The Summer Book
“You can see for yourself that life is hard enough without being punished for it afterwards”
Tove Jansson – The Summer Book
“This breeze is a little cold, are you too cold?” the young woman asked with concern.
She never used to fuss like this, Grandmother thought. Back when she was small enough to be fussed over herself. She never worried about my feelings, or concerned herself with my comfort. In fact, I never fussed over her either. The elderly woman considered for a moment. She preferred those days.
The breeze was light, and the sun was shining. Not at all cold, in fact, for the Gulf of Finland.
After a pause the Grandmother asked “Where did you say you live now? Spain?”
“Yes” Sophia replied, “In Valencia.” She added, without knowing why, “That is to say, just outside the city.” Grandmother’s eyes darted across sharply. “Is that so?” she replied.
The grass gently danced in the breeze. Grandmother thought about the heat of the south that could make her Granddaughter feel this air to be cool.
“You only went to Italy didn’t you? Not to Spain.” How the young feel they are always the first to experience anything; that cliché ran through the old woman’s mind. And I suspect the old always believe they are the first to accuse the young of this, too. She chuckled to herself over the hypocrisy of both youth and age.
The wind was picking up in fact, there were little points of white out on the sea. The two women watched a distant dinghy sail by in a comfortable silence.
Great age comes with responsibilities, one of which is to appear confused and a straightforward manner of achieving this is to converse at tangents. This was something that came very easily to her. “There’s a painting in the ‘Museo de Belles Artes’ in Valencia.” She began, relishing the chance to startle her Granddaughter.
Sophia was long used to her ways, and equally delighted in thwarting her, still. “It’s ‘Museu’ now,” she explained, “The speak Valencian now. It is called the ‘Museu de Belles Arts’. Naturally they all can all speak Spanish still, but they prefer their own language.”
“What do they do to people who speak Spanish, then?” Grandmother asked, mischievously. Sophia laughed a gentle, indulgent laugh. She was old enough, just, to remember how it was to be a Swedish speaking Finn. “What about this painting?” She wasn’t going to humour the old trickster by being surprised by her knowledge of Valencia.
Grandmother thought back over the years. Memory shortens and flattens but can also lengthen and confuse, of course. Was the emotional memory stronger, or the visual? She decided to try and find out. You ought, at least, to be able to talk about these things.
She took herself back to that place. “It was a long time ago; your mother was still alive. I think she’d have been about ten.” I wonder, she thought, I wonder if the pain is still there, “Your grandfather had recently … I had …. That is to say, well, he had… er,” Yes, a little, It is still hard to frame it after all these years, decades, “He had done something he oughtn’t have done. The sort of thing people old enough to know better do sometimes, if they want to play at being fools, or being teenagers. Or both. No, maybe not teenagers; they wouldn’t be that foolish or cause that much pain.” She thought of how teenagers are all lumped together as an absurd, uncaring, pointless group of uncontrollable individuals dangerous to themselves and others. Rather like the very old. It was extremely unfair she thought – on the teenagers at least.
Sophia felt herself wince and tense involuntarily. Oh, she thought, she’s in pain still. Oh my goodness. It will never fade.
Grandmother continued this disjointed revelation. “We found ourselves in Valencia and for some reason he wanted to visit the gallery. He wandered around chuckling at the ancient religious art; I sat and stared at only one painting.” She felt herself there now; surprising herself she found that the smell of the distant gallery overpowered that of the nearby sea. “The background is drab. A dark grey wall, almost deliberately unpleasant. A wall you’d have to work at to keep that unkempt. It was wholly unadorned, the settee was also drab; a nondescript red.” The background always struck Grandmother first. “Despite it’s miserable blankness, the background seemed to speak of family, a warm family”
The younger woman half listened, her mind on something else. She didn’t wonder why her ancient relative was telling her this story, or where it might go; she never had. She thought how their pain appeared to resonate; even across this vast time.
“There is a couple on the sofa, he looks rather stern, but when you go to the gallery make sure you take a good close look at his face. He is sat rather apart from the woman, but his left knee stretches out to touch her, it’s an awkward yet loving pose. Not a protective love, but a love of need. There has to be contact. It is a love of equality. The woman has a sweet, smiling face, maybe rather frivolous. But that touch shows the respect he has for her. It is awkward, stiff, but beautiful.”
