The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972)

When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind. Papa worked at his desk. The nets were set out and taken in. They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace. (p.41)

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is famous for writing the Moomin comic strips, picture books and stories which are still phenomenally popular 70 years after the first book was published (1945), and have been turned into cartoons, animations, TV series, movies, plays and even an opera, as well as a world of merchandise.

The last Moomin book is the sad and melancholy Moominvalley in November, published in 1970. It’s around this time that she made the transition to writing fiction for adults. The semi-autobiographical Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir came out in 1968 (her father and mother were both artists). But her big breakthrough came with The Summer Book, published in 1972, which has come to be regarded as a classic across Scandinavia.

The Summer Book

It’s short, at just 150 pages of text. It’s divided into 22 ‘chapters’ or sections i.e. the average length is just under seven pages.

The shortest is Moonlight at just two pages. Little Sophia wakes in the middle of the night to see the fire in the stove reflected several times in the windows. She tugs her Grandmother’s plait and Grandmother wakes up and reassures her that all is well. Slowly little Sophia drifts off to sleep again. Her father gets up and puts more wood in the stove.

As this chapter/story/anecdote suggests, the tales are all set on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland (very like the ones Jansson spent her childhood on and, specifically, like the one where she built a cabin and lived with her partner for most of adult life).

They focus on the relationship between an unnamed Grandmother and little Sophia. Grandmother is 85 (p.108). Her husband is long dead and referred to only once. The only other member of the household is Sophia’s father – Papa – who occasionally appears but never speaks. He is in his room writing, tending the house, fixing things around the island or – in the one story he dominates, The Enormous Plastic Sausage – buying loads of bulbs and saplings to plant across the island.

We learn that Sophia’s mother is dead (p.25), not least in the story where they make a little model ‘Venice’ out of stones and twigs on a mossy bog near the house and Sophia imagines her mother living inside a splendid palace on the Grand Canal.

The family has lived on the island for 47 years (p.101). They know every inch, they know the impact of the seasons, they know the feel of all the winds and every type of sunrise or storm.

It’s not really a novel. Certainly the same characters recur in every ‘chapter’ but there is no continuous narrative and no attempt to explore the ‘development’ of character, two attributes of your traditional novel.

It’s more like a collection of epiphanies or insights, what reading the American Beat writers taught me to think of as moments of satori, a Buddhist term for enlightenment.

The cat

Their point is their apparent inconsequentiality, an elliptical quality which is, nonetheless, charged with meaning. In The Cat Sophia is given a fisherman’s kitten which quickly grows out of being fluffy and cuddly and turns into a lean killer. Sophia grows to hate the way it brings bird corpses into the house. She shouts at it but the indifferent cat stalks out to do more hunting. Neighbours arrive by boat with a fluffy cat which they thought would catch mice but doesn’t, so they agree to swap fluffy for Sophia’s killer. Sure enough fluffy is lovely and cuddly and docile to stroke, and snuggles on Sophia’s pillow at night. After a few days she wants her killer cat back.

What you make of that, what conclusions you draw about human nature, about love, about the relationship between humans and animals or their pets – well, it’s all entirely up to you.

Unsentimental

So the anecdotes are not sentimental, they are not ‘nice’. The blurb around the book suggests it’s about one summer when a grandmother and her grand-daughter grow close but that’s very misleading. Grandmother is not a nice old lady. She smokes (though she’s struggling to cut down), fumbles with her false teeth, feels dizzy, and needs regular rests – an accurate depiction of old age.

The old woman stood up too quickly. Her walking stick rolled down into the pool, and the whole rock became an uncertain, hostile surface, arching and twisting in front of her. (p.64)

And, strikingly, she’s not even that fond of the child.

‘Bloody nitwit,’ Grandmother muttered to herself. (p.63)

Quite regularly she just wants to get away from the needy, whining, little girl to have a nap or be by herself. She gets angry. She has another crafty fag. She swears.

‘The fishing’s bloody awful,’ Grandmother said. (p.62)

She creeps off into the little pine forest by herself or lies on the moss watching the leaves or looks down at the tadpoles in a pool. She is very ungrandmotherly. She is, in other words, entirely human and wonderful.

Sophia is persistent but capricious. She’s probably what middle-class English mums I know would call rude. Certainly blunt.

