Book Report 002: Tove Jansson, THE SUMMER BOOK

New York Review Books · 1972

I have spent far too many hours in bookstores just wandering up and down the fiction shelves looking for books that might interest me, not today or any time that I can see, but the unspecific someday — like an animal stockpiling far more food than it can ever eat for the winter, I've slipped books into my To Buy pile for no better reason than that they felt good in my hand.

Tove Jansson was a brief, if mysterious, part of my childhood: through some chance process I no longer remember, I came to own Finn Family Moomintroll, and after a year or so with it tracked down and read most of the other Moomin books via the library. It was my first exposure to the ascetic humanism of Scandinavian literature, and I remember being repelled by the tough melancholy of the last two books in the series.

But melancholy is one of my favorite mental states as an adult, even if toughness yet eludes me. The Summer Book provides both. A spare, slim volume decidedly not for children (though I wonder what my reaction to it might have been as a child; I would have been horrified by all the swearing, but would I have recognized death when I came to it?), it's a collection of twenty-two vignettes about life on one of the outermost islands of the Gulf of Finland. An eighty-five-year old woman, her silent and mostly offstage son, and his young daughter spend their summers on the island, and the relationship between the old woman and the child is the heart of the book.

It's full of arguments, of mercurial and unexplained emotional changes — the key to the text is in a single half-submerged sentence about the child's mother having died — and it feels both deeply personal (Jansson's own mother had recently died when she wrote it) and entirely universal. Even if the specific locale, with its dangerous weather and remarkable vistas, is outside the reader's experience, the portraits Jansson draws of island life, of emotional and social isolation made real by physical separation, of the constant battle or dance with nature that living on a lonely rock in the ocean entails, and of the philosophical questions raised in a child's mind by the smallest events, seems to cut to the heart of human experience.

The prose is beautiful: balanced, reserved, giving away nothing while letting no detail slip through the intense observation of the authorial voice. Emotional storms roil beneath the surface, but the placid stillness of Jansson's sentences are undisturbed. There were maybe one or two times that I was reminded that it was a translation from Swedish; otherwise she sounded as natural, and as surefooted, in English as Hemingway or Conrad.

I burned through this book fairly quickly — in fact I chose it partly for its slimness, worried that two books a week was biting off more than I could chew — but next time I intend to take my time, maybe read a chapter a night; being self-contained, they lend themselves to that. And there will be a next time; rereading is nine-tenths of the pleasure of reading.

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