Read The Summer Book Online

Authors: Tove Jansson

Tags: #Fiction, #Family Life, #Literary, #Biographical

The Summer Book

BOOK: The Summer Book
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Tove Jansson


Translated from the Swedish
by Thomas Teal


Foreword by Esther Freud







Sort Of thanks: Sophia Jansson, Helen Svensson of Schildts, and Esther Freud; Per Olov Jansson, Margareta Strömstedt, Göran Algård and Alf Lidman for photos; Peter Dyer, Henry Iles, Miranda Davies and Tim Chester for production; and Lance Chinnian, Mark Barrow and Rachel Partridge at Penguin. Sort Of gratefully acknowledges Random House Inc (US) for permission to use Thomas Teal’s flawless translation.


Photos used in the book: Per Olov Jansson (p.1, p.6, p.15, p.176); Göran Algård (p.16); Margareta Strömstedt (p.17).





Title Page


Foreword by Esther Freud


The Morning Swim


The Magic Forest

The Scolder


The Pasture

Playing Venice

Dead Calm

The Cat

The Cave

The Road


The Tent

The Neighbour

The Robe

The Enormous Plastic Sausage

The Crooks

The Visitor

Of Angleworms and Others

Sophia’s Storm

Day of Danger


Other Tove Janssson titles




Esther Freud


The Summer Book
is impossible to categorise: a work of fiction, adventure, humour and philosophy, its structure a beautifully observed overlapping of the months of summer. It is a life-affirming story of every flower and delicate moss that manages to survive on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland, and of the understated love between an old woman and her grandchild. Yet scattered through its chapters are Jansson’s thoughts on death.

It is spring at the start of
The Summer Book
, and six-year-old Sophia wakes in the night and remembers she has a bed to herself because her mother is dead. Grandmother is nearby, and although old, her legs weak, her head dizzy, she is lively with wisdom and imagination. She is Sophia’s companion through the months ahead. They roam the island together, falling asleep under bushes, musing on religion – “
Are there ants in Heaven?
”– and discussing the relative pleasures of sleeping in a tent. (Jansson’s own mother campaigned in Sweden to win the right for girls to be allowed to camp outdoors.) They spend hours in the “magic forest” clearing the ground around it, tidying it down to the smallest twig. They find a seal skull and plant it where it gleams with all its teeth. “
When are you going to 
die?” the child asked. And Grandmother answered, “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours

Tove Jansson wrote
The Summer Book
in 1972, the year after her own mother died. At first she went travelling to ease her grief, but after some months came back to her island in the outer archipelago to write.
The Summer Book
was, by all accounts, a favourite novel, and to create it she drew on the things that were most precious to her. Her beloved mother Signe Hammarsten, a graphic designer and cartoonist, her young niece Sophia, and the island home that she built with her brother Lars, Sophia’s father, and where she spent so many summers of her life. By now she was already famous for her Moomintroll cartoon strips and children’s books, but
The Summer Book
, hailed in Scandinavia as a modern classic, brought her success among a whole new adult readership.

It is a clear, warm day on the Pellinge peninsula, when I stand on the jetty waiting for the real-life Sophia to steer me across to the island in her boat. I feel incredibly privileged, invited to enter the world that inspired this book, and with great anticipation I step aboard. The sea looks calm when we set off but the wind is against us, the water rough, and the boat slams down from the tip of each wave, soaking us with spray. Sophia, fully grown now, has returned every summer of her life to this island, and as one would expect shows not the slightest sign of fear. “Does it ever capsize?” I want to ask but there’s only one answer worth hearing so I stay quiet.

Twenty minutes later we are mooring up, Sophia anchoring the boat skilfully between long ropes, keeping her balance while she makes it safe. We unload the life jackets, newspapers, food and drinking water and splash towards the shore. “Go ahead,” Sophia calls, so I step over soft grey stones, enter the cool of a glade of pines, and come upon the house. It is the house that Tove and Lars Jansson built in 1947, when they discovered this island. It is where
The Summer Book
is set, and immediately I recognise the woodpile and the steep stone steps that lead to Grandmother’s room, the faded blue of the paint, the window that is too big for the wall, the attic where Papa’s bathrobe was stored and where Sophia crawled to when she was cross. There is the screen door, the stove, so vital to their lives, and beyond it a window opening onto another sweep of sea. I move round to the side of the house, and there is the sea again. It had never occurred to me the island was this small.

Sophia puts the kettle on. She feeds the cat, and carefully waters her garden of flowers. I leave my bag outside the house and set off to explore. I stick to the very edges, skirting the rocks on its most northerly side, stepping over boulders, climbing through the undergrowth of scrub, past a miniature meadow of flowers, another of dry grass, up into the pinewood and I’m back at the house. I feel a little uneasy. Claustrophobic even. My walk has taken me four-and-a-half minutes!

