Sunday, March 07, 2010

40 Days of Lent: Day Nineteen

The Summer Book
Tove Jansson

It was the cover of NYRB’s republication of The Summer Book that initially interested me. Like all their books, it is a simple, elegant design, using a pleasing mix of colors and an image that seems perfect. It was perfect: it was a watercolor of an island silhouetted against a light sky by author Tove Jansson used for the novel’s first edition. Unlike DVD companies that forgo a film’s original iconic poster in favor of a mundane picture of its stars when designing their discs, NYRB knew better than tamper with perfection. The DVD comparison isn’t far-fetched. NYRB reminds me of the Criterion Collection in the way they republish lost classics in handsome editions, usually with insightful introductions by contemporary authors. I have a number of their books; I haven’t read them all, but they are all beautiful objects.

Admiring the cover, I thought “Tove Jansson? I know that name – how do I know that name?” The explanation was on the back. Jansson was the creator of Moomin, a delightful comic strip that began publishing in the 1950’s. Finding out she also wrote books is like discovered an unknown novel by Charles Schulz or Walt Kelly.

The Summer Book is the story of Sophia, a young girl who bonds with her grandmother while they spend the summer together on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. Despite this set-up, the book is not sentimental or even overtly emotional. Sophia behaves much like a child, alternately charming and frustrating, and the grandmother can be moody, swinging from wise and sharing to irascible in the space of a few sentences. They’re two women, one young enough that she hasn’t fully learned how to “be nice” so people will like her and one who is old enough to gratefully let go of such social pretence. On this isolated island, they’re just themselves.

They’re themselves, surrounded by a natural world of old vegetation, unexpected storms, and debris that washes up on the beach. The vignettes of the book are described in a language that’s restrained but filled with a sly humor wise to the characters’ traits. Jansson’s description of a sometimes harsh landscape and the people who chose to live there reminds me of Annie Proulx and the episodic nature of the novel recalls comic strips. It is a sensuous book, passages written to appeal to the senses as to how things smell, feel, taste as well as look and sound. A passage I particularly like:

Grandmother snorted. “We sowed our own tents,” she said, remembering what they had looked like – huge, sturdy, grayish-brown. This was a toy, a bright yellow plaything for veranda guests, and not worth having.

“Isn’t it a Scout tent?” asked Sophia anxiously.

So her grandmother said maybe it was, after all, but a very modern one, and they crawled in and lay down side by side.

“Now you’re not allowed to go to sleep,” Sophia said. “You have to tell me what it was like to be a Scout and all the things you did.”

A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge.

“We had campfires,” she answered briefly, and suddenly she felt sad.

“And what else?”

“There was a log that burned for a long time. We sat around the fire. It was cold out. We ate soup.”

That’s strange, Grandmother thought. I can’t describe things any more. I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost. She sat up and said, “Some days I can’t remember very well. But sometime you ought to try and sleep in a tent all night.”

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