The Summer Book
by Tove Jansson (Sommarboken, 1972)
translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal (1974)
NYRB Classics (2008)
170 pp

As thrilled as I am about this years’ Best Translated Book Award longlist — and I am very thrilled — I was surprised that nothing from NYRB Classics showed up. After all, last year they published the winning book. Then again, in 2010, Melville House published the winning book and was not on the list in 2011. I’m certainly not suggesting any trend, and I say the more publishers recognized for publishing quality literature in translation the better. But, in its absence, I thought I’d look at another book that NYRB Classics published a couple of years ago: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. Last year’s BTBA winning book was, by the way, Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver, which was also translated by Thomas Teal (my review here).

This is perhaps one of the most serene books I have ever read, which is a bit strange since there is so much turbulence under the surface. The book takes place during one particular summer where each day may be slow but is also filled with life. The young child Sophia is spending the summer with her grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia is just young enough that this is one of the first summers during which she is awake.

I’d say it’s the perfect primer for spring if you, like me, get antsy for warm weather at this time of year. As Sophia and her grandmother explore the island and enjoy watching the evening approach, followed by night, I couldn’t help but recall such peaceful days. The community, though dispersed across the island, is relatively close knit. They go through the seasons and the storms together.

Despite this, anyone else, including Sophia’s nearly absent father, feel like outsiders when they interact with Sophia and her grandmother. There is one episode in the book where a poor girl comes to visit, and she’s neither from the island nor part of Sophia and Grandmother’s circle. Jansson reminds us, “An island can be dreadful for someone from the outside.” There’s genuine darkness to this episode, but Jansson lightens it a little bit:

On the third day, Sophia came into the guest room and said, “Well, that does it. She’s impossible. I got her to dive, but it didn’t help.”

“Did she really dive?” Grandmother asked.

“Yes, really. I gave her a shove and she dived.”

“Oh,” Grandmother said. “And then what?” 

“Her hair can’t take salt water,” explained Sophia sadly. “It looks awful. And it was her hair I liked.”

Burried even deeper in the book is lurking death. Sophia is just waking up to life, but her grandmother is descending, more and more without caring, to death, and Sophia just about comprehends this. This is accentuated once in the book when, in a passage so brief you just might miss it, Sophia wakes up and remembers “she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.” The absence of her mother, the presence of death, pervade even the most peaceful passages, giving everything multiple tones and textures, most often conveyed in passages of seemingly simple dialogue, like this one (though this one is not nearly as subtle as the rest of the book — the outburst by the grandmother is a moment of vulnerability that most often is covered up):

“I couldn’t sleep,” Grandmother said, “and I got to thinking about sad things.” She sat up in bed and reached for her cigarettes. Sophia handed her the matches automatically, but she was thinking about other things.

“You’ve got two blankets, don’t you?” Sophia said.

“I mean it all seems to shrink up and glide away,” Grandmother said. “And things that were a lot of fun don’t mean anything any more. It makes me feel cheated, like what was the point? At least you ought to be able to talk about it.”

Sophia was getting cold again. They had let her sleep in a tent, even though she was too little to sleep in a tent. None of them knew what it was like, and they had just let her sleep in the ravine all by herself. “Oh is that so?” she said angrily. “What do you mean it’s no fun?”

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Grandmother said. “All I said was that when you’re as old as I am, there are a lot of things you can’t do any more . . .”

“That’s not true! You do everything. You do the same things I do!”

“Wait a minute!” Grandmother said. She was very upset. “I’m not through! I know I do everything. I’ve been doing everything for an awfully long time, and I’ve seen and lived as hard as I could, and it’s been unbelievable, I tell you, unbelievable. But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!”

“What don’t you remember?” asked Sophia anxiously.

“What it was like to sleep in a tent!” her Grandmother shouted.

The memories that Sophia is in the process of making this summer are ones that the grandmother is already losing, at once not caring and yet worrying deeply about her apathy.

I’ve now read the three Jansson books that NYRB Classics has published. I hope there are more in the works because as short as they are they contain a lot of life and are three of my favorite books.

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