaic of different perspectives. There’s the Presbyterian Scottish twin. There’s the half-Muslim, half-Jewish graduate student. There’s the Muslim teenager in the 11th century. In writing a polyphonic novel, you force yourself into writing perspectives that aren’t your own.
TM: And your graduate student protagonist is also a gay man.
MDL: That was something I definitely thought about. As with all of these characters, his identity was fully formed when I met him, so it’s really not an issue of deciding, is he going to be gay or not? It was about deciding how to represent that and deal with who he was, protagonist-wise.
TM: When you say, when you met him, he just shows up in your brain?
MDL: Yeah. Joseph just kind of showed up as who he was. The thing that was hardest was not trying to write a half-Muslim, half-Jewish character, or a gay character, although I thought a lot about those things and talked to a lot of friends as I was doing it. The thing that was most difficult is that he’s the character who felt closest to me, closer than any person I’ve ever written, and I really identified with him. I got, I think, overly identified with him, and was trying to write him as me, as a sort of version of myself. At a certain point I realized I needed to take a step back from him. He was his own person, a fictional person and I needed to write him as who he was–someone who had a lot of the same experiences as me, but also separate.
TM: I’m laughing because that’s exactly the way you could talk about having a child. You just meet them and that’s just what they’re like–you can’t change anything fundamental about them so much as steer, or course-correct. You forget and try to make them you (a better you, obviously), but they’re not you.
MDL: It’s exactly like that. It’s like trying to be the best parent that you can be to that particular child, and wondering who they are, rather than trying to impose who you are on them. While also recognizing that they’re a piece of you.
I do think having a child made me better understand my own writing in general. I think for Joseph I didn’t fully get him until I was able to see him as a child, from his parents’ perspective, and to see the brat that he was, in a way. Seeing that I was like, oh, now I get it. Because it’s a novel about his relationship to his parents in a lot of ways. I was missing that huge piece and didn’t know I was missing it.
I grew up in a middle-class family in rural upstate New York. We had a mortgage and a car loan, and my brother and I wore hand-me-downs. It was a nice, ordinary American upbringing: quietly blessed, reassuringly average, except for one thing: in books, I have always been rich.
My earliest memories are of books, the crammed shelves a backdrop for birthday parties, family dinners, and Saturday morning cartoons. We read every night, my brother and I perched on my dad’s lap, Goodnight Moon open before us, or Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. When we got older, my mom dug through her old boxes of books from when she was a girl, rediscovering along with us Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. At summer camp, I traded books with my friends, devouring with illicit pleasure the likes of The Baby-Sitters Club series, Tiger Eyes, and Izzy, Willy-Nilly — books my small town library didn’t own. These books taught me to have crushes, do my nails, and flirt. They informed me about sex and my body, and probably empowered me to make smart choices about those things throughout my life.
From my parents’ shelves, I drew down books I probably wasn’t ready for, but no one ever told me to put a book back. From dog-eared, underlined college textbooks, I learned about extreme poverty and AIDS, the Holocaust and cancer, war and rape. I read Stephen King, which kept me up at night for years. In perusing those adult shelves, I learned an expensive lesson: nothing I read could ever be unread. Still, I wouldn’t trade those books — each one of them — for anything. To me, books were the world, transported to my teenage bedroom in my tiny upstate town.
Growing up, I never stopped to notice who was and wasn’t reading. I didn’t yet understand what books represented — privilege, education, even wealth, relatively speaking. Reading is a leisure activity, a luxury, and it demands time. I travelled abroad after graduating from college, and backpacking through Asia, I was mostly — embarrassingly, now — amused at the illiteracy I encountered. From Laos to India, I took pictures of signs spelled ridiculously wrong, and I never questioned the relative absence of bookstores, or libraries, or books in general. I worked on farms, but I never tried going into a school to see what it was like. For better or worse, I never noticed the problem enough to even…notice.
Instead, I managed to find the books I needed at hostels. Every hostel had a cycling shelf, a tiny library, Lonely Planets mixed in with trashy romances, travel novels, the rare Bill Bryson, the more common Paulo Coelho. The books were almost all in English. I did fine.
It took me until 2010 to “check my privilege,” as the kids are saying nowadays. I was in Antigua, Guatemala — a colonial, touristy city an hour southwest of Guatemala City — and I was starting to write my own book, about Latin America, traveling alone, and teaching English. Antigua, one of Guatemala’s most modern cities, had one library, and every morning I went there to work.
