#100WomenNovelists: Tove Jansson

Blog Post 22: The Summer Book (1972)

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

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It was an early, very warm morning in july, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed. the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

‘What are you doing?’ asked little Sophia.

‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’

This novel is quite frankly a joy. Written by the creator of the Moomins, it is a classic in Scandinavia and far beyond, though I only read it for the first time about ten years ago. It is such a treat to revisit it.

The world loves the Moomins. In the words of Ali Smith from her review of ‘The Summer Book’ in the Guardian in 2003, ‘The Moomins are archetypes of tolerance and adaptability, creatures of curiosity and quiet philosophising who live in a Scandinavian setting of mountains, forests, seas and valleys. Joyful, melancholy and in the end uncategorisable, they survive terrible upheavals simply by their mild geniality. Their extended communal family is generous and inclusive, made up of outsiders from the calm to the anarchic.’

And the essence of the Moomins is captured in ‘The Summer Book’ which shows the complex and yet simple relationship between a grandmother and her young granddaughter. Tove Jansson lived her summers on such an island with her life-partner, Tuulikki Pietilä and this book is an homage to the islanders repetitive, rhythmic way of life and to the relationship between her own mother and niece, Sophia, on whom she bases the characters in this novel.

Grandmother, Sophia, and her parents spend their summers on a remote, tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. But this year is different. Sophie’s mother has died and so it is just the three of them. Her father is distant, either working at his desk, or out doing jobs, in his boat, in his own world of bereavement. There is only one mention of the mother’s death at the beginning but the knowledge of it informs the rest of the book, not in any maudlin way, but in the working out of grief for the young girl and in the grandmother’s acceptance of her own immortality. Grandmother is old and crotchety and fed up of being bossed around. She wants to swim, and smoke, and hike and feels her freedom is slipping away. But she is also weary and poorly. Sophia is also fed up of not being allowed to do whatever she wants and, between the two of them, they navigate this contradictory desire for freedom and safety.

‘You’re a very good climber,’ said Grandmother sternly. ‘And brave, too, because I could see you were scared. Shall I tell him (father) about it? Or shouldn’t I?’

Sophie 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.’

Each chapter is an episode, a small adventure, a story in itself. They are simply written but Jansson is an expert in subtext. She shows us the surface of the water but gives us the space to stare down into the clear and sometimes murky depths. This might be a small, quiet book, but it is mighty and vast.

I had a fantastic grandmother. She took me and my cousins on adventures. She had a rusty old van and we would loll around on a mattress in the back. Because of the rust bucket we were able to go to places we weren’t technically allowed to visit. She said we’d look like workmen. So we would explore dilapidated country houses, fishing for her beloved newts in ponds with crumbling fountains. We’d have picnics of hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and fish paste crusty rolls. She had a fruit knife and would peel apples from the garden. And there would always be a flask of coffee because tea was never the same from a Thermos.

If I asked her a question, she would generally answer it, though she might doctor the details to help me through, without ever patronising me. When I lost my father, at the age of ten, she didn’t talk directly about it, but like Sophia’s mother she continued to have adventures with me. I was lucky to have her until I was 41. Losing her was like having my heart cut out. But now, my heart has grown back and I think of the wonderful times we had and what she taught me. Which was much more than how to crochet (though she did that too).

If I am ever blessed enough to have a granddaughter, I hope I can be such a grandmother. And I will read this book to her.

#100WomenNovelists: Barbara Pym

Blog Post 21: Excellent Women (1952)

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‘Ah, you ladies! always on the spot when there’s something happening!’ The voice belonged to Mr Mallett, one of our church wardens, and its roguish tone made me start guiltily, almost as if I had no right to be discovered outside my front door.

I first discovered the simple joy of Barbara Pym a few years ago and I even blogged about my first impressions. Which haven’t changed at all. I adore her. So I am cheating this week and I’m going to repost the blog post from 2012 below:

Excellent Woman.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.’

Why has it taken me all these years to read the magnificent Barbara Pym?

I’d certainly heard of her, believed her to be a novelist who was of a certain era, one that has changed so much that she is not longer relevant. Well, I was most definitely ill-informed and it took a review, comparing This Holey Life to Excellent Women, to put me right.

Set in dreary post-war London, Mildred Lathbury is an excellent woman,‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather.’ (from blurb of Virago Modern Classics edition, 2012). Mildred, whose mother and clergyman father have passed away, lives the ‘spinster’ life, alone, in a flat. She works part-time for the wonderfully named Distressed Gentlewomen’s Fund, helps out at the vicarage, attends church and reads novels. When a married couple, the glamorous Napiers, move into the other flat in the house, she worries about how they will co-exist. ‘The burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seemed to me rather a heavy one.’

What follows is a charming, funny, and sometimes poignant telling of the way things go over the next few months as Mildred faces disruption to her ordered life. I was completely absorbed and won over.

Beware these excellent women. My great aunt is one such excellent woman. Like Pym she served in the WRNS. After  the war she looked after her ageing parents. Marriage never happened. She put her energies into the church, Greenpeace, Christian Aid and composting. It wasn’t until fairly recently, with the passing of the Official Secrets Act, that that we discovered she worked on the Enigma Code as a young woman.  She might not have been an Oxford Mathematical genius. She didn’t even know what was going on, the bigger picture, but she knew her small part made the whole machine work and who knows how the war would have turned out without the Code breakers. 

Pym’s excellent women may be consumed with the smallest things of life but these are the biggest things of life. As Alexander McCall Smith says in the introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition of Excellent Women, it is ‘a novel that on one level is about very little, (but) is a great novel about a great deal.’