Tuesday, February 01, 2011

In Grandma's Footsteps

I have to say there is a particular pleasure in reading about the sweet still heat of summer when we are in the depths of midwinter. It gives a person hope, you know, to be reminded of the endless summers of childhood, and their dependable charms. The Slaves chose as their group read this month, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, one of a handful of books that she wrote for adults. Jansson is far better known for her children’s books about the Moomins, which I can remember distantly from my own early reading days. In fact, for me, there wasn’t so very much difference between The Summer Book and Moominsummer Madness, say. Family and its quirky ways are fundamental to both. There’s something mythic and yet intimate going on here, something eccentric but philosophically grounded, something quite sharp and occasionally melancholy, but deeply lovable nevertheless. The Moomins used to ponder life and its meaning and wrap up their thoughts in axiomatic utterances (like Little My: ‘Possessions mean worries and luggage bags one has to drag around.’). And essentially, The Summer Book performs the same sort of metamorphosis, taking the strange and sometimes disconcerting experience of the world and making it manageable, tolerable and sometimes quite delightful.

The Summer Book recounts a series of stories about life on an island off the coast of Finland. It’s home to motherless Sophia and her grandmother, oh and also Sophia’s father only he features mostly through his absence, given that he is always writing and ignoring his womenfolk. I suppose in all fairness we should include the island itself as a character, flat, volcanic, scrubby, designed to withstand extreme weather conditions, and yet rich in wildlife and fauna, possessing its own beauty. We hear the voice of the narrator most of all in the descriptions of the island, and that voice is attentive and appreciative, viewing both the landscape and the characters that inhabit it with loving benevolence. The grandmother and Sophia are both beautifully drawn characters. Sophia is passionate, engaged, quick to fear, quick to excitement and always ready to rage against the obstacles and difficulties that befall her. Grandmother is pragmatic and slow-moving, accepting and stolid, cunning and wise. Each of the vignettes that make up the book show the two of them in a kind of tableau of learning, as Sophia meets the blunt edge of the world and has it smoothed for her by her grandmother’s wisdom. Not that Grandmother really wants to have to do this; as an elderly lady she often feels tired and ill and not necessarily up to a child’s longing for adventure. The two of them argue and clash as much as they cooperate and comply. But watching Grandmother use clever strategies to soothe, placate or instruct Sophia is definitely a key part of this book’s appeal.

What the book brings out quite brilliantly is the richness of a child’s fantasy life and how hard that can be to handle. Sophia has no knowledge of the world, only familiarity with some of its basic practices and a great number of fears and fantasies. Grandmother, by contrast, at the end of her life, has very few fantasies left to her; instead she is right up close against the reality of things. Generally, sleeping, reading and enjoying nature are all she really wants to do (I could sympathise), but she leaps into action when the summer starts to fade, and the island dwelling has to be secured for the winter months. Then she is immensely busy with things, with bringing household objects in for safety, setting out candles and cigarettes in case any visitors are forced to take shelter on their island while they are away. ‘With an odd kind of tenderness, she examined the nameplates of boats long since broken up, some storm indications that had been written on the wall, penciled data on dead seals they had found, and a mink they had shot… How can I ever leave this room, she thought?’ For Grandmother, life has been reduced down to a tide of significant flotsam and jetsam, all of it resonant with memories.

For Sophia, life is still bursting with fantasies, like what it might be that has crawled into her father’s old dressing gown and is terrifying her, or her own personal vision of religion, or what might have happened at a party to which she was not invited, or the thought that because she prayed for excitement, a devastating storm is her responsibility. In each case, she turns to her Grandmother (often angrily) in order to have her fantasies tamed and turned into images that don’t overwhelm her emotionally. Grandmother’s ability to turn Sophia’s nameless dread into stories that reassure because they invoke a known reality is a real joy to watch. This must be wisdom in its purest form; the transformation of proliferating fear into a sensible, grounded, truthful representation of what might be; the valuable use of knowledge, of what genuinely is, to boundary and contain the menace of the unknown. We love Grandmother because she understands how necessary this is for Sophia, and even when she’s not particularly up for it, she accomplishes this feat anyway. That’s real love.

Not that this is in any way a saccharine narrative, thank goodness. No the exchanges between Sophia and her Grandmother are often harsh, and both behave as ordinary, flawed, imperfect human beings. The Summer Book enchants precisely because it is so honest and innocent. Even though I’m not that keen on episodic structures, this series of short tales was perfect for its subject matter, and in fact made me think more of Eastern teaching parables than anything else. Definitely one I would reread again in the future, as a reminder that even the simplest life contains many ups and downs, but that managing them is exactly the task we must learn how to do.

1 comment:

Rohan Maitzen said...

I like your emphasis on Sophia's imagination--and I love the phrase "a tableau of learning." That sounds so didactic and yet the book is never preachy at all--or saccharine, as you and I both appreciated!

It's interesting that, as everyone's contributions show, such a short and sort of enigmatic book captured our attention so well, and yet in so many different ways.