Book Review: The Summer Book (Tove Jansson)

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.
 
 

Book Review: About the Body (Christopher Burns)

Burns’ collection of short stories has been sitting on my bookshelves for the best part of at least fifteen years. It seems to have always been part of the fabric of my book collection, and a book which has been mentally tagged over time as ‘commendable’. This tagging process is a curious one: one of some sort of indelible internal inking; it suggests that the book must have been previously read. That said, on reflection after reading the collection these past few weeks, there’s only a faint trace of recall of parts of its contents. Does this suggest that the stories therein just weren’t strong enough (or is it more to do with the eroding nature of the passing of time)?

I decided to read ‘again’ almost on a whim: partly confident that the mental tagging would serve me fine, partly in trepidation that my reading tastes or acuity in analysis weren’t once sufficiently developed. What I find is that all of the above is true. About the Body (first published 1988; Sceptre edition 1990) is, for the most part, subtle, well-written, and well-constructed. Certainly in the first half of this collection of fourteen stories Burns delivers precise, cut-glass, clear, clean prose. Hardly anything is wasted in the arrangements of words. Markers are placed early on in stories and economically returned to later. These stories have the feel of care in construction, thought, considerations of structure and texture. There are some slender and beautiful juxtapositions in place. Sometimes it feels as if Burns is crafting a piece, out and out, from a single kernel of an idea or from the delicate arrangement of one notion touched against another.

Embracing the Slaughterer (the first story in the collection, and one of the better pieces therein) builds from a few lines referenced to Marxist German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Burns constructs a tale that is both somewhat predictable in direction yet engaging. We soon learn to analyse the probable style of his stories to come, insofar as locking on to the key elements which we suppose Burns to have built out from. Not only does Brecht’s three lines from Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken, 1955) form a central spine of Burns’ story (‘Sink in the dirt, embrace the slaughterer, but change the world; the world needs it’), but succinct lines such as the following, as narrated by the assassin character therein (having a whiff of Plato’s Republic, though this is not directly referenced), focus the reader:

‘Good food and wine, I told him, should not be the province of the merely wealthy, just as high culture must, if it is to survive, be taken up once more by the masses.’

John’s Return to Liverpool is at first a little odd to fathom, though it soon forms around us like steam in the warmth of the bathroom. Is ‘John’ the Lennon of Liverpool we automatically concoct in our minds? It isn’t immediately clear, but it doesn’t need to be: Burns leads us through the story and we see that, yes, here is Lennon, though in a form other than we suppose him to be. Burns seems to be playing with the way we construct connections in our heads. Very deliberate structural arrangements begin to form in stories such as How Things are Put Together, and here Burns explores filmic qualities in his writing. The body of work so far tends towards a complementary, precise and crafted affair. Even the story lengths, as individual pieces, seem honed and clipped — as consistently similar as they are.

Subtle juxtapositions form in stories such as Practical Living: ostensibly about the death of a pet rabbit, this story develops around emotional connections and unspoken difficulties regarding a disabled child. Later, in My Life as an Artist, a man and his wife each can’t let go of their separate passions or, rather, that which troubles and forms them: he, a maintenance man/caretaker aspires to be an artist; his wife is in continual grief for their lost baby from many years gone by. Burns shifts the dialogue well, creating a believable pair of gender perspectives, and he manages to blend the sensibilities of the two characters into the whole. In Blue, a man awaits the outcome of an archaeological dig in which it’s anticipated that his RAF pilot father will be found, having crash-landed there before the main character was born: Burns plays with the reality/imagined liminal spaces that the emotive connection can blur.

However, from Guido’s Castle onwards, at the half-way point of the collection, there’s almost a deconstruction taking place: several of Burns’ careful connection methods from the earlier part of the book begin to slip into the more exploratory. The aforementioned Guido’s Castle builds to a point of empty non-commitment on the part of the writer: why did Guido build the tower at the back of the villa that he and his dying wife share? Burns leads us towards some succinct and teasingly cerebral conclusion, but we discover that the tower is merely folly. Burns means to leave us unsatisfied, but it isn’t a taste that is embraced.

A Country Priest and Fogged Plates seem at first to be pieces back in form, but significant twists in each only serve to disturb the reader: the slightest of fictive cheating has taken place. The former, for example, unexpectedly places us in a far more profound scenario than we at first realised; the latter plays with where we are in time. That we gradually work out a time and place in any given story should work as a reward for our reading and connecting the puzzle pieces: when we’re shifted from that path, rudely as it were, when we’re walking comfortably along in the story’s authority, it risks unsettling us.

