Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 16, 2023

The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal

Almost everyone who writes anything about The Summer Book begins by referring to Tove Jansson as the author of the much-loved Moomin children’s stories. Well, I never read the Moomins, and like many emigrants I never had a relationship with a grandmother, beyond some correspondence which fizzled out when she died when I was a teenager. So there were no sentimental attachments for me in reading this, the first of Jansson’s novels for adults.   I bought it and read it because it’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, cited as a modern classic in Scandinavia, where it has never been out of print.

This is the citation:

Based loosely on the author’s own experiences, The Summer Book spans a season during which an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia, while away the long days together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland.  It is a magical, elegiac, quietly humorous book that slowly draws the reader into the lives of Sophia (whose mother has recently died), her grandmother, and her largely absent ‘Papa’. The colour and depth of the characterisation moves the narrative forward, despite the fact that very little actually happens.

[..]

Descriptions, such as that of the texture of moss that has been trodden on three times, are written in minute, leisurely detail and through these descriptions the reader comes to understand the special relationship between the grandmother and the granddaughter.  Jansson’s style is unsentimental and, as the book meanders through summer, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears and idiosyncrasies, allowing a deep, understated love to unfold that extends beyond the family to both the island and the season.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall, ABC Books, 2006, ISBN: 9780733321214, p631

Written in brief episodic chapters that portray an idyllic summer, The Summer Book is, however,  more than a celebration of a special relationship.  Sophia’s mother has just died, and both grandmother and granddaughter have to come to terms with that.  The father, so often noted as being absent, is grieving too.  So there is psychological tension in the narrative, and the tears that come about are not really about the event that  triggered them. This is a novel that offers nostalgia and a celebration of the landscape but it also demands reading behind the lines.

Conflict, mostly over trivial things, is a thread that weaves through the book as both adult and child learn to negotiate their situation.  Occasionally sensitive to others beyond her years, Sophia is most often demanding and sometimes querulous while the grandmother is a masterclass in resolving conflict and modelling tolerance.  She does not ‘give in’, but she most often responds by deflecting the issue, changing the subject, offering some whimsy or some common sense and only very occasionally losing patience.  She sleeps a lot, she walks with a stick, and she’s a bit forgetful.  This is an older grandmother, not like the spritely grandmas we see today in their jazzy leotards and colourful hair.

Loss underpins the story.  There are no memories of the late mother, but her absence is the reason for Sophia to be where she is.  The attention to the grandmother’s frailty is an allusion to her ageing and the loss that is to come.  There is also the loss of serenity as unwelcome development occurs nearby.  Being on an island doesn’t guarantee isolation, and both regard the owner of the new house on an adjacent island as an interloper.  There’s also the loss of innocence when Sophia undertakes forbidden activities while her grandmother turns a blind eye, and there’s an episode where they connive together to unleash their resentment about the new house.

My favourite part of the story was when, inspired by a postcard that arrives,  they created ‘Venice’ in the marsh pool:

They made pilings for the Piazza San Marco out of a lot of little wooden plugs, and covered them with flat stones. They dug additional canals and built bridges over them.  Black ants scurried back and forth across the bridges, while down below there were gondolas gliding along in the moonlight.

They conjured people to live in this little fantasy world too.

The grandmother made a Doge’s Palace out of balsa wood, but soon after a storm turns the pool into a bay and ‘Venice’ had disappeared beneath the sea. The grandmother sits up all night recreating it.

The Doge’s Palance was ready at seven o’clock, just as Sophia banged on the door.

‘Wait a minute,’ Grandmother said. ‘It’s on the latch.’

‘Did you find her?’ Sophia called.  ‘Was she still there?’

‘Yes, of course,’ Grandmother answered. ‘They were all still there.’

The palace looked much too new, not as if it had been through a flood. Quickly Grandmother took her water glass and poured it over the Doge’s Palace, then emptied the ashtray into her hand and rubbed the cupolas and walls with ashes, and all the time Sophia kept pulling at the handle and yelling that she wanted to come in.

Grandmother opened the door. ‘We were lucky.’ she said.

Sophia examined the palace very carefully.  She put it down on the nightstand and didn’t say a word.

‘It’s all right, isn’t it?’ said Grandmother anxiously.

‘Quiet,’ Sophia whispered. ‘I want to hear if she’s still there.’

They listened for a long time.  Then Sophia said, ‘You can rest easy.  Her mother says it was a perfectly dreadful storm. Now she’s cleaning up the mess, and she’s pretty worn out.’

‘Yes, I’ll bet she is,’ Grandmother said. (p.58)

The author could have added, ‘with real feeling’ to allude to Grandmother having been up all night, but the text doesn’t need it…

The translator has captured the mood and sensitivity of this novel perfectly.


