Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Mythic Style: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

When I read a new novel I make a habit of not reading any commentaries, reviews or introductions as I don't like to be told what I should think or feel about  a new book. I like to come to it afresh.  I may read such commentaries afterwards but my own first close reading is my reference for what the book means to me.

Reading for Myself...
But you can't close your ears and Tove Jannson 's Summer Book came to the Iconic reading group laden with insightful praise from my reading guru Gillian. She certainly made me want to read it.

As I read it  I admired its beautifully written spare, poetic tone. I found it  hard to sort out whether this was down to the elegant translation or the original writing by a writer, whose reputation is built on writing for children. Of course the best children's writers know in their hearts about diamond bright use of language  to convey precise, often deep meaning,. Tove Jannson certainly does this in this story about a small girl who spends the summer on an island on the gulf of Finland with her Grandmother, who is a marginally eccentric artist and has no problems rowing in the water around the island.

So the language is spare and cool, like the landscape which plays such an important role in  the novel: central to the narrative is the living nature of the sea ands the moving seasons. This builds to a climax quite naturally with a great and beautifully engendered storm. Bedded into this narrative are the details of the child's observations and her trusting, pert questions about the world and life and death. This child's eye view is the magnifying glass at the core of the narrative.

The grandmother is made more real by her artistic accumulation of objects and by details such as her false teeth and her corsets.  Such details alongside her ultimate very human exhaustion  lift her out of the mythic status endowed by the sometimes glacial style of the storytelling.  The subtext of past death and approaching death, clearly at the core of this book, is  sweetened by the grace of the writing and the glory of the natural world that infuses the story.

While I really appreciated all this and enjoyed the book - which is a very easy summer read but is strong enough to bear a second or third reading - I started to feel as though I was seeing all this through a lens smeared with Vaseline. I started to notice the distancing engendered by the use of the passive voice and (what I  felt to be) the over-use of reported speech. The voice here is the voice of the storyteller, not the characters.  I also began to notice with discomfort the overweening power of the 'wise' grandmother.

This made me realise that despite focusing on  adult values and concerns, the form  of expression in The Summer Book is that of a fairy tale or myth - a stately, condensed poetic delivery that  is accessible to children and adults alike.

Afterwards I was not surprised to discover this story has not been out of print since its first publication. It has the perpetual appeal of mythic story that lays bare the child in all of us.

The last word on this from the magisterial CS LEWIS:

'Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up...'

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