The library, one long room, was usually empty, except for the librarian and me. She sat behind a desk, and behind her were the shelves. If I needed a book, she had to retrieve it for me. My Spanish wasn’t good enough yet to ask for anything, anyway, so I spent my mornings seated at a perpetually empty table. No families came in, no young couples, no retired folk. No one. No one touched the books, or wandered from one subject to another, or opened books at random and then put them back. No one sniffed the pages.
I didn’t quite understand why the library was always so empty until a book fair set up shop in the plaza outside. As I browsed, I discovered that each book cost at least $15, an amount that could cover my hostel bed for a week. Books, I realized sharply, suddenly, are too expensive. They’re a luxury item, designated for the rich, for the privileged. Guiltily, I remembered the crammed shelves of my childhood. The literary world is a sealed one, and as I held the expensive books in my hands, I realized finally how hard it is to break in.
I traveled another year, and then I moved back to the States and became a teacher. I work in New Mexico at a community college, and in the time I’ve taught, I’ve learned that illiteracy is a domestic issue, too. Many, many of my students don’t read. Some legitimately don’t know how. Some have learning disabilities, reading problems, and a lot don’t have the money or insurance to get any issues checked out. New Mexico is a poor state. A lot of students speak only Spanish at home, and many, especially if they moved here within their lifetimes, didn’t learn to properly read in Spanish. Now they’re being expected to read — and write — in English. Some students just don’t have the time, and some lack the courage. Many don’t see a reason; reading, they believe, has never helped them before.
My students who read almost always do better than the ones who don’t. Of course, I teach English, so that would make sense, but I’m still amazed at how reliable the correlation is between good writing and frequent reading. I can tell which students grew up reading books — even if they don’t anymore — and I can see that they are better communicators. I took over the college’s literary magazine last year, and at our annual reception, I could count on one hand the number of ethnic minorities in the audience. In a largely Hispanic town, the event was dominated by white people, because they are the ones who know about our magazine, submit to it, and read it. The problem is simultaneously no one’s fault and everyone’s.
Meanwhile, I do my best. When someone falls asleep in class, or admits to not having done the reading, or disrespects some piece of writing I fell in love with years ago, I don’t take it personally. Instead, I call on a student to read aloud. I make sure we read as a class every day. I give extra credit to students who submit to our litmag, and I spend hours contemplating writing prompts. Still, it’s hard to teach someone to love something if they don’t. I think that to want to read, you have to love books, at least a little. You have to know what reading has the capacity to do. You have to have seen for yourself where it can take you, what it can show you. So many people never have.
And it isn’t just my students. These are strange times, and today, living in a rich country doesn’t necessarily mean you read. In 2016, images speak louder than words — and usually do. Time is tight and must be budgeted carefully. Our media sources barrage us with too many words to process, and so we’ve become a society of skimmers.
Indeed, the reasons for illiteracy are more complex now than ever before, but one is that we don’t have the space for reading, or the silence that reading demands. We don’t fit it into our lesson plans, our evening routines, our Saturday mornings, because increasingly, we don’t see the point. It’s happening to me: I skim my emails along with my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and the books I’ve been meaning to read languish on the table beside me, ignored. And I am the one percent, the girl who grew up rich in books, who put in her 10,000 hours of reading by the time she was 18.
Now, though, she reads much less.
Last winter, I went home for Christmas. My mom dug boxes from the closet, and my brother and I pored over the things she’d saved from our childhoods: postcards from camp, Christmas lists, sloppy paintings. At the bottom of my box was a story I wrote when I was 10 or 11, a Christmas tale about a girl who sees a beggar in the street. She gives him her shoes, or something — I can’t quite remember the plot. What I recall is being struck by the quality of the punctuation, the spelling, the formatting. I had known as a young reader what many of my students, community college students, have yet to learn: how to spell “there” and “their,” how to use a comma properly, how to capitalize the first letter of a name. It’s the fault of many things: our poor state, our bad high schools, the challenges facing our bilingual population. It’s because we don’t read with our children, though that seems the beacon of hope, the kernel of change, for I’ve always heard that literacy begins at home.
This year, my resolution is simple: to drink profusely of the written word. I will pass along good books; I will write reviews; I will read excerpts in my classes with my students. I will work to cultivate in my community a love for reading. I will check my privilege, because I have something that many do not: I have access to worlds upon worlds. I will make the time to read, for those who read grow rich.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Here’s a thing you’ve probably never thought of before: the sheer weirdness of some of the Christmas rituals in many canonical children’s books. In The Irish Times, Rosita Boland catalogues a few of the stranger ones, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Christmas dinner in summer and Lucy’s gift of a dagger in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
“When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.” Lev Grossman writes for The Atlantic about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and why fantasy isn’t escapism. Pair with our own Edan Lepucki’s review of Grossman’s latest novel, The Magician’s Land.
