The #1954Club: Moominsummer Madness and Under Milk Wood

A year club hosted by Karen and Simon is always a great excuse to read more classics. The play’s the thing for this installment of the 1954 Club: Tove Jansson’s delightfully odd creatures end up in a floating theatre and rise to the occasion, and I’ve finally read Dylan Thomas’s famous play for voices. I’ll try to manage another couple of write-ups this weekend, too. (Both: University library; )

 

Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson

[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Warburton]

One never knows what magic or mischief will bubble up at Midsummer. For Moomintroll’s family, it all starts with the eruption of a volcano, which leads to a flood. Moominmamma does her best to uphold comforting routines in their inundated home, but eventually they leave it for a better-appointed house that floats by. One with thick velvet curtains, doors to nowhere, and cupboards full of dresses. I wearied ever so slightly of the dramatic irony that this is clearly a theatre but the characters don’t know what one is and have to be enlightened by Emma the stage rat. Meanwhile, Snufkin becomes accidental father to two dozen “woodies” and Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden are arrested for burning officious signs.

The teasing commentary on the pretensions of the theatre is sweet: Moominpappa decides to write a tragic play with a lion in; Emma tells him it simply must be in blank verse, so he obliges, but no one in the audience can understand a word until the actors speak normally. As usual with Jansson, there is separation and longing, disaster mitigated, disorientation navigated with pluck or resignation. While I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of her others, I appreciated the focus this time on bending the rules of how things must be done. My favourite quotes were about the overwhelming nature of choice and the value of a good cry:

(The Snork Maiden on the dresses in the costume closet) “They were far too many, don’t you see. I couldn’t ever have had them all or even choose the prettiest. They nearly made me afraid! If there’d been only two instead!”

(Misabel) “I’m taking the chance to have a cry over a lot of things now when there’s a good reason.”

 

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

I discovered A Child’s Christmas in Wales just last year and delighted in the language and the flights of fancy. Under Milk Wood is a short play completed just a month before Thomas’s death at the age of 39. It features a chorus of voices as the inhabitants of Llaregyb, a made-up coastal Welsh town, journey from one night through to the next. Gossipy neighbours, bickering spouses, flirtatious lovers; a preacher, a retired sea captain, fishermen; and much more. Some of the character names are jokes in and of themselves, like “Nogood Boyo” and “Willy Nilly,” and others sound so silly they might as well be rhyming slang.

The dead feel as vibrant as the living. The musicality of the prose sometimes made me feel I was reading poetry instead (indeed, a number of songs and rhymes are performed), and there is a bawdy charm to the whole thing. What might be stage directions in another play are read aloud here by “First Voice” and “Second Voice,” who trade off narration.

Maybe it was too much to hope that there could have been a plot somewhere in there as well? No matter. I could see how Thomas influenced the likes of Max Porter and George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo, anyway). I’m sorry I missed the chance to see this performed locally last month.

A favourite passage:

“It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”


(I’ve also participated in the 1920 Club, 1956 Club, 1936 Club, and 1976 Club.)

33 responses

  1. So glad you covered these two as nobody else has so far and they’re both wonderful. I tend to agree with you about this particular Moomin instalment – I don’t think I loved it quite as much as the others. As for the Thomas, I often find I get on better listening to him rather than reading him. I don’t know that there’s meant to be much plot there – just a day in the life of a Welsh Village!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think it would be really special to hear it or see it performed. There were points where I wondered how the staging would work. I’m sorry I missed out on that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There was a brilliant BBC tv production of the.Thomas a couple of years ago with quite a few stellar Welsh actors involved, speaking directly to camera. If it’s ever back up on iPlayer it’s very worth catching: we watched it twice and wouldn’t mind doing so again.

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  2. Thomas is wonderful when heard – A Child’s Christmas in Wales was adapted into a short TV movie starring Denholm Elliot (I’ve probably waxed lyrical about it before) and the words are so beautiful, especially delivered in Elliot’s sonorous Welsh-tinged baritone. Under Milk Wood is one I’ve never read, but I like the goofy character names, and that description of the sea reminds me of one in A Child’s Christmas (“the many-tongued, carol-singing sea”).