To calm myself I think of all the things Sophia and Grandmother do on this tiny island in the long slow months between spring and autumn. They make animal sculptures, and carve boats from bark, they gather berries, driftwood and bones. They draw “awful things”, tell stories, build Venice in the marsh pool, row across to other islands, sleep and swim and talk. Grandmother drops her cane into the water and Sophia climbs down from a channel marker, where her father’s forbidden her to go, to fish it out: “

re a very good climber,” said Grandmother sternly. “And brave, too, because I could see you were scared. Shall I tell him about it? Or shouldn

t I?” Sophia shrugged one shoulder and looked at her grandmother. “I guess maybe not,” she said. “But you can tell it on your deathbed so it doesn

t go to waste

Sophia has made tea and is sitting on the terrace. She tells me about the island of Klovharun further out on the rim of the archipelago where Tove Jansson moved when their own island became too crowded with relatives and friends. She points, and I squint into the sun. Ahead, almost directly, is a treeless scrap of rock. You could hoist a flag from it and there would be nothing to distract from the sight. I can just make out a small square house. Jansson, with her long-term companion, Tuulikki Pietila, spent five months of each year there from 1964 to 1991, until a storm whipped up the sea so wildly that it wrecked their boat, and, aged seventy-seven, she retired permanently to Helsinki. The house is a kind of museum now, and before they left it the two women arranged their mugs and plates and art work, tidying the two tables where they worked for the last time. They even pinned up helpful notes, such as “don’t close the flue plate it will rust closed,” for anyone who might need to know.

Sophia weather-proofs furniture, calls her sons on a mobile phone (they are visiting friends on a neighbouring island), and prepares smoked fish for supper. I sit and re-read
The Summer Book
, marvelling at the use Jansson made of her surroundings, investing so much in the detail of each tiny patch of ground. I identify the landmarks, the skerries, The Cairn, the island where a businessman infuriated Grandmother by building a new house.

Much later we go for a swim. I’ve been thinking about a swim since we first arrived, but the knowledge that it is never going to get completely dark creates a feeling of such leisure that we put it off until almost ten o’clock. The air is grainy, the water silky and cold. At midnight I step outside for a last look at the sky. The sun is deep orange on the horizon, the water sparkling, azure blue, and I understand why on Midsummer Night the Finns celebrate with bonfires and fireworks, not wanting to waste a minute of this precious light on sleep.

The next day we take the boat to Klovharun. Sophia’s island is a virtual paradise of diversity and comfort compared to the sparseness of Tove’s later home. There is a house, really one square room, with stairs down to a sauna that opens onto a creek. Above the house, as if on guard, terns shriek menacingly, their beaks outstretched, threatening to plunge. What kind of person could live here? Someone so fuelled by their imagination, so stimulated by the sea, so richly creative that they could find solace and inspiration in what to others might seem a barren rock. The key to the house is on a hook, and there is a visitors’ book inside. We scan through the names and comments. Hardly a day has gone by when someone hasn’t come to pay their respects.

The Summer Book
has never been out of print in Scandinavia. Its allure is the allure of summer itself for these people who spend so much of the year in the dark. “We are captivated, charmed, dependent,” says Jansson’s Finnish editor. But it is also her mix of humour and psychology, the character of the island, and the protective love she so clearly has for it. Sophia tells me that sometimes Japanese tourists motor into her bay. They want her to sign pebbles, and she has to explain to them that she isn’t Tove Jansson, isn’t really even Sophia, but what worries her most is the depletion of pebbles from the island if too many of them come.

I have spent two days here now, idling, pottering, swimming, watering the bright imported flowers, inspecting the fish, stroking the cat, and I have finally arrived at island time. I examine the different coloured mosses, heeding Grandmother’s warning that: “
Only farmers and summer guests walk on the moss… The second time it doesn

t rise back up. And the third time you step on moss, it dies. Eider ducks are the same way – the third time you frighten them up from their nests, they never come back
.” Very carefully I walk to the tip of the island. There are flecks of silver, seams of colour welding the rocks together, with small landscapes of mustard yellow lichen clinging to the top. On the far side is a glade of sunken flowers, the seaweed, like soft curls of confetti, washing back and forth. There is a swing hanging from a branch and innumerable camps and dens set out by children.

I stand on a wide stepping stone and wonder if it would be possible to swim right the way round. My focus has changed now. The island is no longer quite so small. The rocks have become cliffs, the creek a ravine. But Sophia is calling me, it’s time to go, and I realise it would need a whole summer to discover everything there is to do.

BOOK: The Summer Book
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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