Tove Jansson was a Finnish writer, and will be familiar to readers of children’s fiction as the creator of the Moomins. They appeared in books and cartoons and then newspapers, eventually in 12 countries. They were so successful that Walt Disney wanted to acquire them. He was turned down. Tove Jansson was much more than the creator of a hippo-like family. She was also an artist and a writer of adult fiction, including The Summer Book, which has never been out of print since its publication in Swedish in 1972.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
While The Summer Book is fiction, it is evident that Tove Jansson drew on her experiences of summer living on an island in the outer archipelago in the Gulf of Finland, and on it a house and a niece called Sophia who has now grown up.
The grandmother, who is a sculptor, and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia share their summer life in a series of episodes. The grandmother lives with a sharp awareness of nature: the sea, birds, the plants, the long summer days and the weather. And she encourages Sophia’s inclination to do the same.
The grandmother is not sweet or passive but an older woman acutely aware of her surroundings and herself. This old woman lives on her own terms. She is straightforward about pain, nature, what other people do. She has a strong sense of herself and is offended when she is ignored. She is stoic about her infirmities, frequently taking herself off to sleep. She is practical, creative and bolshie.
The book opens with a section called The Morning Swim:
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.”
The child came down from the veranda. “Where did you lose them?” she asked.
“Here,” said her grandmother. “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.” They looked together.
“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk. Move over.” (p21)
This is a grandmother who takes children’s questions seriously, is herself fully alive, and not just shown as a person in relationship to others. Both Grandmother and Sophia suffer from jealousy, temper and disappointment. And they are generous with each other, as the scene with the false teeth shows. Like any friends, they dare each other to break the rules, argue and fall out, taunt and tease each other. And they turn to each other in time of need. In the most electrifying chapter in the book Sophia believes she conjures up a massive and frightening storm. She is distraught at what she has done and is only mollified when Grandmother claims responsibility. Sophie’s mother has recently died. They have adventures, and exchange observations on the world. They discuss death, heaven and hell, why a scolder died, share a terrible song about a cow pat, build a miniature palace, dodge sex education, and sometimes avoid each other. They are respectful of each other too in a way that is rare between adults and children.
The episodes pull you along, related in a calm, even voice, a little at a distance from the two main characters, which has a hypnotic effect. This distance may be just the effects of the translation from Swedish. It made me want to visit Finland again.
There is a plan to shoot an English film version of The Summer Book in Finland this summer, starring Julie Walters.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, first published in 1972. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal and the English version is published by Sort of Books.
Posted by Caroline Lodge of Bookword