Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

The Summer Book Jansson captures not only a season but life itself with this short novel of a grandmother and her granddaughter summering on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The freshness of spring turns to the muggy veil of summer, and when August comes, our feelings of ending and loss are those we experience every year in this month.

Grandmother remains unnamed, perhaps to preserve that essential privacy that she explains to her friend Verner must always be reserved. But her granddaughter Sophia is six years old. Sophia’s mother has recently died, and her loss is little mentioned but much felt in a handful of remarks made by each throughout the time they spend together. How can an aging grandmother who is often aware of her diminished physical and mental capabilities relate to a six-year-old? About as well as a six-year-old can relate to a sixty-year-old…with difficulty, but with synergistic results. Life is a struggle no matter what creature we are, and we can’t always control the things that will affect us. But we can do the best we can and allow God to handle the rest. “The thing about God, she thought, is that He usually does help, but not until you’ve made an effort on your own.”

I have not read Jansson’s series of books for children yet, called the Moomin books, but they are described in NYRB’s introduction by Kathryn Davis thus: “the Moomin books—pictures in which creatures of cartoonlike simplicity comport themselves in a painstakingly detailed natural world…” Jansson describes the island habitat of The Summer Book with Zen-like clarity:
She saw the conical depression in the sand at the foot of the blade of grass and the wisp of seaweed that had twined around the stem. Right next to it lay a piece of bark. If you looked at it for a long time it grew and became a very ancient mountain. The upper side had craters and excavations that looked like whirlpools. The scrap of bark was beautiful and dramatic. It rested above its shadow on a single point of contact, and the grains of sand were coarse, clean, almost gray in the morning light, and the sky was completely clear, as was the sea.”

The characters in this book for adults, however, are not “cartoonlike in their simplicity.” They are rich with feelings of anger, spitefulness, tiredness, boredom, as well as joy, happiness, pleasure, and love. The grandmother can be crotchety to the point of sharpness, and little Sophia surprises us with adult words and emotions newly learned. But the two feed each other’s imaginations: they create a sea-side Venice, furnish a magic forest, and set off in journeys of discovery. Together they create a world neither would give away for any other.

A friend has shared a website on Tove Jansson with essential facts and pictures. She was Finnish, born in 1914 and died in 2001. She was born into a warm, open-hearted home in which both parents were artists and storytelling was prized. She became a painter and writer. In another blogpost, we get pictures of Tove Jansson’s mother with Tove’s niece, Sophia, and the picture makes the entire book come clear. This is a wonderfully atmospheric story that will allow you to experience summer at any time of the year.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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