The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
Because until this week, I’d read so few Finnish books, I didn’t have a definite gateway book that led me into the country’s literature. But it would have been The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, because when Sort Of Books started their reissue programme of Jansson’s work with this adult novel, I bought a copy which has been on my shelf ever since. This book has finally found its time to be read!
And what a novel it is. A young girl and her grandmother spend summer on a near deserted island in the Gulf of Finland where they have a summer house. That’s it really – except that it isn’t of course. This book which was originally published in 1972, is much beloved by Tove fans and has never been out of print in the Nordic area. The blurb tells us that it was Tove’s favourite of her own adult books. That is understandable because it has that feel of auto-fiction, she has drawn on her own experiences and this edition includes photos of Tove, her niece Sophia and her own other – Sophia’s grandmother at the family’s summer house and sand dunes. After seeing those photos, you can’t help but identify the girl in the book, Sophia, with Tove (although based on her niece) and her real mother with the fictional grandmother.
The events of that summer, and reminiscences of others, are told in a mixture of Sophia and her grandmother’s voices, together with descriptive passages. There is a third character often present in the background – Sophia’s father – but he barely, if at all speaks in the narrative – instead being portrayed as busy working, or building and mending, a benign guardian.
Sophia, as is typical of a six-year-old, has that splendid way of just coming out with the most difficult questions about life and death, which her grandmother handles with typical straight-forwardness, but usually with a twinkle in her eye. Sometimes though, Sophia can really wind her gran up, as here, where they were arguing about God and the Devil, heaven and hell.
“Sophia,” she said, “this is really not something to argue about. You can see for yourself that life is hard enough without being punished for it afterwards. We get comfort when we die, that’s the whole idea.”
“It’s not hard at all!” Sophia shouted. “And what are you going to do about the Devil, then? He lives in Hell!”
[…] She walked back towards the road and stepped right in a cowpat. Her grandchild was not behind her.
“Sophia,” called Grandmother warningly. “I said you could have an orange when we got to the shop…”
“An orange!” said Sophia contemptuously. “Do you think people care about oranges when they’re talking about God and the Devil?”
Grandmother poked the cow dung off her shoe with her walking stick as well as she could.
“My dear child,” she said, “with the best will in the world I cannot start believing in the Devil at my age.”
The pair have so many of these profound yet funny conversations as they fill their days with arts and crafts, wandering along the shore or in the woods watching the wildlife, making meals, or just lounging around. The summer is idyllic. In a series of mostly short chapters, friends of her gran visit by boat; Sophia has a friend to stay but can’t cope; they have to retreat when a big storm threatens and having her father there they are able to batten down the hatches successfully. Eventually the weather will turn, and it’s time to move back to the mainland until the end of next spring.
The grandmother never really complains too much, although she does need her recuperative naps. Naturally we hope she has many, many years left to enjoy the island, but there are hints of mortality that she hides from Sophia, who is too busy exploring the summer world, rarely having the time to be bored. One senses that she talks a lot!
Thomas Teal’s translation, from 1974, is sprightly, capturing the character of child Sophia and her grandmother perfectly, yet also the wonderful descriptions of the landscape. Reading this book made me wish I had had a summer house on an island to escape to as a child. I say had, because times have changed, and I couldn’t do it now, although doubtless such retreats do exist. Reading this novel now evokes a nostalgia for simpler times, remembering childhood and the indulgent love of grandparents. However, ’twas ever thus, and The Summer Book hasn’t dated, despite being fifty years old in 2022. Just lovely. I won’t put off reading the rest of my Tove Jansson pile now, I’ve been hooked.
Source: Own copy. Sort of Books flapped paperback, 172 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
P.S. In the comments, Susan mentions a programme about the Life of Tove Jansson – watch it here.