The Summer Book: Tove Jansson (Trans. Thomas Teal)

Back when the grey in my hair was merely strands instead of streaks, I moved to Sweden to study math. Partly because math is awesome, and partly because Swedish is awesome and I was very deeply in love with Ingmar Bergman at that point in my life. (And you know, that love still burns deep. Persona is one of the best things I have ever watched. Ever.) I studied Swedish diligently in the months before I left with an amazing instructor who actually brought in a Swedish exchange student to teach us to curse because she felt it was an important part of the language, but she was kind of embarrassed to do it herself. Yeah, one hundred percent cute.

But when I got to Sweden, I realized that no matter how well I had been doing in class, I had a *laht* of studying to do if I was ever going to be able to get people in the shops to talk to me without switching to English the second they heard my accent. (People talking to second-language learners, may I ask a favour of you? Let the learner try to have a conversation with you! You will be rewarded with dreams of sugarplum fairies!) And for me, learning something equals pick up some books. Of course, I also worked hard to get people to speak to me. My boss at the restaurant where I worked refused to speak to me in English after I told her how hard it was to get people to speak Swedish to me. But for learning vocabulary to put to use in your next conversation, you can’t beat reading. And in case you hadn’t noticed, reading is something I love.

If you have a limited vocabulary, though, reading can be frustrating as hell, sending you to your bilingual dictionary every five seconds, which is not the most enjoyable experience. So for language learning, I turn to my old friend, comics. And if you are trying to learn a language, might I recommend this approach? The pictures often give you some support when you’re not sure what the text is saying, the text is not too dense so it doesn’t make you feel like your head’s going to explode, and if you pick something meant for kids, you won’t have to turn to the dictionary quite so often.

When you are in Sweden and you want to read comics for kids in Swedish, you have a limited selection if you are shopping at your tiny local grocery store because you don’t know if there is a comic book store in your town. You can read Acke, you can pick up various Disney comics, or you can grab the one about the fat, friendly-looking blob. Which is how I met Tove Jansson. (Click through to see how incredibly adorable she was!)

I graduated from the Moomin comics to the Moomin books after a while, and fell in love with Jansson’s simple, direct phrasing, the way every line seemed so portentous and mundane at the same time. She has this way of reaching right through your chest to poke at your heart in juuuuuuuuust the right place. But I had never read any of her work for grown-ups. I think a part of me was worried that the innocent simplicity of the Moomin books would be lost in stories for adults.

But this New York Review Books edition of The Summer Book kept popping up on the shelves of bookstores I frequented, looking so tempting with its mysterious figures almost not on the island, and I oohed over it many times until T. gave it to me for my birthday last year. Hooray for birthday books!

Double hooray, in fact, since The Summer Book is everything I love about the Moomin books with a bittersweet edge, the innocence mixed with a sometimes sad understanding, the celebration of the natural world (that I only like to read about and not actually be in), and yes, that arrow-through-your-heart simplicity. Like this exchange between the young Sophia and her grandmother, the protagonists of the series of vignettes that make up the book:

“Sophia,” called Grandmother warningly. “I said you could have an orange when we got to the store…”

“An orange!” said Sophia contemptuously. “Do you think people care about oranges when they’re talking about God and the Devil?” …

“My dear child,” she said, “with the best will in the world I cannot start believing in the Devil at my age. You can believe what you like, but you must learn to be tolerant.”

“What does that mean?” asked the child sullenly.

“That means respecting other people’s convictions.”

“What are convictions?” Sophia screamed and stamped her foot.

“Letting other believe what they want to believe!” her grandmother shouted back. “I’ll let you believe God damns people and you let me not.”

This pretty much sums up Sophia and Grandmother’s entire relationship. They are on equal footing in a weird way and they treat each other as friends sometimes, co-conspirators at others. Sophia’s father, Grandmother’s son, is also with them on the island in the summer, and he is their common enemy. They sneak away together so Sophia can swim in the deep water and Grandmother can have a cigarette. They build the city of Venice in a small bog out of bits and pieces they collect on the island. Together they endure visits from unwelcome outsiders, and endearingly, they watch out for each other. Sophia checks if Grandmother has taken her medication. Grandmother talks Sophia down when she is convinced that her prayer to God is the cause of a devastating storm.

The sum of all these little incidents is incredibly moving and in the end, pretty bittersweet, although there were many times I laughed out loud while reading. The stories may jump around in time and they seem to not all take place the same summer (although the introduction by Kathryn Davis asserts that they do) but even still they march to the same place: the end of summer.

You see the rocky start of spring, the storms, the cold, the plants struggling to grow. Then the heat, the intensity of full summer, the occasional droughts, the pouring rain. Which all tapers off into chills, the summer things being packed away, and the family preparing to leave the island for the winter. And suddenly you are seeing all the deep rivers tucked away here and there in these charming, almost magical moments. I wanted to start reading it again as soon as I turned the last page.


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