I am pleased to be part of the Spotlight Series, which is focusing this week on the NYRB Classics. NYRB calls their classics “an innovative list of fiction and nonfiction for discerning and adventurous readers.” They also publish a Children’s Collection , which is how I first discovered them.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.
NYRB Classics, New York, 2008
I own this one.
The Summer Book is made up of twenty-two brief chapters. The story of the relationship between six-year-old Sophia and her Grandmother, spending summers together on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, is told in beautifully simple language.
Sophia is just discovering her independence, her Grandmother is realistic, wise and somewhat cranky. Together they walk all over the small island, building an easy friendship, making boats out of tree bark, discovering what has washed up onto the shore. Grandmother carves animals out of driftwood and puts them in the magic forest. They build their own Venice. In orbit around them, Sophia’s father works and putters, not speaking much, taking in the death of his wife, Sophia’s Mother.
One morning Sophia found a perfect skull of some large animal — found it all by herself. Grandmother thought it was a seal skull. They hid it in a basket and waited all day until evening. The sunset was in different shades of red, and the light flooded over the whole island so that even the ground turned scarlet. They put the skull in the magic forest, and it lay on the ground and gleamed with all it’s teeth.
Suddenly Sophia began to scream.
“Take it away!” she screamed “Take it away!”
Grandmother picked her up and held her but thought it best not to say anything. After a while Sophia went to sleep. Grandmother sat and thought about building a matchbox house on the sandy beach by the blueberry patch behind the house. They would build a dock and make windows out of tinfoil. From page 16.
Jansson’s writing is deceptive, it is clear and precise, but contains a shimmering quality that I find ineffable. The story is about loss, but a loss that is never spoken of, only felt in the depth of the language. Jansson knew her characters and expressed their deepest thoughts.
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.
* * * * * * * * * *
The nights were already long, and when Sophia woke up there was nothing to see but the dark. A bird flew over the ravine and screamed, first close by and then once more far away. It was a windless night, yet she could hear the sea. There was no one in the ravine, yet the gravel crunched as if under someone’s foot. The sheltering tent let in the night, as close as if she had been sleeping on the open ground. More birds cried in various ways, and the darkness was filled with strange movements and sound, the kind no one can trace or account for. The kind no one can even describe.
“Oh, dear God” Sophia thought “Don’t let me get scared!” And immediately she started thinking about what it would be like to get scared. “Oh, dear God, don’t let them make fun of me if I do get scared!”
From pages 80/82.
Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, has written a wonder book for adults and young adults. The Summer Book is beautifully translated, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a quiet, well-told story. I appreciate NYRB Classics for publishing it,, and now that I have seen their full list of titles I have created quite a long wish list for myself!
For more great NYRB Classic reviews visit the Spotlight Series blog!