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    1. I wonder if actors try out dodgy Welsh accents when they perform Under Milk Wood! It was just 86 pages in my edition, so a very quick read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They do and always make a mess of it. The best version is the recording Richard Burton did for BBC radio in 1954. I think you can still get that in CD form. By the way, the village is called Llareggub in Thomas’ preferred version (read it backwards to find one of his little jokes). Llaregyb was used in some early printed versions but Thomas hated it.

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      2. Ha ha, now I get the joke! I spelled it as it was printed in the Aldine paperback edition. I’d love to hear that recording.

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  3. I tried to get Mooninsummer Madness from the library for this event, and usually that doesn’t take long, especially when you’re first in line to get a book, but apparently someone hasn’t returned the book to the library, because I’ve been waiting for two months! I suspect it is just gone.

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    1. Oops, I meant Moominsummer.

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    2. That’s a shame. I hope you get a chance to read it. Have you read the other Moomin books? They are so charming in an offbeat, slightly melancholy way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, this was going to be my first one. Maybe it’ll show up eventually.

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      2. I only encountered them when I moved to the UK. They’re very beloved here.

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  4. Every Moomin book I’ve read so far has been different, unexpected and sooo very wistful – this one was no different but I did like your characterisation of it. Didn’t the lion reference remind you of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’? It did me! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt sure there was some mockery of Shakespearean tragedy in there. It would make sense for Midsummer Night’s Dream to be a point of reference as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love Under Milk Wood. You should search for a clip of Richard Burton doing it.

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    1. A second vote for the Burton version!

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  6. I enjoyed reading Moominsummer Madness this week but found I just did not have anything to say about it. It was quietly amusing, that’s all I can contribute. I’ve heard so much about Under Milk Wood, but still never read it. I think to hear a really wonderful production would surely be the best way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Quietly amusing is a good description. I’ve found more depth in others from the Moomins series. I agree a stage production or recording would be a better way to encounter Under Milk Wood.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I was worried nobody would cover the Jansson, so thank you for doing so! I adore her adult writing but have only read one of her Moomin books – must rectify.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t grow up with the Moomins, but have read five of the books so far as an adult. Moominland Midwinter was probably my favourite thus far.

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  8. Well done on getting these included in the Club – I only managed one but I was pleased to do that. I love UMW but unlike seemingly the whole rest of the UK I have a lifelong fear of the Moomins and haven’t read any of the books!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Is it because they look like hippos and have no mouths?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Argh – I never even noticed they had no mouths!! I think they’re blobby and sort of unformed and a bit ghosty and that did for me at an early age!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. […] quick follow-up to Friday’s post with one more read from 1954, plus a skim. The one is a series of comic portraits set on a […]

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  10. […] Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas […]

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  11. I can highly recommend listeing to Richard Burton’s narration of this play. He brings it to life. Free versions exist online.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Several recommendations for the Burton audio version now! I will definitely have to seek it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Marianne Maurer | Reply

    It’s interesting. Not only did I pick Under Milk Wood for this challenge, I also read Moominsummer Madness last year with my book club. I must admit though, they were both not to my liking. I didn’t expect all too much from the latter but was disappointed with the former as I really wanted to like it but just couldn’t get into it. I’m glad you did, though,and explained to me why people like it. So, thanks for that.

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    1. For something so beloved, I was expecting more plot and heft! But I still enjoyed the voices a lot.

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      1. Marianne Maurer

        I think that was part of the problem, I expected too much and couldn’t really get into the separate voices.

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  13. […] voice and use of language, which chimes with what Thomas was known for (see my recent review of Under Milk Wood) and clarifies what the judges are looking […]

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  14. I also read Under Milk Wood for the 1954 book club, and really loved it. I think the absence of plot is very deliberate – it’s like a masque, or the lightest and sexiest of pastorals. I also thought of Lincoln in the Bardo, which I read a couple of years ago (and really liked – I found it was quite a polarising read though, comparing notes with friends).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My experience with plays is minimal. I can probably count on two hands the number I’ve read since my Shakespeare course in undergrad! So I’m sure I’m not best placed to appreciate the range of approaches.

      Lincoln in the Bardo is such a joyous, raucous read that I couldn’t see how anyone could dislike it — but I did find some such people!

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