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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Classic Finnish author’s re-release is ‘richly comic’

    Since 1999, New York Review of Books Classics has been doing for books – from W.H. Auden’s poems to Edmund Wilson’s classic study of communism, ‘To the Finland Station’ -ÿwhat the Criterion Collection has done for movies. Everything they release is packaged so gorgeously that you almost hate to crack the pages open.

    “”The Summer Book,”” a classic short novel from 1972 by Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson, is one of NYRB Classics’ latest releases, and it’s almost certainly one of the best to date. This edition restores Jansson’s original illustrations, which lend the book an unmistakable flavor.

    Few works – perhaps Hayao Miyazaki’s “”My Neighbor Totoro,”” or the early years of Charles Schulz’s “”Peanuts”” – capture the serene simplicity of childhood as winningly as Jansson’s book.

    The book follows the story of a girl named Sophia and her grandmother and their summer together on an isolated island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia’s father is around, but not often present in the story; her mother has died recently, a fact which seems to lie behind the book’s bittersweet tone and preoccupation with mortality.

    On the surface, this theme only appears subliminally; it plays out as a series of 22 short, sparkling vignettes, many of which end with a quiet epiphany or a gentle anticlimax.

    The book is richly comic. Sophia, who is 6, treats her grandmother like a flustered parent, while her grandmother has the pricky wisdom and infinite patience of, well, a real grandmother.

    “”Can angels fly down to Hell?”” Sophia asks. Her grandmother replies that of course they can – “”They might have all sorts of friends and neighbors down there.”” Who could argue with that?

    In one chapter, Sophia adopts a cat named Moppy. When Moppy offends her by bringing her dead birds, she trades him for another, more docile and friendly cat – only to decide, after the new pet only wants to lie around and shed its fur on everything, that she wants Moppy back after all.

    Most stories don’t have a ‘lesson’ as explicit as that, but the unsentimental love of the real and authentic – the gritty and lifelike over the pretty and idealized -ÿis the same.

    The book is also very funny. When Sophia’s dreadful friend Berenice comes and threatens to ruin the peace of the island, the grandmother settles her down by telling her to draw something. When Berenice produces a sketch of a “”creature with a black hole for a face,”” Sophia asks if her friend can really draw.

    “”No,”” the grandmother answers. “”Probably not. She’s probably one of those people who do one good thing and then that’s the end of it.””

    Jansson is best known – if she’s known here at all – as the author of the Moomin stories for children. Those stories should be better known here; they offer the same crystal-clear yet mysterious narratives and marvelous drawings.

    “”The Summer Book”” could certainly be read with pleasure by intelligent children, but its lessons – sweet, sad, and wonderfully simple -ÿare best imbibed by adults. It certainly makes a lovely introduction to Jansson for anyone who doesn’t know her work.

    – Justyn Dillingham

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