Tove Jansson: The Summer Book
Sommarboken (1972) translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (1974)
Foreword by Esther Freud
Sort Of Books 2003
This is just the most perfect book; so perfect that I can scarcely bear to discuss it for fear of spoiling it. But I shall try; if at times I appear to be threading my way lightly round and through it, it’s because I fear my clumsy tread will destroy its sublime delicacy.
The Summer Book (Sommarboken in the original Swedish) is a lightly fictionalised account of a couple or so summers spent by Tove Jansson’s mother and six-year-old niece on a small island in the Gulf of Finland (that’s the stretch of water leading towards St Petersburg). Nothing much appears to happen and yet it’s so detailed you live every vicarious moment of every incident. Though Sophia’s father is occasionally in the background this is essentially a portrait of a grandmother and granddaughter’s relationship.
They squabble, they play games; they have deep philosophical discussions and have adventures. They explore theirs and other islands, they weather storms, interact with neighbours and range widely through the terrain of their imaginations. Short chapters with captivating titles — ‘Playing Venice’, ‘The Magic Forest’, ‘The Enormous Plastic Sausage’ or ‘The Crooks’, for instance — are so exquisite that a sensitive reader can only read one or at most two at a time, the better to savour and appreciate and ruminate on them. Little happens, but what does assumes great significance.
Running through it all is the sacred bond and unspoken love between grandchild and grandparent, one embarking on life, the other close to departing it; and yet there is nothing mawkish or melancholy about the to-and-fro between the pair of them, just the reality of an eternal present. Representatives of a wonderfully creative bohemian family, Signe and Sophia are the epitome of vivacity even when appearing to do nothing, simply because of the insights we get into their lively imaginations.
In actual life Signe had died aged 88 in 1970, and The Summer Book is both a portrait of and a memorial to Tove’s mother in the final years of her life. Despite creaking bones, perpetual tiredness and occasional irritability Signe’s brain retains a youthfulness that in part comes from interaction with a curious six-year-old, a child who swears, cries and imparts nuggets of wisdom in equal parts.
I’ve focused on a relationship but we mustn’t forget the eternal draw of the island, a microcosm of the world we live in, both isolating and insulating, where we can go to both lose and find ourselves. The minute observations of nature, of the changes in the season, of the constant adaptations required to survive in an island situation are all brought out with subtlety and sensitivity.
Esther Freud’s foreword (to be also read as an afterword, I would suggest) beautifully echoes the allure of this book: when she declares that she would need “a whole summer to discover everything there is to do” on the island she could also be suggesting that we’d need multiple re-readings — and then some — to discover all that this book has to offer.
But then, that’s the joy of perfection.
A post on the fine I read that in a book blog strongly recommended this novel to me; and Jake’s illustrated review on his brilliant Tygertale blog confirms my respect for it. I equally enjoyed Jansson’s Art in Nature, a collection of short stories translated by Thomas Teal who was also responsible for putting this novel into readable English.
In the 2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge this is a book by someone from another country (in this case, Finland).