‘When are you going to die?’ the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, ‘Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.’
‘Why?’ her grandchild asked.
She didn’t answer. She walked out on the rock and on towards the ravine. (p.22)

Their lack of English good manners and hesitancy are a big part of the appeal. Quite routinely, they get pettish, fretsome and plain angry – very angry – with each other.

Both of them tend to obsess about little things and then forget them and walk away. Jannson magically conveys the strange, intense but shallow passions of childhood. ‘Oh well, it’s broken, let’s play a different game now.’

Many of these involve making and creating. Grandmother is always carving shapes out of driftwood or building a little Venetian palace out of balsa wood and she inspires her grand-daughter to follow suit.

Satori is a term from Zen Buddhism and the stories’ elliptical quality keeps prompting comparison with haikus or Chinese painting, with traditions of art which are a) set in an unspoilt natural world b) spare and minimal in style, with the minimum amount of brushstrokes or description c) hint and suggest some deeper meaning or purpose but are never vulgar enough to spell it out.

Nature notes

Sophia and Grandmother’s little adventures play out against the massive unchanging landscape of this isolated Nordic island and, like a painting, between the moving human figures, you see all kinds of glimpses of the natural world – the trees, the rocks, the moss, the lichens, the seaweed and driftwood, sometimes described plainly and factually, sometimes charged with Jansson’s special tone, a kind of matter-of-fact marvelling, or a matter-of-fact prose style in which the marvelling is implicit, immanent.

It’s a funny thing about bogs. You can fill them with rocks and sand and old logs and make a little fenced-in yard on top with a woodpile and a chopping block – but bogs go right on behaving like bogs. Early in the spring they breathe ice and make their own mist, in remembrance of the time when they had black water and their own sedge blossoming untouched. (p.32)

The poetry is in the simple knowledgeability which, because it is conveyed in such spare prose, reads like wisdom.

Moss is terribly frail. Step on it once and it rises the next time it rains. The second time, it doesn’t rise back up. And the third time you step on it, it dies. Eider ducks are the same – the third time you frighten them up from their nests, they never come back. (p.29)

Since most of us live in towns and cities and spend all our work time and most of our leisure staring at screens (as you are right now), anyone with real in-depth knowledge of the natural world now appears to us like a shaman from a distant tribe, bearing wisdom most of us have long lost. So there’s a basic nature nostalgia running through the book. This was, after all, 1972, 45 years ago. We’ve destroyed a lot of the natural world since then. Anyone who comes with reports of the world beyond our air-conditioned offices is treated like a messenger from exotic worlds.

She heard the cry of the long-tailed ducks. They are called scolders, because their cry is a steady, chiding chatter, farther and farther away, farther and farther out. People rarely see them. They are as secretive as corncrakes. But a corncrake hides in a meadow all alone, while the long-tails are out beyond the farthest islands in enormous wedding flocks, singing all through the spring night. (p. 33)

Some of the decorating and arts and crafts playing with bits and bobs from the natural world morph seamlessly from childreny crafts into the beginnings of pagan ritual.

Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk, and listen to the movements of the birds in the thicket. (p.31)

And some of the stories reference Nordic traditions which are novel to us Anglo-Saxons, like the big celebrations on Midsummer’s Eve which, however, are treated to Jansson’s anti-romantic, dis-illusioned approach. The Midsummer Eve described in Midsummer is a total washout, with torrential rain preventing almost any fires being lit, and all but one of the fireworks bought for the occasion being too wet to light.

Setting the tone

All these elements are very well announced in the opening paragraphs of the first story, which set the natural scene, the irritating inquisitiveness of the little girl and the short-tempered character of Grandmother.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Sophia.
‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’ (p.21)

Anthony Burgess suggested that all novels should be read twice, once to find out what happens, and once to see how it was done. But this is a book to read multiple times, in order to savour the sharp tang of the dry, astringent prose, and to let the brisk unsentimental depiction of people and the natural world sink really deep into your soul.


Credit

Sommarboken by Tove Jansson was published in Finland in 1972. This translation by Thomas Teal was published by Random House in 1974. Page references are to the Sort of Books paperback edition published in 2003.

Related links

Tove Jansson’s books for adults

Novels

The Summer Book (1972)
Sun City (1974)
The True Deceiver (1982)
The Field of Stones (1984)
Fair Play (1989)

Short story collections

Sculptor’s Daughter (1968)
The Listener (1971)
Art in Nature (1978)
Travelling Light (1987)
Letters from Klara and Other Stories (1991)
A Winter Book (1998)

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