By the time Burns presents us with Babel, towards the end of the collection, the exploratory is well-bedded in: the result here, however, is somewhat confused in its descriptions, place, time, and reason for being. The very last and longest story, Dealing in Fictions, makes a promising start, concerned as it initially is with a man and his analytical, intellectual partner, and the promise of some great truth playing itself out, as evidenced in the opening line: ‘Life always leaves you unfinished.’ Burns soon throws us completely with a sudden and unexpected event that rips through the narrative thread. This is not as unbecoming as in previous stories, as noted above, but what transpires thereafter is an eventual petering out of the potential force of the tale, and indeed the collection as a whole.

In Dealing in Fictions, Burns starts to explore (not so subtly this time) the ideas of one of his characters (the Polish literary critic, Zurawski) within the structure of the story itself. Set against the backdrop of Irish terrorist activity in London, Burns explores the story of Peter and Ruth, and of terrorist activists Mary and Tony, through Zurawski’s eight hypothesised narrative structures. However, Burns only seems focused on the first of these (the intersecting biographies theme) before losing interest in dwindling word counts towards the rest. Perhaps this is another play on Burns’ account, though if it is then it’s far too subtle to be appreciated.

Thinking on the collection as a whole, it is appreciated by this reader to be engaged in an English language book that hasn’t either been mangled by presumably erroneous translation or which slightly irritates at the edges with its own particular syntax. Burns writes as a British English-speaking native and we must always appreciate that which doesn’t slightly buzz at our own ears. That said though, there is a slight irritation in Burns’ choices of flat, almost prosaic, character names: Simon, Peter, Mary, Andrew, Neville, Tony, et al. It raises the question that has sometimes formed in my own writerly consideration: should we place our characters so blatantly in their landscapes by such choices, or can we afford to exercise more in the way of flourish and embellishment in this respect? Guido may even also fit into Burns’ characterisation structure, fitting neatly into his Italian landscape as he does.

This all said, the mental tagging that first inked itself into my reading perceptions, regarding About the Body, is for the large part still intact: Burns writes here with some efficient, subtle, elegant prose, and for that the ink remains as was. Perhaps his subtleties in the first reading, several years ago (if, in fact, I did at all) were lost to me. My ability to analyse has deepened and broadened, and so Burns’ juxtapositional arrangements and structural explorations are now more evident. This said though, I’m left wondering what will remain, internally and indelibly, of Burns’ About the Body in another fifteen years’ time.
 
 

Book Review: Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories (Gabriel García Márquez)

After reading and reviewing Márquez’s Strange Pilgrims it seemed fitting to return to some of his earlier stories. In my previous review I had, after all, written that ‘reading Márquez is like coming home’. I stand by that, but now I qualify it with the following amendment: ‘reading Márquez’s more recent stories is like coming home’. It’s not that this collection as a whole is bad, it’s just that Márquez seemed in general to have turned a corner (on this evidence alone) at around or about the start of his forties (being around or about the late 1960s/early 1970s).

Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories is largely comprised of stories from 1947-1953 (Márquez being, therefore, around 19-25 years old when having written them). These offerings, in places, are reminiscent — for this reader — of some of Kafka’s Meditations: their unnamed characters and settings, and their introspective focus, are not the precursors of Strange Pilgrims we might expect. The strapline on the Penguin Books copy of Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories (2007; first published 1972) states: ‘These stories abound with love affairs, ruined beauty, and magical women.’ This is inaccurate. These stories abound with perspectives on death.

In retrospect, it perhaps cannot come as any great surprise that the running order of the book is such as it is. The first piece, The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother is a novella length story, but its date is more significant (1972). This is followed by the less successful The Sea of Lost Time (1961), and Death Constant Beyond Love (1970). Thereafter, the collection retreats to the late 40s and early 50s period of Márquez’s writing career. With the exception of the beautifully crafted Someone Has Been Disarranging These Flowers (1952), these nine stories can best be described as experiments along the way.

There are flourishes of things still to come in these offerings, but by and large the early Márquez had greater words and ideas still inside him. By the time he writes Innocent Eréndira we see a shift in capability start to unfold, as glimmerings of writerly hope have done in earlier pieces such as Someone Has Been Disarranging These Flowers and, to a lesser extent, the latter portion of Eyes of a Blue Dog (1950). The novella length work that is Innocent Eréndira is something Márquez is more adept at than the very short piece. He likes to unfold the story and there is engagement in this in the process. Márquez skilfully reveals the story and the characters: so much so that we forget that, actually, The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother is a tale encompassing some sordid form of child abuse (Eréndira, the teenager, is subjected to prostitution by her grandmother as a means of ‘paying off the debt’ that Eréndira has brought upon herself in an accidental fire).

Márquez drops in moments of what he’s later seen to embody — magical realism — for example, Ulises (Eréndira’s young love interest) turns glass objects to different colours just by touching them. Having offered us this glimpse of something interesting, however, Márquez doesn’t then follow through with it: leaving it to fester in the background and leaving the reader wondering if it will reappear at some stage. It doesn’t. It’s just a throwaway line. It needed nurturing.

