Every so often in our adventures in reading we come across a book that is an object of astounding beauty. We think that we can’t let the pages run out. If we’re also writers as well as readers, we think ‘this is the book I wish I’d written’. Tove Jansson’s Summer Book is as delicate and as beautiful as an object found on a beach. It would be accurate to say that this book is not, and will not be, for everyone: there is no definite plot, no narrative sweep of direction, no main crucible or conflict for the characters to navigate. It is, instead, a string of beautiful arrangements told in the time of a small island in the Gulf of Finland.
Jansson’s island is based on a true place, as are the two main characters of Sophia (who starts off in the book as a six year old) and Sophia’s Grandmother (based on Jansson’s own mother, Signe Hammarsten). There is a sprinkling of other characters in the book, but these people are passers-by in the soft flow of the writing. This is a book of love, essentially: a book in which Jansson manages to sculpt the Grandmother’s character as benevolent, wise, humble, playful. It can be read as a love story to Jansson’s mother.
The publishers (Sort Of Books, English translation, from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, 2003; originally published as Sommerboken, 1972) have contributed greatly to Jansson’s content in the creation of an object of beauty. The Summer Book is finished to a high standard: it’s tactile, and even the typesetting is done in a pleasing manner. I turned the pages like handling pieces of eggshell. This is what must be done with such well-crafted works.
What we find herein are twenty-two ‘chapters’ or vignettes, spread over unspecified summer time. If these short vignettes are read slowly and thoughtfully, the characters of Grandmother and Sophia start to enmesh in a deepening relationship in which there is, at once, a delicate form of co-dependency and the slightest of tensions inherent in the generational dissonances. Grandmother (who is otherwise not named throughout), for example, is portrayed as sometimes seemingly aloof to Sophia’s ways and needs but nearly always in tune with her; Sophia, perhaps as might be expected for a child spending so much time not in the environs of other children, needs her Grandmother’s playful attention, thoughtful conversation, and every so often has an aching for all that modernity can offer.
Grandmother has awareness of time and nature; Sophia engages with this, but every so often Jansson drops in a moment to consider about the child and what she represents. In contrasting the two characters, Jansson writes of Grandmother: ‘And because it was June almost all of the wildflowers they had picked were white,’ (and we bow down to the nature knowledge and suppose that it is true); on the mainland, Sophia sees a bulldozer ‘an enormous, infernal, bright yellow machine that thundered and roared and floundered through the woods with clanging jaws . . . Grandmother was waiting by the boat out at the point. What a machine! Sophia thought.’
Grandmother’s wisdom shines through in this book. Jansson has her lying down in the ‘magic forest’ on the island, or examining the flora from extremely close perspectives; reflecting on age to a similarly aged friend who passes by the island ‘But you’re only seventy five’; waiting for the rain which she knows will come. None of this wisdom is dispatched in a holier-than-thou or preached manner though. Grandmother is loved and, indeed, learns things for herself. When she becomes worried about Sophia climbing the channel marker, ever higher, Grandmother deals with this as best she can but in the new-found knowledge that Sophia, after all, knows best about herself here.
Grandmother is many things to Sophia: teacher, protector, friend, playmate. Jansson tells an episode whereby the two of them decide to build their own version of Venice in the lagoon that is the marsh pool. The city gets washed away though, and Grandmother stays up all night re-carving the Doge’s Palace that has been swept off, in the hope that Sophia won’t notice the loss. Grandmother also attempts to assuage the anxieties or bravado in the child when she becomes overcome by stories of superstition, or by the fate of an accidentally sliced angleworm, or by a lack of confidence in swimming. Grandmother is a catalyst for the myth-building that can often take place in children: she carves from old pieces of wood and the two of them take the carvings to the ‘magic forest’ at, and only at, sunset.
The Summer Book is infused with such myth and love and play. I read with several lenses in places (flipping between them like flipping coloured glass to the page): writer, reader, analyst/reviewer, someone who has worked in- and continues to work in the field that is the study of children’s play. It is for this latter reason that the various infusions of this book are evident here. The question arises though, in this reader’s awareness, of whether Sophia can be seen as ‘a real child’. That is, it can be easy to slip into the trap of writing a child character in stereotypical sugary-sweet form.
Sophia is, by and large, real enough. She expresses herself in ways that are certainly true (‘How’s the water?’ Grandmother said . . . ‘Pretty bloody cold.’); she attempts other ways to communicate when relations are strained (shouting through Grandmother’s window, for example, ‘Is it true you were born in the eighteen-hundreds?’); expressing real emotions many an adult has heard before (‘I hate you’, Sophia writes in a letter pushed under her Grandmother’s door). That said, Jansson does also add the precocious and somewhat off-kilter aspect to Sophia’s character: I’m not convinced that an average child would want to use words such as ‘aristocratic’ in speech, or that she would finish off her ‘I hate you’ letter by adding ‘with warm personal wishes’. Perhaps Sophia is not an average child.
Where Sophia comes across well is in the details such as an episode involving a cat who, it transpires, kills birds, and this disturbs Sophia. Jansson writes one of Sophia’s interactions with Grandmother as:
‘You know, sometimes I think I hate Moppy [the cat]. I don’t have the strength to go on loving him, but I think about him all the time.’
A little saccharine, perhaps, but the episode of Moppy, and Moppy’s subsequently lazy replacement, are well-observed moments about a child who can’t think of anything but a cat who refuses to be affectionate. It is all that the world holds in the moment. If Sophia can be angry and expressive, thoughtful and precocious, she’s also written in places as funny in her earnest play. When a potion is made, an elixir, to help ward off the potential of harm to her father, Sophia announces: ‘I’ve turned superstitious’, and when Grandmother says that her father won’t drink it anyway, Sophia replies that ‘Maybe we could pour it in his ear.’ Jansson presents this matter-of-factly and it resonates with a truth.
Where The Summer Book is most perplexing though is in Jansson’s treatment of the shadow figure that is Sophia’s father (Papa). He is on the island throughout, but it’s not until page 113 that we sense any real concreteness to him, and not until page 169 of 172 that he utters his first and only line. On the one hand, Jansson is concentrating on the relationship between Sophia and her Grandmother and this is appreciated; on the other hand, that Sophia’s unnamed father is always ‘working’ in some other room, or hauling nets whilst the trio are between islands, or he’s otherwise subtly eased off the frame of the page, is a little off-putting. On such a small island, we might expect his presence to have a greater impact on the female characters’ affairs. Sophia does become somewhat anxious about superstition towards the end of the book and of how all manner of signs may affect her father, but this is a little late to rescue his shadow in the pages of the book.
If we learn to quickly focus in on Jansson’s arrangements though, we can read some truly beautiful descriptions in amongst the wisdoms and balances of the generations:
‘The sunset was in different shades of red, and the light flooded in over the whole island so that even the ground turned scarlet.’
‘She ran behind a rock with the milk can in one hand and watched the machine pluck up huge boulders that had lain in their moss for a thousand years.’
The Summer Book is filled with clean, efficient, beautiful language. There is a degree of ‘head hopping’ taking place in the writing, but it hardly matters. Jansson holds the thread of the book well: despite its lack of plot or narrative direction, this book is built on love — a love of nature, for the island itself, for beauty (because undoubtedly Jansson has beauty in mind here), for Sophia (who is based on Jansson’s niece of the same name), for Grandmother (who is, in the fiction, Signe, Jansson’s mother).
Signe Hammarsten died shortly before Tove Jansson wrote this book. Through all my lenses combined, I read it as a daughter’s love story for her mother.