NYRB Reading Week: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book

Delight, then sorrow,

Aboard the cormorant

Fishing boat

-Bashō

 

The summer book is very much like a ride above a cormorant fishing boat, for reading it
was delight, then sorrow. The writing is beautiful and fragmented, like postcards sent to a friend of a day’s events in a summer cottage. However like a haiku, amongst the fragments are the empty spaces filled with more than what three lines can tell. The summer book is deceptive in its title, narrative, and language. I’m starting to believe, Tove Jansson wrote an extended haiku where the chapters tell more than it seems to say.

The Summer Book found its way into my hands the second time I visited the bookstore in search of an NYRB book that I was familiar with in one way or another. My first encounter with Tove Jansson was through a random book Fats gave me. It was about Moomintrolls, a classic children’s book popular in Sweden.

MoominTrolls

Picking up this book, I had two facts straight: I knew the author (sort of) and it was NYRB. I dove into this book with the conclusion, after reading the first few lines:

“It was an early, very warn morning in July, and it had rained during the night.”

That this book was a simple, easy-read mood book. Except as I progressed throughout the book that the first line from the first chapter and blurbs like: “Makes you slow down, forget about everyday hassles and gloat into a sunny, blissful revered (from the Guardian)” I realized I was deceived. For the book, while seemingly disjointed, reveals fleetingly the thread that binds the stories together. We find it in the second chapter:

“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.”

Sophia

The passing thought, the simple heavy sentence is stated without sentimentality and followed by lines such as: The fire was still burning in the stove, and the flames flickered on the ceiling. Interwoven amongst mundane sentence are references to the true emotion and story rarely spoken in the book and only mentioned every so fleetingly in one line, on page nine, as a second sentence to the second chapter. This is the magic of this book and this is the sorrow amongst the delightful summery images in the boat ride.

Only then, after chapter two, that certain parts of the opening chapter renders itself naked for consideration and a look over.  When Sophia asks her grandmother if she knows how it feels like when one dives, her grandmother responds:

“You let go of everything and get ready to jut dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. Its brown, and the water’s clear, lighter…and you glide. You old you breadth and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”

 

The detailed response by the grandmother comes off as a simple answer. However, the last line in the chapter hints to the double edge of this description. The chapter ends with the grandmother thinking, “And I must remember to tell him this child is still afraid of deep water.” As a reader, I could only speculate that the child has yet to dive deep into her grief.

The relationship between the grandmother and Sophia is nothing I’ve seen before. There is

Sophia at her grandmother’s door

closeness, while at the same time frankness so unlike Filipino culture. There is brashness in their conversation wherein as a reader, I wondered if this was a conversation between two adults or two children. For in hindsight children are seemingly frank between each other and so are adults. It is easy in this book to judge the grandmother in her pointed tone and unaffected manner, but something about her actions speak of a woman concern for her grandchild. For death of a mother takes childhood away from a child and this reveals itself in Sophia as she corrects her grandmother, at her grandmother’s attempt at imagination. And yet, Jansson reveals through each day the way Sophia learns about loss and death. This becomes apparent with the exchange between grandmother and granddaughter over a dead scolder:

“But its spring!” Sophia said. “They don’t die now, they’re brand new and just married—that’s what you said!”

“Well,” grandmother said, “it did die now, all the same.”

When prodded by Sophia to explain why, her grandmother replied “of unrequited love.” The answer does not satisfy Sophia and only when the simple explanation of the bird hitting the rock was given was she soothed. And while the scolder’s death affected Sophia so strongly at that moment, the feelings remain fleeting. By end of the day, as her grandmother shows the feather of the dead scolder Sophia asks: “What scolder?”

Children often are unable to articulate their loss. They feel it and often know that the dying are dead as I remember my nephew being told by adults that his maternal grandfather was merely sleeping. My nephew replied: “you must be kidding, he is dead na.” Yet the nonchalance of the statement does not remove the pain death has delivered them so young. For they worry of the living and the inevitability of the death of those they love.

The most heart wrenching of these momentary visits to the invisible thread that binds the summer book is guised in a role-playing game as Sophia gives her grandmother instructions in playing a role:

“Call me ‘dear child’ and I’ll call you ‘mama.’”

As the game ensues and Sophia calls her Mama again, the grandmother replies:

“But dear child I’m only Mama to your father”

In response, Sophia reveals the impact of losing her mother:

“Is that so!” Sophia shouted. “Why is he the only one who gets to say ‘Mama’?”

