Monday, January 31, 2011

The Summer Book

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles.

I enjoyed Tove Jansson's novel The Summer Book very much and flipping it through it just now to prepare to write this post, I realized how much I would like to read it again. It's a book that works quietly, and I think it's easy to miss some of its effects on a first read. On a basic level the book is about a young girl Sophia and her grandmother, who live, along with Sophia's father, on an isolated island in Finland. The fact that I noticed but didn't ponder enough during the first reading is that Sophia's mother has recently died. This is obviously hugely important, but the book is so quiet about it:

One time in April there was a full moon, and the sea was covered with ice. Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead. The fire was still burning in the stove, and the flames flickered on the ceiling, where the boots were hung up to dry.

And that's about all the book has to say on the subject, at least directly. But the signs of the mother's death are everywhere. One of the first things Sophia says to her grandmother is "When are you going to die?" The grandmother says, "Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours." Except that it is, because the grandmother is the most important figure in Sophia's life. Her father lives with them doing some kind of work -- the introduction to the book tells me it's sculpture although I didn't figure this out on my own -- but he's not much of a presence. A little later Sophia finds a skull, and she and her grandmother hang on to it until at the end of the day, they place it in the forest where the evening light catches it. Suddenly, Sophia starts screaming. There's no explanation about why she does this, but something about the skull must finally have spoken to her about death.

The whole book works in this understated way. There are beautiful descriptions of the island and the ocean, but we learn about the characters almost solely through their words and actions. Sophia and her grandmother spend much of their days playing, and they take this very seriously. With Sophia, this is what one would expect, but the grandmother is just as serious. In one chapter, the grandmother starts carving animals out of driftwood, and Sophia is curious:

"What is it you're doing?" Sophia asked.

"I'm playing," Grandmother said.

Sophia crawled into the magic forest and saw everything her grandmother had done.

"Is it an exhibit?" she asked.

But Grandmother said it had nothing to do with sculpture, sculpture was another thing completely. They started gather bones together along the shore.

Later in the book Sophia and her grandmother explore a nearby island where someone has built a new house and posted a "No Trespassing" sign, an act the grandmother believes is rude and ill-bred. So the two of them trespass and end up getting caught: they flee into the woods behind the house but the owner's dog finds them, and they are forced to show themselves. Fortunately for them, the owner never asks what they were doing there; instead they all behave as though nothing had happened.

It's an odd scene, but the whole book is like that: it's as though the family lives in another world entirely where things are slightly different than they are in this one. It's not a fantasy world, though. The grandmother is aging and has trouble moving about, Sophia is sometimes bored and lonely, occasionally flying into rages, and the father seems the loneliest and most isolated of them all. When other people enter their world, it rarely goes well. Sophia invites a friend, Berenice, to visit the island, but she hates it there, and nobody is sorry when she leaves.

Nature becomes a character in its own right; the descriptions of landscape and plant life are beautiful, but nature can be threatening as well as scenic. There are swarming insects, dangerous gullies, droughts, and storms. One of the most dramatic chapters tells of the family getting stuck away from home during one of the worst storms anyone can remember. Sophia learns about her place in the world: she had asked for a storm and was pleased to have gotten it, until she realizes that people might die. Her grandmother tells her it's not her fault, but she doesn't do it in a reassuring way:

"God and you," Grandmother repeated angrily. "Why should He listen to you, especially, when maybe ten other people prayed for nice weather? And they did, you can count on that."

"But I prayed first," Sophia said. "And you can see for yourself they didn't get nice weather!"

"God," Grandmother said. "God has so much to do, He doesn't have time to listen ..."

It's this relationship I loved best about the book: Sophia and her grandmother obviously love each other, but in a way that is honest, real, and sometimes difficult. The grandmother never talks down to or patronizes Sophia, and Sophia uses her relationship with her grandmother to try to understand what has happened to her and to figure out her place in the world. This relationship and the sharp, clear, direct style of Jansson's writing make the book memorable.