I read this book for Nordic Finds month 2023 at AnnaBookBel. The irony is that I thought I’d be reading books set in snow and ice to offset the heat of an Aussie summer, but my choice meant that I was reading about summer in Finland instead!

Author: Tove Jansson
Title: The Summer Book (Sommerboken)
Translated from the Sweden by Thomas Teal
Foreword by Sether Freud, Afterword by Sophia Jansson. (Both of these are superfluous IMO)
Publisher: Sort of Books, 2022, first published in 1972
Cover design by Peter Dyer
ISBN: 9780954221713, pbk., 190 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased for #LoveYourBookShop Day from Blarney’s Books Port Fairy.


Responses

  1. I bought this book only a week or so ago, and look forward to reading it. A lovely review Lisa.

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  2. A friend gave me this book a couple of years ago and I adored it. A masterclass in making small details count, and as you say, in building tension through undercurrents, through what isn’t mentioned or revealed.

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    • Yes, I like a book that lets you work things out for yourself.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your words about The Summer Book are so dear and apt and precious. Thank you. Now – you simply must read at least Finn Family Moomintroll as a reward for being good.

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    • Ha ha, I’ll have a look at the library…

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  4. I too read this never having heard of the children’s books and really enjoyed it, but I loved her lesser known but equally wonderful ‘The Winter Book’ even more, and I also recommend her novel ‘The True Deceiver’. She was quite a talent Tove Jansson.

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    • I think it’s a generational thing: I just looked up the Moomins at WP and it says they weren’t translated until the 60s and 70s, well after my childhood.

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  5. I hope you’ll be tempted to read more by Tove Jansson, including the Moomins. She really is quite a special writer.

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    • I just checked, there’s some in my library.

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  6. I read this a few years ago because it was of my colleague’s all-time favourite books (in fact I think it was the book I was reading as we moved house the last time).

    I also know about the Moomins as the former owner of our bookshop loved the series, so we always had it in stock. Although I had never read them until now. I am about to finish the first book tonight or tomorrow. I definitely think you should look out for one in the library. Truly delightful they are.

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    • I just checked at Readings, they’ve got stacks of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Yeah, The Summer Book is wonderful. It’s actually the only Jansson I’ve read (for shame!) but the controlled, unsentimental prose is just so lovely. I really will read more of her work.

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  8. Lovely post Lisa! I came to Jansson late too, and read this before I’d read any Moomins. I went on to devour those books and also many of her adult works – love her writing!

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  9. Thank you for joining in with #NordicFINDS23, and I’m so glad you liked the book. I too love its unsentimental, yet beautiful prose.
    I’m currently reading The True Deceiver which is actually rather suspenseful – I’m halfway through and can’t see where we’re headed ultimately, so it has this mystery element.

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    • Thanks for hosting it, Annabel, I’ve got some other Nordics on the TBR but I shall have to see how I can manage my time to do more…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve never read The Moomins either – in fact it wasn’t until I started blogging that I even heard about them. They didn’t hold any appeal so I never paid any attention to Tove Jansson but on the basis of your reaction to this novel, I shall be adding her to my wishlist.

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    • I believe that the NYRB has published this title, and maybe others, so it shouldn’t be hard to find.

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  11. Thanks, Lisa, for a detailed and thoughtful exploration of one of Tove Jansson’s autobiographical “adult” books. I note you say you have not (yet?) read any “Moomin” novels. I strongly urge you to do so. If you dislike the earliest (“Comet in Moominland”), which is, indeed, whimsical and often childlike (and funny in a “Winnie-the-Pooh” way), then jump to “Moomin Midwinter”, and pursue the later Moomin novels (there IS a developing sequence), because the further you read through the Moomin novels the darker and bleaker they become. In the last two, the central characters are versions of adults suffering existential crises — even Moominmamma (!) — and issues of old age, insignificance-in-life, and death, emerge powerfully. The latter Moomin novels are not really children’s books at all, or, at best, for very mature children. You might be surprised, and, I hope, deeply rewarded! Years ago I wrote a strong essay on this, which was published as an article, but before I had access to modern wordprocessing, so I no longer have it as a digital copy. (Alas!)

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    • O how I’d love to read that article!
      I too have my first published article lost to posterity. I wrote an article about Alan Garner’s Red Shift which was published in Orana, a school library journal in about 1975, but alas I have never been able to track down a copy.
      Ah well, c’est la vie!