And just like that the weight of the reality chapter two so fleetingly mentions is revealed. Further into the book, in the chapter aptly called “Sophie’s storm” the motherless child’s pain and guilt surfaces as her prayer for a storm is answered while her father was out at sea. The possibility of losing her father echoes as she blames herself for being stupid enough to call a storm and as she batters herself the grandmother’s love once again shines. Riding with the logic of the child, the grandmother tells Sophia that it wasn’t Sophia’s fault but hers for she prayed earlier in the morning for storm.  It is a poignant moment hidden beneath the brashness of the language.

Grandmother and Sophia

These are the sorrows, but the delight settles in the majority of the book. For there is something delightful about being in an island where imagination roams and where days are passed by creating games for ones entertainment. There are moments where in a blade of grass and a piece of scolder down is as beautiful as any mall.

The Author and her Mother

Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is a product of her granddaughter’s own loss, of her own relationship with her mother, and of her life in an island in the Swedish speaking part of Finland.  While isolated islands and Scandinavian way of life can be strange to me, the book’s setting and life is reminiscent of some of the English-written Swedish blogs I follow.

A Swedish Summer House (via Fine Little Day)

A View of a Swedish Summer (via Fine Little Day)

The Island the author grew up in (via http://www.moomin.com) and possibly inspired the book

The Summer Book’s language is succinct and direct. It is unsentimental, but warm and

The Author with Moomintroll dolls

loving. The simplicity of the story allows younger readers to appreciate the stories. While the incredible depth by which Tove Jansson exquisitely interweaves within the simplicity is something an adult reader can look forward to.  As a writer and artist, the bits of illustration interspersed between the pages are a wonderful break from the text. To those familiar with the Moomintrolls, looking through her illustrations in The Summer Book one can immediately tell they are Tove Jansson—for the figures are more curves than lines and the illustration whimsical and serious all at the same time, don’t you think?

My notes are plenty for this book, but I’ll leave the other thoughts for you to discover. I do hope on my next visit I get a copy of Jansson’s The Winter Book. For I do wonder, if like the summer book it is:

 

Delight, then sorrow,

Aboard the cormorant

Fishing boat

-Bashō

Sources:

Tove Jansson: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tove_Jansson

Summer in Sweden/Summer Houses: http://finelittleday.blogspot.com/

Tove Jansson:http://www.moomin.com/tove/index.html

  1. Beautiful! I love it. =) Hope to read it someday.

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    1. Mary of GatheringBooks November 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm

      Yeah, you should. you might like it. It’s a beautiful book.

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  2. Wonderful review. I know this book is wonderful. I bought it for my mother-in-law knowing she’d enjoy it being a reader and a grandmother. I only managed to skim it before I gave it to her but what I read seemed lovely and poignant. Thanks for joining NYRB Reading Week and looking forward to more reviews from you.

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    1. Mary of GatheringBooks November 10, 2010 at 8:39 pm

      Hi Mrs B.
      Thanks for dropping by my review. It was a surprisingly wonderful book. I spied a copy of The Winter Book in one of the local bookstores. I can only hope i can get myself a copy of it. I have one more review left. It’s a nonfiction and i shall post on Friday as Myra will post tomorrow. Thanks for hosting this wonderful NYRB reading week. I’m really enjoying it. 🙂

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  3. This sounds like a very moving book. Admittedly, I’ve never read Tove Jansson before, not even his Moomintrolls. But I’m currently trying to look for them now for my children. About this book, however, I don’t know if I have the courage to read it as yet. Grief over the loss of a mother is scary territory for me.

    Thank you, again, for another great review!

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    1. Mary of GatheringBooks November 14, 2010 at 5:40 pm

      It is a moving book. Well, the grief is in some ways glossed over. It isn’t the center of the story as The Summer Book is very much a ‘diary’ of days in an island.
      I didn’t think to find moomintrolls in the philippines, but i did find copies just today at fullybook. I was quite surprise.

      Glad to know you enjoyed the review. NYRB week was fun.

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  4. […] rather than a child aged 7-10. Mary ventured writing in the adult category with Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. Finally, we have something in the non-fiction category with The Company they Kept, Writers on […]

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  5. […] also bought Tove Jansson’s Fair Play. I’m also done reading The Savage. I anticipate that my Holiday Reading would be […]

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