David Nice has been writing professionally about music since 1985. He wrote for The Guardian's arts page over a five-year period, and now contributes to the BBC Music Magazine and Radio 3's CD Review, where he has presented over 20 programmes in its 'Building a Library' series. He is the author of Prokofiev, A Biography: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, and shorter studies of Richard Strauss, Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. David blogs at I'll Think of Something Later. Here he writes about Tove Jansson's The Summer Book.
David Nice on The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Whenever I ask a musician to name a favourite Mozart opera/Mahler symphony/Beethoven sonata, the canny interviewee usually responds with 'whatever I'm working on at the moment'. That was how I felt when put on the spot here. I've no hesitation in naming the two great masterpieces I'll be re-reading every decade or so for however long I have left: Tolstoy's War and Peace and Cervantes's Don Quixote. But a quirkier treasure that sticks in the mind? Until last week I was poised to praise Jan Morris's Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere to the skies, and expand on how my dialogue with it had changed since I visited the city a couple of months ago. But then my last, magical trip to Ingmar Bergman's Swedish island of life and death Fårö propelled me towards a gem I've been meaning to read for years, Moomintroll creator Tove Jansson's exquisite watercolour portraits of, in effect if not in every detail, her mother and her niece together on an even smaller strip of land.
Somehow I imagined it would be a bit of a soft option, gentle whimsy after the bright and black of Linn Ullmann's A Blessed Child, another masterpiece based on the author's childhood and times spent on Fårö – Hammarsand in the book - with Bergman, her father. I was wrong. Lovingly reissued with telling photographs and Esther Freud's foreword, The Summer Book surely relies on a nuance-perfect translation from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.
I used to wonder why critics who didn't speak the language would praise so fulsomely the latest translation of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky when they couldn't possibly know the original. But at the same time some translators stand head and shoulders above others for their musical cadences and their perfectly chosen words. I'm a new fan of Anthea Bell, whose rendering of Hoffmann's The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr made me laugh out loud as a recent Svevo in English sadly didn't. It might have been the original author's tone, but I doubt it.
You can hardly doubt that the translated nuance is right in such passages as the one I'm going to quote. Young, motherless Sophia and her grandmother – never anything as cosy as a 'granny', just a wise mentor who always adjusts herself when she must to her granddaughter's way of looking at the world – sit, walk, work and swim around the islet in the summer months, touching effortlessly on the bigger questions of nature and death. Here Sophia asks who the 'he' is her grandmother refers to in the past tense, talking about the man's love of sailing in a storm.
'Your grandfather, of course,' Grandmother said. 'My husband.'
'Are you married?' Sophia cried in astonishment.
'Bloody nitwit,' Grandmother muttered to herself. Out loud, she said, 'You better ask your father about generations and all that. Ask him to draw it on a piece of paper. If you're interested.'
'I don't think so,' said Sophia amiably. 'I'm a bit busy right now.'
Prickly Sophia, who loves wild things, and the grandmother we can't imagine readily smiling, are much too tart for feelgood sentiment. At one point the grandmother wonders if she herself is 'nice' as Sophia claims to be in the face of a storm, and decides not. 'The best you could say of me is that I'm interested.' And, of course, she is, making balsawood models of Venetian buildings to encourage Sophia in her fascination with a postcard from the sinking city and to populate the little marsh near the house. That's my favourite chapter, since it draws together incongruities in an especially magical and evocative fashion. But each portrait, dialogue, landscape or nature-change illustrates without any pretensions the richness and the sadness of the human predicament.
God, of course, is never far from Swedish communings in solitude, and Sophia is still naïve enough to think that He has time for her personal prayers – an illusion in which the grandmother eventually and tactfully acquiesces. Another unforgettable dialogue takes place when Sophia insists on God's creation of hell.
'Sophia', she said, 'this is really not something to argue about. You can see for yourself that life is hard enough without being punished for it afterwards. We get comfort when we die, that's the whole idea.'
All this chimes in serendipitously with Bergman's thoughts on life and death, vividly projected in a documentary about his life on Fårö a few years before he died. I watched it again on my return from the trip, studiously transcribed some of his distilled wisdoms and posted them with some numinous photos of the midsummer island in what I felt was the most important blog entry, for me at any rate, that I'd written.
I sense the firm presence of Jansson herself throughout the book, and feel sad that she's no longer around to meet or to write or talk to. She moved with her life-partner Tuulikki Pietilä to an island even smaller than the one refracted in the book, until a storm destroyed their boat, and at 77 she retired to Helsinki, where she died in 2001. But she lives in a very permanent way in this book – what great writer doesn't? - and I'm sure I'll return to it as often as my Tolstoy and my Cervantes, with easier access.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]