A digressionary book review: The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

11 08 2016

I reread The Summer Book every few years. It’s not usually summer at the time.


My first encounter with the book would have been, I think, in 1981; at the time I was looking for something with the same magic as Jansson’s Moomin novels, the last of which (Sent i november / Moominvalley in November) appeared just a year before Sommarboken / The Summer Book (published, in the original Swedish, in 1972; in English translation by Thomas Teal, in 1974). It would be incorrect to say The Summer Book has the same magic as the Moomin books. In consequence, my first reading of this book left me vaguely disappointed. And yet I felt compelled, a couple of years later, to read it again. I found myself warming to it.


The Summer Book, which is set on and around the family’s island home in the gulf of Finland, centres on the relationship between Sophia, aged six*, and her paternal grandmother. Sophia is ebullient, brash, still learning to find her own limits, while her grandmother is more reflective, struggling against her developing frailness, sometimes a little cantankerous. Neither the child nor the old woman is inclined to suffer fools gladly, and the interaction between them is often flinty yet characterised by a deep, if sometimes reserved, respect. It’s an elusive, self-effacting tale that’s been pared to the bone, occurring as a sequence of short episodes which seem, at first pass, to be almost randomly arranged. There’s no readily-discernible plot arc, few supporting characters, almost nothing by way of props. It’s a quietly wonderful book.

The writing is vividly descriptive and yet simultaneously sparse. Adverbs are almost entirely eschewed, used only as seasoning, to sometimes brilliant effect. From the very first page, from the episode titled ‘The Morning Swim’:

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.
“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, “I’m looking for my false teeth.”

By focussing so closely on just the two characters, the book achieves an intensity quite at odds with its measured, unhurried pace. And it manages to touch deeply on its twin themes of dying and living. It’s a melancholic book, yet much too warm to be a sad book. And yet all of this—the intensity, the warmth, the depth of tone—is achieved in so subtle and understated a manner that one doesn’t notice the life in the text until after the reading. Or until after a second or a third reading. It’s a book that merits reinvestigation.

I wear out copies of this book.

There are, though, episodes that work less well. I’ve never really felt that ‘The Road’ adds anything of value to the narrative—it feels more like something Jansson has added so as to make some negative-space comment on progress, and consequently it feels out of place. And ‘Of Angleworms and Others’ feels a bit like filler; which is probably just to say that it’s significantly outshone (for me) by the chapters around it. But it may well be that removing these pieces would damage the structure, so I don’t really begrudge them their place in the book.


Boel Westin’s compendious biography of Jansson, Life, Art, Words, provides some useful background on the book’s genesis and release. As has been reasonably widely reported, the characters of Sophia and her grandmother bear considerable resemblance to Sophia Jansson and Signe Hammarsten Jansson (‘Ham’), the author’s niece and mother respectively, and other important details (Sophia’s mother’s death, the family’s summer presence on the island) also match the particulars of Jansson family life. But Tove Jansson was always at pains to point out that the book was indeed fiction, rather than biography.

Jansson was also at pains, according to Westin, to ensure that the book was seen as a work for adults, and not a continuation of her increasingly-wistful Moomin novels, the last of which she had written before The Summer Book was completed. Having blurred the lines so successfully between children’s and grown-ups’ fiction with books such as Moominland Midwinter and Moominpappa at Sea, Jansson moved, it seems to me, to disentangle those lines in her work from The Summer Book onwards: the only Moomin books that she would write after The Summer Book were a pair of large-format picture books that were very clearly aimed at a younger readership than that of, say, Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November. To that end, she was adamant, according to Westin, that The Summer Book must have nothing about it that suggested intention for a young audience, with the result that the book has very often appeared, in its various international editions (see examples above), with only the pivotal island illustrated on the cover. She resisted all efforts by publishers to persuade her to provide internal illustrations for The Summer Book … until the Germans insisted on such illustrations for the German translation of the book. So that particular translation came out with a number of Jansson illustrations not available elsewhere.


If you’re sufficiently a Jansson devotee as to wish to see these illustrations, the most straightforward course is probably to acquire the current Swedish paperback edition of the book (shown just above this paragraph): the cover, for example, is a colourised version of one of the illustrations. In style, the drawings are similar to those featured in Moominpappa at Sea: the lines carefully irregular, with much use of white space. They’re a rather beautiful addition to the story.

But these are not the only illustrations Jansson did for The Summer Book. I said at the beginning of this post that I first read The Summer Book in 1981, which is true; but I had read one of its episodes six years earlier. This episode, ‘The Cat’ featured in Puffin Annual Number One, released in 1974 by Puffin Books, a publication which appears to have predated the English-language release of Jansson’s book by a few months, and curiously the translation of ‘The Cat’ is provided in the Puffin annual by Kingsley Hart rather than Teal. The Puffin Annual version of ‘The Cat’ is illustrated by Jansson—and the illustrations are not any of those which feature in the German translation or the new Swedish paperback.


There’s a significant difference in tone, by the way, between the Hart and the Teal translations of ‘The Cat’, as the following excerpt demonstrates. From the Hart (Puffin Annual) version:

“Cats are funny things,” said Sophia. “The more you love them the less they like you.”
“That’s very true,” said Granny. “And what can one do about it?”
“Why, go on loving!” Sophia insisted. “You just love more and more.”
Granny sighed and said nothing.

and from the Teal (The Summer Book) version:

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
Her grandmother sighed and said nothing.

The Teal translation is distinctly the more faithful to the original Swedish of the novel—which is not, in and of itself, to say that the Hart translation is ‘incorrect’ in any way, because I do not know which form of the story Jansson supplied for the Puffin annual, nor what editorial modifications might have been imposed, post-translation, to render the story more suitable for a children’s publication. But I do very much prefer the text of the Thomas Teal translation.

It’s difficult to say, exactly, what it is about The Summer Book that so resonates with me. On first approach, it can seem like a novel-length vignette; and then one realises, while waiting steadfastly for something to happen, that it’s all happened exactly before one’s eyes. It’s a remarkably quiet book, and yet there are episodes of high drama, such as the marvellous ‘The Neighbour’; of surprising complexity, such as ‘The Visitor’; of other aspects even less straightforward to characterise, such as ‘Dead Calm’. There’s ‘The Cat’, and ‘August’. It’s all multilayered, and as warm and as cold as life itself.


* (Note, though, that various of the episodes appear to occur during different summers, so Sophia can’t be six for all of them. What’s contained in the book, I’ve always understood, is an idealised sampling of crucial details of the summer island life, rather than a straightforward portrayal of any one particular summer.)




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