Tove Jansson's quiet Summer Book

When I had just finished Tove Jansson’s* The Summer Book (1974) and Jon asked me how it was, I immediately replied “quiet.” When he asked me what that meant, it took much longer to answer. I feel very well what “quiet” means, but it is hard to explain. 

At a superficial level, the quietude of Jansson’s short novel, which follows a little girl named Sophia and her grandmother as they spend the summer on a small island in the gulf of Finland, is the quietude I associate with literary short fiction: vignettes with little plot and less action, ostensibly and sometimes actually focused on character. Good short fiction in this style—and Jansson’s is very good—works by holding a situation up to the light and turning it, like a gem.

But Jansson’s writing is quiet in a deeper way. I might call it temporal. The book’s incidents ripple gently out from a crisis no longer visible, like a pool stilling after a boulder has fallen in. That crisis is the death of Sophia’s mother, which occurs before the book begins. Each chapter reacts to her death in some way; each of the characters’ small adventures on the island examines a different aspect of their grief. While this is symbolism, it is too honest for dramatic irony. Jansson is not obscurantist, nor are her characters stupid. When Sophia mourns an angleworm she has accidentally cut in half, she knows as well as we do that she is thinking about her mother:

Let me make this a little easier to understand by putting it this way: Both halves fell down on the ground, and the person with the hook went away. They couldn’t grow back together, because they were terrible upset, and then, of course, they didn’t stop to think, either. And they knew that by and by they’d grow out again, both of them. I think they looked at each other, and thought they looked awful, and then crawled away from each other as fast as they could. Then they started to think. They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.

The Summer Book is temporally quiet because it is all dénouement. Its interest is the labor involved in resolution. But if the book is about how grief must speak through channels beyond itself, its honesty in tracing those channels is another sort of quiet. Its symbolism tasks readers with no more labor than the characters themselves endure, on the apparent logic that we are all half-aware of the messengers through which we speak to ourselves. Maybe that logic is faulty, in which case Jansson’s clarity is an act of hope rather than mimesis (Sophia’s name means wisdom, after all). Either way, its graceful quiet is a model, for life as well as prose:

A new boat approached, a small boat, probably running on gasoline. It might be a herring boat with an automobile engine—but not this late at night. They always went out right after sunset. In any case, it wasn’t in the channel but heading straight out to sea. Its slow thumping passed the island and continued out, farther and father away, but never stopping.

“Isn’t that funny,” Grandmother said. “It’s only my heart, it’s not a herring boat at all.”

 

 

*Yes, of the Moomintroll comics.