Now I’m having too much fun. Making a list of indie-press books to recommend for Small Press Month . . . I’m re-encountering some wonderful memories.
Here’s a book that left the strongest sense of wanting to live on an island in Scandinavia . . . at least in the summertime.
It’s by Swedish author Tove Jansson, best known in the U.S. for her quirky Moomintroll books for kids (of all ages). Those books have a lot of Swedish atmosphere in them: a translucent summer, a bittersweet turning of the seasons, a rugged winter . . . mixed with a delightful mix of very odd characters. The spirit of these books is hard to describe: Zen meditation meets Winnie-the-Pooh meets Ingmar Bergman, I’d say.
Jansson also wrote some amazing books for adult readers. The one I read and loved was The Summer Book, a Scandinavian classic written in 1972. I read it in the late 1970s, and now still available in a re-issue by New York Review Books.
The Summer Book
by Tove Jansson
New York Review Books Classics (2008)
paperback, $14.00 list price
As the UK’s Guardian wrote: “[I]t’s hard to describe the astonishing achievement of Jansson’s artistry in The Summer Book . . .
The NYRB’s catalog page describes it:
In The Summer Book, Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature Venice, write a fanciful study of local bugs. They discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love. “On an island,” thinks the grandmother, “everything is complete.” In The Summer Book, Jansson creates her own complete world, full of the varied joys and sorrows of life.
In that same Guardian review, reviewer Ali Smith concluded:
In Why Read the Classics, Italo Calvino defines a classic as “any book that comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.” He indicates how a classic book reduces the noise of the contemporary world to a background hum when we read it, and conversely is always itself there in the background “even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.”
The Summer Book is a world apart. It is very good to have it back again.
Or, if you want another review:
“Tove Jansson was a genius. This is a marvelous, beautiful, wise novel, which is also very funny.”
– Philip Pullman
New York Review Books has a great list; there were other books on my bookshelf by NYRB I wanted to mention (I may come back to them later this month). But The Summer Book is the one that takes my breath away each time I open it and read the first pages.