Monday, December 28, 2015

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson

Usually when a writer passes away, their reputation fades, but occasionally the opposite happens. It seems the more that we all find out about Tove Jannson, previously mainly known in the UK for The Moomins, the more that we want to know. I had been meaning to read "The Summer Book", the most revered of her 14 books for adults, after seeing an exhibition of her work and life in Helsinki last summer, (blogged about here) and finally have gotten around to. Re-published recently by A Sort of Books, its had several reprints since, unusually for a work of translated fiction. Written in the early 1970s after the death of her mother, its a somewhat unclassifiable work. Though ostensibly a novel, the short anecdotal chapters have the character of short stories, and the subject matter is fused with memoir and memory. Seen as a classic in Scandinavia it certainly deserves a much wider readership.

Sophia is a young girl being looked after her grandmother, whilst her father works, on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. The novel is in the third person but takes us into the perspective of both Sophia and her Grandmother, the one at the start of her conscious life, and having lost a mother, the other at the end of theirs. This unusual pairing, with the father always off the page, creates an idyll in the "summer" they spend on the island. In Sophia's world the island is vast, but in reality it has room for just one dwelling - theirs - and is isolated from even their neighbours, with weekly trips to the nearest proper island taking around two hours each way in a boat. On the island there are enough differences in the landscape to enable all sorts of adventures - so that even a six year old is safe left alone. This otherworldliness, like a personal Narnia - or more accurately the isolated landscape of the Moomin family - is as much a character in the novel as the two protagonists. Grandmother has forgotten what it was like to be young and Sophia helps her remember, but at the same time she is in loco parentis for the young girl and has to slip out of their fantasy world every now and then to provide the necessary life lesson.  The chapters are mostly short - some tiny - and cover everything from small discoveries in the natural landscape, to the games that the child and grandmother play, to those vivid periods when the idyll is interrupted: a friend who comes to stay and breaks up the perfect harmony between the two of them; the adoption of a feral cat; the visitors who their father goes off drinking with on their boat causing them resentment at not being invited to the party for being "too young and too old". There's also a climax of sorts with the great storm that could have drowned them all, had their father not managed to get them to safety in an attic room on higher ground.

Yet its not just a "what we did on our summer holidays" - but a story with a philosophy at the heart of it. The grandmother is old and fading but wants to continue as long as she can to pass on wisdom and guidance to her granddaughter. Her own memories are like from another life - yet she was responsible for allowing equal treatment for girls in the boy scout movement, enabling women to be allowed to go camping. At one point its said that she was born in the 19th century, and though history doesn't intrude, not in this isolated place away from the Finnish mainland, there's a sense here of how long lives are both part of the history that takes place around them, but also separate, on their own track. In this way, though there are some mentions of God (the Grandmother is too old to believe in the devil and in a rare rebuke of her granddaughter asks that she lets her have her conviction that there is a God, but no devil, for she needs the promise of a good hereafter) it feels more naturalistic and than that, with nature, and our response to nature being at the heart of this simple telling of a summer.

Seeing Jannson's work in Helsinki last year, her art seemed to find its necessary narrative in the strangeness of her imagined Moomins, a popular mythologising of the Finland she grew up in. Reading Esther Freud's introduction to this edition (I'd suggest you read it like I did at the end), we find that this novel was written partly about her own mother and her niece (also Sophia) and it reads like a memoir in large part. I'm reminded of Natalia Ginzburg's "The Things We Used to Say", another novel that defies classification but weaves its spell through small anecdotes, and remembered moments. Yet such a litany would not work on its own, it is the quiet authority of the author, who through grandmother and grandchild, finds a way to connect to universal truths.

A short poignant book, it felt the sort of quiet, steady novel I needed to read this Christmas, out of season perhaps, but at a time of year when family and stillness are on all our minds. Like her art, her life (recently the subject of an autobiography) and the Moomins, Tove Jansson's adult fiction is a great rediscovery from this much loved author. There's a photograph at the beginning of this edition with a little blonde Sophia, and the much older "grandmother" - Jansson's own parent - and the book brings to life the relationship in that small static image.

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