In contrast, Márquez does have a particular predilection in this collection for certain favourite words or motifs: the adjective ‘phosphorescent’ is repeated in various stories (as it also tends to turn up in Strange Pilgrims, if memory serves correctly); Márquez also has a penchant for the lone cricket, the sensory appeal of cement, and the death-imbued violet. Whilst these are not negative observations (aiding the connection of elements of a body of work), the English translation read here does suffer from the repeated and distracting use of such words as ‘lighted’ or ‘unlighted’, instead of ‘lit’ and ‘unlit’. Indeed, it is to the American English translation (from the original Spanish by Gregory Rabassa) that particular irritations are levelled when encountering such colloquialisms as: ‘Boy, you’re asking a mint’, ‘Don’t be a tightwad’, and ‘Then beat it . . . you lowlife!’ (The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother). I wonder how the original Spanish phrasing played itself out.

The translator, perhaps, may also be at fault (though I shalln’t know without further research) for the repeated inability to cope with certain grammatical structures: for example, in The Third Resignation (1947), Márquez is attributed with ‘He would have liked to catch the noise . . .’ It is, though, more for the early Márquez to straighten out the incomplete sentences that do tend to crop up in his writing, e.g. ‘Like all hard blows against nature’s firm things.’ (ibid).

Some of Márquez’s shorter, earlier stories get lost completely from early on. The Night of the Curlews (1953) is, frankly, unfathomable with its repeated use of ‘we’ and its uncertain characters and place (it is not a wise story on which to end a collection that started with Eréndira herself); some stories in this collection lose their way part-way through a struggling piece, e.g. Bitterness for Three Sleepwalkers (1949); some stories here show early promise but then go astray, such as in The Sea of Lost Time (1961), in which — presumably — the lead character retreats under the sea to swim with the dead.

Eyes of a Blue Dog (1950) could easily have had its first two and a half pages removed: being, as they are, littered with ‘he said, she said’, ‘then this happened, then that happened’. What follows from that difficult beginning though is a story in which the reader can immerse: a tale of two people who meet only in dreams. Márquez is in a period of wavering capabilities. Dialogue with the Mirror (1949) includes the dense, impenetrable text that is:

‘There, under his fingertips — and after the fingertips, bone against bone — his irrevocable anatomical condition held an order of compositions buried, a tight universe of weaves, of lesser worlds, which bore him along, raising his fleshy armor toward a height less enduring than the natural and final position of his bones.’

This all said, there are the linguistic flourishes in his early work that amount to some chronicle of a Márquez foretold: ‘That cold, cutting, vertical noise . . .’ (The Third Resignation, 1947); ‘She turned her face to profile and her skin, from copper to red, suddenly became sad’ (Eyes of a Blue Dog, 1950); ‘. . . then she paused on the threshold, coming halfway into the room after, and with the voice of someone calling a sleeping person she said: ‘Boy! Boy!’’ (Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses, 1952).

It is this latter short story that particularly presses itself to my reading psyche: it did, and delicately so, back in 2009 when I first read this collection, and it does so again five years later. Perhaps the afterglow of that first read has shaped a preconceived notion that it would still be fine in its crafting, weight, and poise. This is an aside. What matters here on the second reading is that Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses marks a significant point in this collection, coming at the end of the running order, and tarnished only slightly by the unfathomable The Night of the Curlews (1953). The narrator in the former tale is the boy in question, sought by the now grown woman who was party to the young child’s death some years beforehand. That the narrator, ghost, ethereal boy in question, is a child using adult language can be overlooked because the writing here is some of Márquez’s best in this collection.

Thereafter, save the issues already outlined in the chronologically subsequent stories, Márquez starts to build his characters and places. Senator Onésimo Sánchez appears here in Death Constant Beyond Love (1970) and also, later, and to a lesser extent, in The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother (1972). Márquez also describes Laura Farina here in the former story, come to sexually frustrate the ailing senator in order that he ‘straighten out’ her father’s ‘situation’: ‘Laura Farina sat down on a schoolboy’s stool. Her skin was smooth and firm, with the same color and the same solar density as crude oil, her hair was the mane of a young mare, and her huge eyes were brighter than the light.’ The Sea of Lost Time (1961), despite my aforementioned misgivings, does begin with the prospect of sensory place. Innocent Eréndira itself brings place, character, and the sensory together.

What Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories as a whole offers us is not Márquez’s best work: it does show us flashes of the writer he is to become, but it does also lay before us some dusty, sometimes confused and confounding Kafkaesque introspections perhaps best documented as experiments along the way. In this collection the ripening of Márquez’s long writing career comes to fruition somewhere after these early predispositions on the theme of death are passed.