Tove Jansson (1914-2001), a Swedish-speaking Finnish writer and artist, is perhaps best known as the creator of the Moomins. These impish creatures and their adventures, featured in the numerous books that Jansson wrote and illustrated, have delighted children worldwide.
Born in Helsinki, Jansson was raised and formed by bohemian parents. Her father sculpted. Her mother, a painter, did illustrations for Garm, one of the few bravely anti-Fascist magazines in Finland in the years leading up to World War II.
She studied art in Stockholm, Helsinki, and Paris. Her love life was, let’s say, eventful.
In the summer of 1953, Jansson was commissioned to paint the altarpiece of Finland’s Teuva Church. The result was the “Ten Virgins” altarpiece, the only altar of her career. “I feel very competent when I glue gold,” she remarked of the project.
At the time, she was working on the book “Moominsummer Madness.” But the Moomins didn’t bring me to Jansson. What did was a strange and singular work called “The Summer Book,” written in 1972.
The story takes place on a small island over the space of a summer. There are other characters — a mostly absent father, an obnoxious child named Berenice. But the main action is between 6-year-old Sophia and her grandmother.
Here’s how the book, delectably, begins:
It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.
“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.”
The evil leaves, the angry grandmother, the erring teeth: this is a story that will be neither sentimental nor precious.
The sentence around which the book pivots is at the top of the second chapter, “Moonlight”: “One time in April there was a full moon, and the sea was covered with ice. Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had the bed to herself because her mother was dead.”
Sophia, in other words, has just lost a mother and the grandmother has just lost a daughter.
That “one time in April” places us in the realm of fairy tale, outside time and earthly place. We are invited to suspend disbelief. We have entered the land of the subconscious.
The death is never mentioned again. That loss — and that presence — is the silent bass note that throbs throughout.
In fact, Jansson had lost her own mother the year before she began writing the book.
Sophia and the grandmother adore each other, depend on each other, tramp the bogs, garden, and explore together. They also distrust, hide things from, and fight, sometimes violently, with each other.
Jansson’s genius is to capture the rhythms, silences, non sequiturs, hidden conflicts, irrational outbursts, and unspoken love that flow between any two people in an intimate human relationship.
At one point, for example, out walking the shore before dawn, the grandmother and Sophia come upon a promontory and Sophia dares herself to go swimming in the cold, deep water below. She half-expects opposition, but none is forthcoming. Sophia “glanced at her grandmother — you can’t depend on people who just let things happen.”
So Sophia takes the plunge, while the grandmother, seemingly indifferent but really wanting to give the child room to risk, keeps silent counsel. As the two walk back to the house, the point of view switches: “When we get home … I think I’ll take a little nap. And I must remember to tell [Sophia’s father] this child is still afraid of deep water.”
Sophia and her grandmother build a model city of Venice in a marsh pond, sleep in a tent, plant flower bulbs, and fashion bark boats. The grandmother sneaks clandestine cigarettes; Sophia fetches her matches.
In one chapter the pair, out in their dory, go ashore a neighboring island where a nouveau riche outsider has built a house. “No well-bred goes ashore on someone else’s island when there’s no one home,” the grandmother explains. “But if they put up a [No Trespassing] sign, then you do it anyway, because it’s a slap in the face.”
In another passage Verner, an old suitor of the grandmother’s, pays a visit. Hat in hand, he is courtly, shy, and clearly still head over heels in love.
Again, Jansson captures the awkward silences, the lurching starts and stops, the tragicomic relationships that might have been but for the chance of a tiny wound, a word, the weather on a particular day. The grandmother stands her ground, bluster covering her own deep feelings.
The book (translated by Thomas Teal), was reissued in 2008 by The New York Review of Books. In the Introduction, Kathryn Davis observes:
“The subject is death, the death of the mother, the beloved. It is like nothing, nor does it leave you whole.”
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books. For more, visit heather-king.com.
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