Timeless Summer

I had high hopes that Tove Jansson's The Summer Book (translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal) would melt the snow around my house and cause the flowers to bloom, or at the very least make me imagine I felt warm. But I read it during the coldest week of the year and when one is waiting for the train in -15F (-26C) with windchill making it feel like -30F (-34C), well, it's probably asking a bit much from a book to give the illusion of warmth. Even though I was not warmed, I still enjoyed the book very much.

The book takes place in summer on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. On the island during the summer lives a young girl, Sophia, her father and her grandmother. When the book begins, Sophia's mother has recently died. According to the introduction, Sophia is six. Each chapter is a slice of life, a day, maybe two, sometimes only an afternoon. There is no sense of time passing and I get the feeling that even though it seems like it is only one summer, the stories take place across many summers but with no chronology except that this happened "one May" or "in July." This gives the book a sort of timelessness and recalled to me when I was a kid and school was out for the summer how it seemed like it was going to last forever.

Sophia's father is pretty much a non-presence in the book. All he does is sit at a table and work. Sometimes he fishes. The book really belongs to Sophia and Grandmother, a young girl and an old woman with heart problems. Of the two, however, Grandmother was the star, at least she was for me. Playing, reading, napping, teaching Sophia about life, Grandmother took almost everything in stride.

There were two chapters of the book that I really loved. The first is the chapter called "The Tent." We learn that Grandmother was a Scout leader in her youth and thanks to her, girls were allowed to become Scouts and go camping and sleep in tents. They've set up a tent not far from the house so Sophia can sleep in one for the first time. Sophia naturally wants to know what being a Scout leader was like and Grandmother only gives her short, non-descriptive answers and thinks:

That's strange, Grandmother thought. I can't describe things any more. I can't find the words, or maybe it's just that I'm not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it's as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it's lost.

Sophia sleeps alone in the tent but gets scared and keeps bothering Grandmother who gets upset. But we find out Grandmother is upset not about Sophia but because she can no longer remember what it is like to sleep in a tent and feels "everything's gliding away." Poor Grandmother, just as Sophia is having new experiences the memory of her own is disappearing.

The other chapter I loved is "The Visitor." The visitor is Verner, an elderly man who would occasionally stop by and bring a bottle of sherry. The chapter is essentially about how when people get old their families start treating them like children, telling them what to do instead of asking. Neither Verner nor Grandmother are happy about this and they encourage each other to not give in or give up outwitting people.

There are so many more delightful moments in this book. It seems like an easy, peaceful read but scratch the surface and there suddenly is more going on than meets the eye.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Thoughts on The Summer Book--and Cowpats

(cross-posted here)

I had never heard of The Summer Book--or of its author, who turns out to be best known for her children's series, the Moomin stories--before its nomination here, so I was refreshingly free of preconceptions when I started it. Yet, somehow, it still managed to surprise me! I guess the whole idea of a book about a little girl spending summers on an island with her grandmother raised subconscious expectations that it would be precious or sentimental, or (worse) both. It is neither. Instead, it is tart and precise, occasionally very funny, and at moments unexpectedly moving. When I finished it, I had the (perhaps uncharitable) thought that if an American novelist had written it, it would have insisted too hard on an uplifting story line: the grandmother's illness (treated only elliptically here) would have been more conspicuous, the quarrel with Sophia would have been harsher and more destructive, and then the end would have been a reconciliation scene putting out flowery tendrils towards nostalgia and some kind of feel-good lesson. Also, it would not have had a chapter called "The Enormous Plastic Sausage." But of course this is only speculation. Perhaps there is an American novelist who could be as ironically restrained as Jansson, even on a subject like summer.

I realized it wasn't going to be a cloying sort of book right at the beginning:

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 little Sophia.

'Nothing,' her grandmother answered. 'That is to say,' she added angrily, 'I'm looking for my false teeth.'

Gotcha! All that wonderfully tactile description, and the delicate placing of the grandmother and little Sophia in amongst it, and then false teeth! And when they find them, she puts them right back in, "with a smacking noise. They went in very easily," we're told. "It had really hardly been worth mentioning." But aren't you glad it was mentioned?

