By Richard Rayner
Off the southwest coast of Finland are more than 80,000 small islands left by the retreating ice 10,000 years ago. Some of the islands are mere rocks, washed by the cool waters of the Baltic, but many are covered in pine and fir trees and are big enough to live on, even if you can walk around them in five minutes.
This wonderful archipelago is a labyrinth of ocean and granite to which Finns retreat, especially during the months of June, July and August, and it’s here that Tove Jansson sets her latest novel “The Summer Book” (New York Review Books: 248 pp., $14 paper, published next month). Jansson is legendary for the creation of her joyful stories and comic strips about the Moomins, a family of tolerant, quirky and adaptive trolls, but “The Summer Book” is something else, more meditative and melancholy, the best of her 10 books for so-called adults.
“The island was blessed with mild night rain. A lot of lumber drifted by and was salvaged. No-one came to visit and there was no mail. An orchid bloomed. Everything was fine, and yet everything was shadowed by a great sadness,” Jansson writes, with typical clarity, mingling bitter and sweet. “The Summer Book” tells the story of Sophia, a young girl who spends summers with her family on one of the islands in the archipelago. Her father features here, but only in the background, a character who looms by absence, always working, or popping off on the boat to do some shopping, and so “The Summer Book” centers on the adventures that Sophia enjoys, and sometimes doesn’t, with her grandmother.
The young girl and the old woman lie down on the forest moss side-by-side so they can inspect the undergrowth. They find a dead duck, entertain various guests, indulge in a bit of breaking and entering on a nearby island, endure both a heat wave and a summer storm, create a new Venice and exorcise an ancient bathrobe of its demons. The incidents are strung together like beads on a thread, each one strong and clear. Some chapters function almost like self-contained short stories, yet the whole adds up, radiant with life and life’s mystery, and showing how the relationship between youth and age might achieve a frankness and open honesty rarely permitted by the more intimate parental bond. Sophia is fearful, smart and intransigent. Her grandmother is spiky and tough-minded, prone to losing her balance and her false teeth. She carves wooden animals and makes boats of bark, like the boat of adulthood she is starting to shape for Sophia.
Underlying all of this, and making the book cohere, is the subject, not of the microscopic world of the island or the ever-changing mood of the northern summer, but of death -- death awaited, death endured, death raged against and not understood. Shortly before the story begins, Sophia’s mother has died, an event to which Jansson refers only once but which permeates the narrative like a shadow flitting through the depths of clear water. “A channel opened very slowly in the floor, and all their luggage floated out in the river of moonlight. All the suitcases were open and full of moss, and none of them ever came back,” writes Jansson, describing the nightmare in which Sophia recalls the loss of her mother. Sophia wakes her grandmother, pulling her hair gently and wanting to know if the door is locked. “It’s open,” her grandmother says. “It’s always open; you can sleep quite easy.” For Tove Jansson, the world is to be embraced, even if it smacks you back.
Countless readers have come to rely on “The Summer Book” as they would a wise, old friend. Like Raymond Carver (a very different writer in mood), Jansson provides comfort when needed and enlightenment and pleasure at all times. Like Carver, she was a miniaturist, constantly refining and purifying her vision. Her simple prose shimmers with meaning and her minute observation imbues the physical world with immense poetic power.
“Every year the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. The can of kerosene is brought up from the cellar and left in the hall, and the flashlight is hung up on its peg beside the door,” Jansson writes. She’s a spiritual writer in the best sense, of no particular religion, alert to impulse, never sentimental yet unfailingly generous to her characters. “The Summer Book” sparkles, too, with a dry understated humor that is very Finnish. When Sophia asks if angels can fly down to hell, her grandmother replies: “Of course. They might have all sorts of friends and neighbors down there.”
This new New York Review of Books edition is the first in English to feature Jansson’s own illustrations. The original Pantheon hardback, published in 1974, omitted them, perhaps because Jansson’s graphic style was then so closely associated with the Moomins. But now the drawings are restored, and Jansson’s cover art too, an impressionistic watercolor that shows a tiny island at sunset, suspended between oceans of water and sky. Two figures, the grandmother and Sophia, stand on a rock at the island’s edge, while trees lean away from them, as if in retreat from a prevailing wind. A single light glows in a cottage.
The image, like “The Summer Book” itself, is perfect.
Richard Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly.
THE SHORTLIST: ALSO NEW IN PAPERBACK
Cesar Vallejo, “ ‘Spain, Take This Chalice From Me’ and Other Poems” (Penguin)
Vallejo, who died in poverty in Paris in 1938, saw poetry as a medicine for politics and the human condition. Born in Peru, he worked as a journalist and publisher in Spain during the Civil War. He was of the left, of course, and his poems, whether political or sensual, oscillate between the surreal and the gorgeously concrete. “This Lima afternoon it’s raining. And I am remembering / the cruel caverns of my ingratitude; / my block of ice upon her poppy, / stronger than her ‘Don’t be like that!’ ” Critics have said that Vallejo’s fervor and imagery make him impossible to translate, but Margaret Sayers Peden makes a wonderful stab at it in this revelatory new collection introduced by the Latin-American scholar Ilan Stavans.
Cesar Chavez, “An Organizer’s Tale” (Penguin)
“I went through a lot of hell, and a lot of people did,” wrote labor leader Cesar Chavez, who, perhaps more than anybody, made us see the gaps between haves and have-nots in California. “Anger was a part of Chavez, but so was a transparent love of mankind,” the writer Peter Matthiessen has noted, and this new collection, a paperback original, showcases interviews, speeches and writings that give ample demonstration of Chavez’s power as an orator and his sheer human appeal. “I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice,” Chavez said. “But it is hard and we have a long way to go.”