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      • Amazing, Lisa. Alan Garner’s “Red Shift” was a stunning and complex novel, and “Orana” was a marvellous journal. (I had articles there, also, around 1986. Including one, I think, on Alan Garner, who did not win the 2022 Booker Award, but WAS a strong contender! “Treacle Walker” — I have read about it, but not read it.) If you make friends with a good municipal library, one of the librarians may do you the favour of locating your “Orana” article. In my experience, librarians LOVE HELPING and LOVE RESEARCH. (It’s got to beat reshelving!!??)
        Obviously you liked “The Summer Book”. The latter Moomins will not disappoint!

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        • I have tried tracking it down, but had no luck at the time. One possible reason is that magazines & journals don’t always make their way into the deposit schemes at national and state libraries. But you never know, maybe an editor has a collection somewhere that might make its way into the SLV one day!

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          • Try Deakin University Library. The old teachers’ colleges subscribed to “Orana” and apart from students messing up the collection, it is surprising what is held from decades ago! Good luck. Let me know if that doesn’t help.

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            • Thanks, John. That was a good idea, but alas, they only have copies from 1994, and not all of those by the look of it…

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              • I should have looked first, Lisa, and saved you.
                Obviously they must have culled the more dilapidated issues from the dark past. (I retired from Deakin at the end of 2011 and it’s a long time since I looked in the Library.)
                Do you have the full reference details: author, title, date, volume, number (issue), page numbers?
                The National Library of Australia is, I think, a repository of (almost?) anything published in Australia.

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                • No, alas, I don’t have anything. I would have kept the original essay which the lecturer suggested I submit to Orana, but I would have culled that when I finished that degree. And I don’t remember us having access to photocopiers back then so short of subscribing to the journal, I couldn’t get a copy of the published article. (And I had my essay anyway at that time.) When I graduated and began teaching we were still using gestetners for student worksheets and getting purple ink all over our fingers.
                  It didn’t seem so significant at the time, but now when I remember that it was my first published work, well, it would be nice to have it for posterity!

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                • Do you remember a title, or some version of it, Lisa?
                  I might have a copy at home, in my file on Garner (from when I was doing a Grad Dip in Children’s Literature, 1982-1983, and spent some time researching Garner), but I am not going to be home for about a week. If you don’t hear from me, please remind me to climb in my attic and search.

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  12. Have you tried searching for “Orana” in the National Library of Australia? My hasty googling found at least one entry, and I would be surprised if a complete (almost) collection is not available. On the other hand, finding YOU and the article of uncertain title and unsure date could be tricky. A Please Help message sent to Contact Us might get something started.

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    • Dear John, you are so good to keep trying, but A Good Fairy who lives in Canberra has already tried there for me. I will give it another try next time I’m in Canberra but must let it rest for now.

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  13. I really loved this novel, and like you I had no sentimental association with grandmothers as they both died before I was born. I still found so much to enjoy in the central relationship, it was so beautifully evoked.

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    • Yes indeed. It shows what a terrific writer Jansson was.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Is “The Summer Book” a novel, or a memoir? Tove Jansson was an adult when her mother died, and the child in this seems to be Tove herself.

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      • Good question, John, and I bet there are scholars beavering away at answering it. The Introduction tells us that it’s a novel based on her own childhood experiences, and I’m inclined to agree with that because she doesn’t tell us what the characters think and feel, she lets the dialogue and actions speak for themselves. She’s not reflecting on these events in the sense of integrating them into her own life or what she’s learned from them.
        If you take the excerpt above as an example, all we learn about Grandmother is that she asks ‘anxiously’ if the palace is all right. We have to guess about why she feels anxious. Is she concerned that there will be floods of disappointed tears, or an angry tantrum? Or is she looking for some kind of affirmation that her night’s labours — and her worth as an artist — are appreciated even though the child doesn’t know about them.

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        • The Wikipedia article makes clear that, however loosely, the little girl and the grandmother are based on real people: Signe Hammarsten-Jansson – Jansson’s mother and the real-life model for the character of Sophia’s grandmother; and Sophia Jansson – Tove’s niece and the real-life model for the character of the granddaughter Sophia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Summer_Book

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          • True, and the Introduction says so too. But that doesn’t make the book a memoir. Novels are often based on characters and events from real life, tweaked for fictional purposes.
            Memoirs, in my limited reading experience of them, are more ‘soulful’. #DuckingFor Cover I’ve often found them to be dead dreary too, which is why I mostly avoid them.

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  14. A lovely reminder of a special book. The moomins completely passed me by, too. I only discovered them because of people reviewing Tove Jansson’s adult work on blogs. I really need to read more of her books.

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    • I wonder if kids in Europe read Enid Blyton and Louis Carroll?

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