That little opening sequence sets us up well for what follows, which is a series of episodic reminsicences, each focusing on a particular moment, or theme, or problem, and each revealing (almost accidentally, it sometimes seems) some facet of the relationship between Sophia and her grandmother and their island. It's not a book that really lends itself to deep analysis or broad thematic generalizations. Instead, it's a book to be savored for the moments it gives you. One of my favorite chapters was "Playing Venice," which (as I understood it, at least) tells us indirectly where Sophia's mother has disappeared to (she's never in the book). After Sophia receives a postcard from Venice ("Her whole name was on the address side, with 'Miss' in front, and on the shiny side was the prettiest picture anyone in the family had ever seen"), she and her grandmother build their own Venice in the marsh pond out of bits of stone and marble and sticks; Grandmother even makes "a Doge's palace out of balsa wood ... [and] painted it with watercolours and gold." They imagine themselves as a family that lives in their new Venice, a father, mother, and daughter--but beneath the playful surface, something unhappy lurks:

'Look, Mama,' [Sophia] called. 'I've found a new palace.'

'But my dear child, I'm only "Mama" to your father,' Grandmother said. She was concerned.

'Is that so!' Sophia shouted. 'Why is he the only one who gets to say "Mama"?'

She threw the palace in the water and stalked away.

Grandmother makes "a hotel and a trattoria and a campanile with a little lion on top. . . . One day, there was a green salamander in the Grand Canal and traffic had to make a long detour." But then it starts to rain.

She could see right away that the whole shoreline was flooded, and then she saw Sophia running towards her across the rock.

'It's sunk,' Sophia screamed. 'She's gone!'

Grandmother sends Sophia back to bed, promising to save the palace. We know, though Jansson doesn't belabor us about it, that it's not bits of balsa wood she's worried about salvaging.

So there are moments of intensity, and like the Venice episode, they arise out of the disproportionate feelings of childhood, the lack of perspective that sometimes actually clarifies, rather than distorts, reality. There's drama--as in the chapter "Sophia's Storm":

Sophia climbed up into the tower. The tower room was very small and had four windows, one for each point of the compass. She saw that the island had shurnk and grown terribly small, nothing but an insignificant patch of rocks and colourless earth. But the sea was immense: what and yellow and grey and horizonless. There was only this one island, surrounded by water, threatened and shelted by the storm, forgotten by everyone but God, who granted prayers...

...including, so Sophia is convinced, her own, which was "Dear God, let something happen ... I'm bored to death. Amen." "All the boats will be wrecked," reflects Grandmother, "thoughtlessly." "Sophia stared at her and screamed, 'How can you talk like that when you know it's my fault? I prayed for a storm, and it came!'" There's suspense, as in the chapter "The Robe," in which Sophia's father takes the boat out for supplies and is late coming back:

There was a southwest wind when he set out, and in a couple of hours it had risen so that the wives were riding right across the point. Grandmother tried to get the weather report on the radio, but she couldn't find the right button. She couldn't keep from going back to the north window every few minutes to look for him, and she didn't understand a word she read.

Then there's Berenice, "a fairly new friend, whose hair [Sophia]admired." Not only does Berenice have trouble making herself at home on the island, but Sophia isn't altogether happy having her there either, and one day she ends up in the water.

'Did she really dive?' Grandmother asked.

'Yes, really. I gave her a shove and she dived.'

'Oh,' Grandmother said. 'And then what?'

'Her hair can't take salt water,' explained Sophia sadly. 'It looks awful. And it was her hair I liked.'

That complacently mournful remark perfectly captures the innocent egotism of childhood, doesn't it? But Sophia's not awful; she's just six. And Grandmother knows that raising her right doesn't always mean raising the tone. One day after a deep discussion about God and the devil ("'You can see for yourself that life is bad enough without being punished for it afterwards. We get comfort when we die, that's the whole idea." "It's not hard at all!" Sophia shouted. "And what are you going to do about the Devil, then? He lives in Hell'"), Grandmother restores harmony with a song that, joyfully, Sophia learns to sing "just as badly as her grandmother":

Cowpats are free,


But don't throw them at me.


For you too could get hit


With cow shit!

In spite of everything, and because of everything, and in the least saccharine way possible, it always turns out they're a perfect pair.