Probably mine was the only Swedish-New Mexican family in the Canadian suburb where I grew up, the only house where the shelves were cluttered with Scandinavian gnomes and Hopi kachina dolls. We lived far from any relatives, and our nuclear family unit formed a country all our own, with a specific culture, language, and mores. My father was a professor and my mother had been a teacher, so our country’s currency was books. We liked nerd humor. Sometimes we spoke in fake German accents for no reason. We were odd.
I may have been the oddest. In a neighborhood dominated by youth soccer and hockey leagues, I was a delicate child who flinched at every revolution of the tether ball, with a vocabulary not so much precocious as inappropriate to the time and place. For a while, I decided it would be cool to have a signature oath, something I read in a book, so I took to exclaiming “Blood and bones!” whenever the occasion seemed to call for it. My best friend, who managed to be smart without geekiness, withstood this for exactly one day before sighing wearily, “Please stop that.”
But I couldn’t stop — as soon I dropped the oath, I’d come up with some other weird behavior. I was too used to taking my cues from books. When I read Heidi, for example, I felt an electric surge of recognition. Not because of her pious personality or love of nature, but because Heidi, gone to live with a rich family far from home, squirrels away white dinner rolls in her room to bring back to her grandfather, not realizing they’ll grow stale before she can return to him. The perplexed family opens her closet one day to discover a cache of old bread on the floor.
I was absolutely the kind of kid who would hide stale dinner rolls in her room.
Childhood, as I knew it, was rife with secrecy and weirdness, with actions that made sense to you but not anybody else. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Moomin.
Tove Jansson, who created Moomin, understood that secrecy and strangeness are endemic to childhood. She was born in Helsinki, the daughter of Swedish-speaking parents, a sculptor father and an illustrator mother. In the recently re-published Sculptor’s Daughter, a charmingly oddball collection of childhood memories, Jansson describes idyllic summers spent on an island in the Gulf of Finland while her parents made art and entertained a ragtag string of companions — a geologist; a woman who tried to decoratively re-tile their front steps, rendering them unusable; a monkey named Poppolino. The child Tove roamed around the island by herself, always independent, apparently never lonely. At one point, she took to following the geologist as he worked, unnerving his girlfriend, who turned around and yelled at the child to go home. Tove didn’t care, and kept following until she and the girlfriend had an argument: “I went a little closer and humiliated her by saying the most terrible thing of all: amateur! You’re an amateur! You’re not a real artist!”
To be a real artist was to Jansson the most important, the only, thing. As an adult, after art school, she drew political cartoons for a number of places, most notably the satirical, anti-fascist magazine Garm. In these cartoons, she sometimes drew little trolls in the margins or by her signature, creatures that evolved into a series of children’s characters called Moomins. The Moomintroll family featured first in a series of books, then in a comic strip that ran in newspapers; both were wildly popular. The books became bestsellers in Finland and the U.K., bringing Jansson — who spent much of her life living on a remote island with her companion the artist Tuulikki Pietilä — an income that didn’t deter her from continuing to work feverishly.
The Moomins remain especially popular in Finland, where it is a matter of national identity (some Finnair planes have Moomin characters painted on them) and in Japan (my brother just bought me some Moomin T-shirts at Uniqlo). In North America, though still popular, the Moomin books never attained quite the same reach. I’m sure that I was the only kid in my neighbourhood reading the books, and I still come across many people who’ve never heard of them at all.
Jansson would be 100 years old this year, and a flood of publications is coming forth to commemorate the anniversary. In addition to Sculptor’s Daughter, there is a breathlessly appreciative, slightly jumbled biography by Boel Westin. The Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly has been issuing the comic strip versions of Moomin in beautiful new editions, and New York Review Books has been republishing her acute, surprising, adult fiction. Jansson was far from forgotten, but the breadth of her achievement is now clearer than it has ever been before.
Moomin is called a troll, but he looks like a hippopotamus that can walk on its hind legs. He is pale, with no special powers or attributes. He lives in Moomin Valley with a family evidently modeled on Jansson’s own — creative, eccentric, welcoming to strangers. Moominpappa is kind but self-involved, forever preoccupied with writing his memoirs or a novel. Moominmamma is unflappably warm, always rustling up meals and producing snacks and tummy powder from her handbag. An assortment of creatures fills out the cast, some semi-realistic, others truly strange, like the Hattifatteners, mute, wordless white beings that look a bit like ambulatory mushrooms. Some of the characters have edgy qualities through which Jansson’s leftist leanings and wry sense of humor can be discerned. Moomin’s close friend Snufkin is an anti-establishment nomad who disdains all possessions except his pipe and hat. Hemulens are self-absorbed depressives, and even the male ones wear dresses. There is a philosopher muskrat who makes a study of unnecessary things.