Sophia couldn’t remember her grandmother ever talking for so long. Now the older woman lay herself on the sand and granite and appeared to be snoozing.
The Granddaughter thought of this old woman, much younger, sat in anguish staring at this rather plain sounding picture. What did it tell her, she wondered, idly.
But Grandmother was not really asleep, an old trick of course. “It’s a Sorolla. A famous Valencian artist, you probably know his bright ones, of people and the sea. Well, he painted lots and lots of portraits. They are framed as is a photograph framed, yet painted in a classical style.” That doesn’t sound like me she thought, as did Sophia. I must have read it somewhere.
“But you lived a happy life for many years after?” Grandmother felt rather than heard the slight desperation in Sophia’s question. She pretended to nap again, so as to allow her grandchild the relief of not having her tear-filled eyes observed.
However old you get, the pain doesn’t ease, it seems. “It gets better with time”, she soothed; but they both knew she was lying, as the old often do.
The sun had shifted and was burning warmer than ever. The tide had turned, and the breeze died down. It was calm.
Grandmother sat up unsteadily, and slowly. “After a while you notice that the time the couple spent with the artist, sitting for him, must have been rather jolly fun. What have you been doing yourself, dear? To help?”
Absorbed in her thoughts the precision of the question passed her by, “Oh reading a bit. A lot, actually.” She thought of that remarkable little book that had helped so much. “I’ve done something I’ve never done before, Grandmother, I wonder if that’s a good thing? I read the book again.”
“It depends. Sometimes new things are only things you’ve done before but decide to think you haven’t.” Or maybe that is just when you have lived for so very long, she mused. Too long. “But surely you’ve often re-read a book!”
“Are you cold?” she asked again, involuntarily, even though she could feel herself that it was rather hot now. “Yes of course. But this was different. I finished and just went back to the beginning and started again. There’s no story; nothing happens and everything happens. It is about nothing and about all of life. I read it four times in a row, non-stop. Now I’m reading it to the children. At night. While they sleep.”
Grandmother looked sharply up again at her thinking that was rather obsessive. Can you depend on people who just let things happen?
“We had a full life together afterwards, yes. Many years. Maybe I never saw things until they were too late; or he didn’t. We didn’t have the strength to start again. Or maybe I just forgot the idea along the way, and I didn’t even realise I’d forgotten about it. I think it’s wise to keep at it, forgetting isn’t always so hard.” It becomes second nature, she realised.
Lost for a while inside themselves; the younger woman wondering how to forget, her eyes once more brimming; the older one considering whether it still had the power it once had. She never had understood why speaking the title made her cry, it didn’t mean that much to her and it wasn’t that moving a phrase, not really. But it always did, every time. She hadn’t spoken its name for so many years. “Well, let’s see.” she thought.
Slowly she stood, leaned on her stick and faced the sea; as dead calm as she could ever remember. “You discover that the couple are his parents-in-law, the mother and father of his wife. They – Sorolla and his wife – had a long and happy marriage, and you can feel the mutual feelings here in this painting. Love and respect given and received from someone else’s son. But the title, it is how he chose to name it that tells us. It is not his relationship with them, or even their daughter that he focuses on. His respect and love for them must have been very great indeed for him to highlight their precious position to that which mattered most, what was dearest above all else.”
The old woman paused, and the very air sensed it. She knew, across the years (so many years), this still affected as deeply as the first time. Still; she wanted to tell her granddaughter, had to tell her it was going to be alright. She had to speak it now, as the sun shone and everything was fine. Yes, it was fine, yet it was all overshadowed by a great sadness. It was only time on top of time, vanity and a chasing after the wind.
“The painting is called ‘Los Abuelos De Mis Hijos’.“
And as the wind picked up again it licked insistently at the tears streaming down the faces of the solitary women, one sitting, one standing, grieving for the past, for the present and for the future.
The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson – ISBN 978-0-95422-171-3 – I consider to be possibly the best book I have ever read 10/10
This has been freely adapted from the book, and includes extracts, quotes and references which are all used wholly without authorisation