Ada Louise Huxtable, “Frank Lloyd Wright” (Penguin)
Huxtable’s telling of Wright’s remarkable life is brief and elegant. The great architect was “a complex, gifted, dedicated, egocentric, arrogant, deeply believing, self-deluding, willfully embattled man,” she writes, understanding both Wright’s genius and his shenanigans. The landmark events -- the relationship with Louis Sullivan, the stunning achievement of the Larkin building in Buffalo, the burning of the first Taliesin and the murders that happened there, Wright’s late, great revival -- are told with sizzling fluency. Wright, too, would have loved the design of this neat little book.
Alain de Botton, “The Architecture of Happiness” (Vintage)
“What is a beautiful building?” asks Alain de Botton here, reflecting on how created space acts on our emotions and delving into the purpose of architecture itself. “Not only do beautiful houses falter as guarantors of happiness, they can also be accused of failing to improve the characters of those who live in them,” he writes. De Botton, as always, has a handy way with an epigram, and this well-illustrated book shows him at his best, making an intellectual and moral plea for the quality of our environment.
Stephen Walsh, “Stravinsky, The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971" (University of California)
The second volume of Walsh’s biography brings Stravinsky to Los Angeles, where he and his wife created a modest bourgeois environment for themselves on North Wetherly Drive in West Hollywood. From this unlikely operations center, Stravinsky produced a string of masterpieces, including “Orpheus” and, in collaboration with the poet W.H. Auden (who was too tall for the guest couch in the den), the opera “The Rake’s Progress.” Stravinsky really was, as Esa-Pekka Salonen has said, “a local boy,” and Walsh underestimates the vibrancy of the classical music scene in L.A. Still, this is a necessary and inspiring book.
Karen Connelly, “The Lizard Cage” (Spiegel & Grau)
Connelly’s tough novel is set in Myanmar, , in a prison, where Teza, a once-famous political singer-songwriter is held in oppressive and squalid conditions that are indelibly conveyed. Teza is terrorized by a couple of the jailers but helped by another one and by a boy who maintains himself by catching and selling rats. It’s brutal stuff, and Connelly, perhaps not to the benefit of the novel’s intense and claustrophobic central story line, weaves in plenty about the history and politics of Burma. But, as she points out in her afterword, this is a book about characters and a country that “have been flayed.” A shocking, dark novel.
Kate Pullinger, “A Little Stranger” (Serpent’s Tail)
The Canadian-born Pullinger has made a career in England, and her novel “A Little Stranger” asks a bold question: What happens if a mother feels she’s made a terrible mistake in having a child? Fran, a middle-class Londoner, feels she’s not capable, not up for motherhood, and the book begins with a chilling scene in which her small son has a tantrum in the local supermarket and she simply walks away. This moment of crisis takes her, in time, to Las Vegas -- of all places -- where she reassesses her life. Pullinger writes sympathetically about the bleak wasteland that early parenthood can sometimes resemble.
Etgar Keret, “The Girl on the Fridge” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Keret, one of Israel’s most celebrated young writers, is a master of the short-short, a story that gets in quick and exits at lightning speed, hopefully packing a big bang along the way. In one of these tales a woman, arguing with her husband, attaches herself to the ceiling with super-glue. In another, a magician starts pulling dead babies from his hat. “Moral Something” begins: “The guy on TV said the military court gave the death sentence to the Arab who’d killed the girl soldier, and lots of people came on TV to talk about it, and because of that the news went on till ten-thirty and they didn’t show ‘Moonlighting.’ It made Dad so angry he lit his pipe in the house and it stank.” The prose zips, the effects unsettle -- Keret is himself something of a magician, and what he pulls from his hat feels lively indeed.
Elie Wiesel, “The Night Trilogy” (Hill and Wang)
Wiesel’s classic and devastating Holocaust memoir “Night” is packaged together here with two short novels, “Dawn” and “Day” (which was previously titled “The Accident”), all in new translations. “And yet, I still wonder: Have I used the right words?” writes Wiesel in his introduction, knowing that probably there are no “right” words to describe what he endured, only the necessity of raising a voice. “The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.”
Amy Dockser Marcus, “Jerusalem 1913" (Penguin)
Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin (ed), “The Israel-Arab Reader” (Penguin)
Karl Sabbagh, “Palestine, History of a Lost Nation” (Grove)
The Arab-Israeli conflict is still not resolved, and these three books mark, in their different ways, the 60th anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel. Each, from a different perspective, asks what has happened and why. The Laqueur/Rubin book is an invaluable resource, a documentary history in effect, a comprehensive reference of speeches, letters, articles and reports, from Theodor Herzl in 1886 to Fathi Hamad of Hamas and George W. Bush in 2007. Pulitzer Prize winner and Wall Street Journal reporter Amy Dockser Marcus asserts that 1913 was the turning point, and her haunting micro-history analyzes a moment when choices were made that sent Arabs and Jews “down a particular path that slowly but inexorably led to where they stand today.” She evokes with sadness a time when all the different parties in Jerusalem actually got along. Karl Sabbagh, on the other hand, tells the long history of Palestine through the story of his own family, highlighting the folly of parts of the world trying to ignore the rights of an entire people. Both he and Dockser Marcus call for dialogue and compassion, phenomena in short supply in a region that, as New Yorker editor David Remnick has noted, features too much history and too little geography.