The universe of Moomin is sometimes magical, with a hobgoblin hat that can change Moomin into an ugly version of himself, but it is also cozy, a paracosm where danger is slight and the next meal of pancakes is never far away. Yet despite the hominess, the key feature of the Moomin books is a thrumming note of melancholy. Wistfulness colors many of the scenes, as well as a sense of restlessness that undercuts the security of the family, the valley, the home. Moomin is often struck with sad-ish feelings that he can’t define. Finn Family Moomintroll captures a typical moment this way: “It was the end of August — the time when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden. Moomin Wood was full of glow-worms, and the sea was disturbed. There was expectation and a certain sadness in the air, and the harvest moon came up huge and yellow. Moomintroll had always liked those last weeks of summer most, but he didn’t really know why.”
Maybe it seems funny to praise a series of children’s books for their melancholy. But when I think about what drew me to Moomin, I’m sure it was this sense that even a lovely summer night can have a certain sadness in the air. Classic children’s books like Charlotte’s Web or Where the Red Fern Grows help acquaint children with the sorrows that exist in life. But the sadness in the Moomin universe is more a facet of temperament than event; the books presume that children are already familiar with it, and locate it within themselves.
We say the phrase “a happy childhood” as if it’s a given, as if we understand it to be the most desirable thing. But the richly varied experiences of childhood, even at their most positive, must be more complicated than happiness. Moomin is a reasonably happy character — he’s not hapless or neurotic, at least — but his emotions range across a complex moodscape where happiness, as a label, doesn’t necessarily apply. What Moomin feels is often inarticulated; not quite sadness or happiness, but rather childhood emotions and moods that are not categorized or perhaps even nameable by adult language. When he comes across a giant ruby stolen by two tiny mice-creatures and hidden in their suitcase (a combination of the criminal, the magical, and the ordinary that is typical of Jansson), it strikes him as both beautiful and fearsome; “crimson flames shot out of its heart and it seemed like a great black tulip with stamens of fire.” Moomin first wishes his friend Snufkin could see it. And then “he stood there a long, long time while time grew weary and his thoughts were very big.”
Time grew weary and his thoughts were very big. It is a large world to experience and Moomin, like many children, has neither the language nor the perception to understand it completely. Sometimes they don’t know why they like things, or why they don’t. Sometimes they are overwhelmed. The Moomin books acknowledge this state without disparaging it or explaining it away. It simply exists. In her 1961 essay, “The Deceitful Writer of Children’s Books,” Jansson wrote that “the immature reader is often spellbound by what is unspoken and disguised. This risky but meaningful undercurrent is not incompatible with the child’s own inaccessible sense of mystery, tenderness, and cruelty. And fear.” In Moomin, I didn’t stumble upon a strange new universe; I found an atmosphere that matched the strangeness I already felt inside.
Jansson, who lived to be 86, produced many non-Moomin stories, as well as paintings, drawings, and other artwork. She also wrote adult novels, the best of which are The Summer Book and The True Deceiver. Not coincidentally, the two books have a great deal in common — both center around a relationship between an older woman and a younger one that is intricate and anti-sentimental. And both are infused with landscape, an island in summer in one, a small town in winter in the other.
The Summer Book is, I think, a perfect novel. The plot is simple to nonexistent: a six-year-old girl named Sophia spends the summer with her grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland. They wander about the island, play games, and have occasional spats. We learn in almost casual asides that Sophia’s mother has recently died, and her father seems to spend most of his time sleeping. The girl and her grandmother have only each other, but there is nothing saccharine about their bond. Amid the quiet descriptions of nature are conversations that hint at philosophical, religious, and emotional truths. At one point they get into an argument about Heaven, genuinely furious with another. In another scene, Sophia wants to play a game in which she calls the grandmother Mama and grandmother calls her Dear Child; the grandmother changes the subject. As Kathryn Davis points out in her introduction to the NYRB edition, Jansson wrote the novel in 1972, at the age of 60, a year after her own beloved mother had died, so she seems to have placed herself in the positions of both older woman and bereft child, each facing death in her own way. That The Summer Book feels simultaneously idyllic and sad — that it has moments of earthy humor (the grandmother teaches Sophia a song about cow shit) renders it very much a piece with the Moomin books.
