A rock with tiny garnets – a first reflection on ‘The Summer Book’

Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’ is a salutary and straightforward reminder of how to live a good life. It can be read from several distinct or simultaneously overlapping points of view – and always impresses as a particular and beautiful form of hybrid writing. Beneath the almost crystalline simplicity of expression lies a complex, insightful and meaning-laden account that regularly provokes a mood of thoughtful contemplation. ‘The Summer Book’ relates, in its 22 short chapters, a series of contrasting episodes that, over the course of a summer, befall its two central characters – a grandmother and her six year-old grand-daughter who live together on certain small islands located in the gulf of Finland. Overall, her book evokes the possibility of enjoying a mode of being in which people make the most of whatever is to hand; it details the wonderful phenomena that are endlessly revealed if we attend carefully to the world of earth, sea and sky and deploy the creative powers of imagination. It resonates with both the poetic vision and story-telling of Antoine St Exupery’s ‘Wind, sand and stars’ and the beguiling anthropology profiled in Anna Tsing’s studies of the world of the Matsutake mushrooms. Here, then, is a book which intimates an alternative to the noise, overload, stress and sheer insanity of our times.

Jansson’s work reflects what I can only describe as a particular ‘psycho-ecology’ of people and place. Perhaps all literature is variously touched by an intermingling of history, geography and culture – but this is writ large throughout her text: we learn of the inter-relationship between personalities, climate and weather, the geology of the islands, the microscopic details of plants and flowers, the impact and presence (often symbolic) of birds and mammals, of ants and worms and midges – and their effects on the psychologies of the main characters. We ‘see’ tiny garnets embedded in black-grey rocks, or thin veins of yellow etched in granite and we see a bent, knotted, twisted contorted thicket of wind-lashed trees. The signs of nature – its colours and moods – and the inevitable changes – define a leitmotif throughout the book. It is a wonderful study of how to make best use of our perceptual faculties – of awareness, of noticing the finest of detail – and of observation: thus, ‘In July the moss would adorn itself with a kind of long, light grass. Tiny clusters of flowers would open at exactly the same height above the ground and sway together in the wind, like inland meadows.

In addition to the psycho-ecology expressed in her particular literature of ‘place’, Jansson also presents her readers with a case study in anthropology. Here, then, is a small family that is interconnected with a wider community of Finns located on the coast and coastal islands of the gulf of Finland. Overall, we can sense something of the deep psyche of the people: austere, often taciturn, unfussy, blunt, practical, self-reliant and laced with a particular and often recondite sea-faring knowledge. No one is sentimentalised. And, thankfully, everyone is flawed; everyone has a fault or two. (In many ways her work gives substance to the concept of the ‘habitus’ – the deeply formed way of cultural being – that is so central to the work of Pierre Bourdieu).

Little by little the short chapters reveal more and more about the main characters and their idiosyncrasies; six-year old Sophia is capricious, volatile and vivacious – and her grandmother is tetchy, cantankerous, imperfect, wise, witty, faithful and loving. She represents a micro-study in ageing and, despite her ingenuity and capacity to find ways of replying to Sophia’s questions about Death and God and Hell, she has reached that point in life when each day is wearily piled onto that which preceded it. She has come to terms with the approach of death. Grandmother touches upon and makes explicit some basic anthropological truths: she acknowledges, for example, that island people are ‘different’ and how outsiders can never quite traverse the invisible psychological wall which binds the islanders together; we are reminded by her that sooner or later people will learn what is possible and what is foolish; and through her we are told that a young person needs to learn how to be adroitly sociable if they are to fare well in the ‘real’ world.

On top of this Tove Jansson shows how (wherever we may be) the sometimes transparent and sometimes opaque film of imagination glazes the world. In consequence, ‘The Summer Book’ can be read as a study in and of the flights of creative fancy that makes the world so enchanting and which underline that strange enduring freedom intrinsic to our very being: we meet in one chapter some ‘crooks’ (that aren’t); in another the grandmother fashions from balsa wood a new version of Venice; there’s a magic forest – and there is the arrival of an intrusive, resented and discordant house that despoils the view but can be morphed into a lane-marker; we discover how the almost tragic figure of Berenice (a young visitor to the island) learns to express her fears, horrors and insecurities through a startlingly good work of art …

In fact, each of the 22 chapters has the power to stimulate hard thinking, dreamy mediation and plainly raises critical questions about the way we live now. I think the book can work as a harbinger warning us that we really do already have all that we need. It implicitly recalls Claude Monet’s remark that, within a few miles of wherever we may be, we will find whatever is sufficient to paint a masterpiece. The world that Tove Jansson shows us is almost devoid of any digitally mediated technology and suggests that our lives might be made better without it.

Her writing style is excellent; her evocative similes are perfect: a colourful plastic contraption that lies just beneath the surface of the water is ‘like an apricot from Paradise’; lights reflecting in the water from a visiting yacht are ‘like dancing snakes of fire’; swallows swooping and gliding overhead look ‘like knives in the sky.’ She makes use of compelling adverbs; people act ‘defiantly’ or ‘angrily’ or ‘vindictively’ and ‘The Summer Book’ is replete with subtle allegories, pithy insights and beautiful lapidary description. It is a literature of realistic escapism; a resourceful otherness and a disciplined difference.

Footnote: Tove Jansson situated her book in the not too distant past. Her emphasis on the close contact with nature recalls some of the inspirations that energised the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. But for me, perhaps the most significant theme upon which she touches is the process of ageing and the approach of Death. To that extent her book provides one appealing answer to something Hubert Dreyfus considered as one of the central features of Heidegger’s philosophy Put most simply, it is this: ‘Since there is death, what meaning does my life have?

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