A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.
It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.
Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.
It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. Drawn by the memory of happy summers, disparate characters arrive at the Moomin family home to find companionship and comfort this November. But the Moomins are nowhere to be found, and their house resounds with the emptiness and loss of that warm, congenial family. Instead of what each ailing character hoped to find, the Moomins, they find each other:
Shy Toft, the anxious and obsessive-compulsive Fillyjonk, depressed Hemeulen whose greatest joy is to order and organize people, Snufkin the vagrant, Grandpa-Grumble (whose name says it all), and the tiny and scornful Mymble.
Their oddities – Toft’s reclusiveness, Fillyjonk’s relentless cleaning and fretting – rub up against each other, and each wishes for sole possession of the house and its memories. Instead, the new housemates learn what it is like to live in a community with those you wouldn’t choose to live with, how to be kind, how to fight, how to concede. On the back of the back of the book, a review sums it up: “Although none of the six is a sociable creature, they more or less put up with each other, and, perhaps recalling the warmth of the family, they eventually learn how pleasant communal life can be.”
The novel is not didactic. Jansson’s writing is, as always, careful and fluid. I never know what the characters will think, do, or say next.
We are now about to enter into the season of Advent, the time of preparation, of hope despite the darkness, of the struggle for warmth despite the cold. I hope you keep warm.