The female dyad in The True Deceiver is darker and weirder. In a remote, wintry village, a reclusive children’s book artist, Anna, takes in — or is taken in by — a wolvish younger woman named Kati. As with The Summer Book, both women seem to have sprung from Jansson’s life — the older one burdened by her need to respond to her public; the younger woman wild, determined and willful — as if she had sprinkled herself across the pages. The relationship is taut and tension-filled. As you read, it’s almost impossible to get a handle on either character, to know where you stand with them or where they stand with each other, and the result is both infuriating and fascinating. It’s a mystery novel with no corpse or detective, only a palpable, unsettling feeling of criminality. It examines the prices of solitude and community without landing squarely in favor of one or the other. The two women, both outsiders, grow fiercely bound together and, like Moomin, they may not even know why.
Jansson was an artist and a businesswoman, an idealist and a pragmatist. She initially proposed to a man before making her life with a woman. She felt trapped by the success of the Moomin stories at times, but was too practical to walk away from it. She was able to take whatever strangeness she found in her own life and parlay it into stories, endlessly.
Reading is a tactile experience and never more so than in childhood, as our first encounters with covers and spines and illustrations are imprinted on our minds. My own childhood memories of beloved characters are inextricably tied to specific editions of books; Anne Shirley and Bilbo Baggins will forever look as they did the first time I saw them on a jacket. Jansson controlled the way we’d think of Moomins by including her own illustrations from the start, even in the text-dominated stories. She always knew how a Moomin should look, a Snufkin or a Haffenratter. Her strong visual aesthetic and droll humor were also perfectly suited to the rhythm of comic strip panels. They ran for years in a Swedish newspaper to which my father subscribed; he cut them out, translated them, and pasted them into a binder to me, forming my very own Moomin book, which to this day is probably my favorite gift ever.
These comic strip versions of Moomin are the ones currently being reissued by Drawn and Quarterly Books, a Canadian publisher. Of these, my favorite is called Moomin Builds a House. (It’s about Moomin building a house. Jansson liked directness in titles.) As a host of visitors descends upon his home, Moomin decides to build a sort of cottage out in the woods as an escape. One of the visitors to it is a tiny, obnoxious girl named Little My who plays Lucy to Moomin’s Charlie Brown. She torments him constantly, though in the end, the Moomin universe being what it is, she also helps him out.
Moomin’s house turns out rickety, slanted, hopelessly askew. I wanted one just like it. Inspired, I asked my dad, who was going out to run errands, to bring back a bunch of planks from the hardware store (I guess I meant 2 x 4s? I had no idea what I was talking about) so I could build my own house in our back yard. I was pretty sure I could do it — how hard could it be to nail some planks together into a house? If Moomin could make it happen, so could I.
“Okay,” he said absentmindedly. The planks did not materialize.
So another plan was foiled, just as it had been when I cut up some of my mother’s clothes to make myself a dress with puffed sleeves (see: Anne of Green Gables) and got in trouble. I never made a house. Instead, I used a series of available neighborhood hiding spots. There was a large bush in front of some townhouses down the street that I liked to crawl under. In retrospect, I wonder what the neighbors thought, seeing me dive into their landscaping, but it was Canada, and everybody was too nice to say anything. I sometimes hung out next to some giant boulders in the park across the street. My world was the suburbs, not the Finnish archipelago, and I can’t say it held the same loveliness as Jansson’s own childhood. But I worked with what I had.
I needed the bush and the boulders for the same reason Moomin needed a house: to have a place of my own, to meander inside my own head and see what I could find there. Moomin likes his home, his parents, and his friends, but he sometimes leaves them behind, because “a discovery (next to Mysterious Paths, Bathing and Secrets) was what he liked most of all.” Like the children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Secret Garden and many other books, Moomin’s adventures often begin with a secret place — a cave; a spot by a stream; the house he builds — that only he knows about, a knowledge that feels powerful to him, though he usually winds up sharing it with the rest of the community in the end.
The secret places in children’s books don’t just make children feel special; they make them feel recognized as people, layered and large and complex enough to hold something hidden inside. Perhaps, too, they represent a part of the self that is drawn to strangeness and ambiguity, to unnameable emotions and unrealistic goals, but can be lost as we grow to understand the world better; a part we forget when we have to grow up.
In Comet in Moominland — another direct title — a cave discovered by Moomin and his friends saves his family from what seems like imminent apocalypse. As the seas dry up and creatures flee the valley and a comet nears the earth, the Moomins and their friends hunker down inside it: “They thought everything had been burnt up or smashed to atoms when the comet came down, and that their cave was the only thing left in the world.” What I love is that even once the comet passes, they don’t rush to leave the cave to see what has happened outside. Instead, they stay there together, listening to the silence, not at all worried by the things they don’t yet know.