This is not a love story. It was once, but my relationship with books has soured. Reading is, these days, like swallowing a cheap broth, one that contains the occasional scrap of meat, but which is, for the most part, thin, watery and bitter. Yet as a child I would avoid school and every day take myself to the local library. I would stand before the shelves in awe, almost afraid to touch, as I was so unused to things offering themselves to me. The rows seemed endless, unconquerable; and yet I perhaps now own more books than that library ever contained. I own so many; too many. But really they own me, and they oppress me. What was once my passion has become my prison. In my room I am surrounded on all sides by shaky towers of books. It is as though I am trying to wall myself in, when in fact I want to break out. I fantasise about giving them all away or creating a huge pyre and setting fire to it. Yet books, I’m told, do not burn. So picking up Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude seems, at best, like a form of masochism. Not only is it a book, but it is a book about the value of books and the pleasures of reading. The value of books and the pleasure of reading? I am convinced that one day my towers will fall and crush me. They are crushing me already, slowly but surely. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by Haňt’a, a man who for thirty-five years has been compacting wastepaper, smearing himself with letters until, he says, he has come to resemble an encyclopaedia. As a character, he is the Hrabalian archetype, which is to say that he seems naive, perhaps at times even something of an idiot, but is, simultaneously, unassumingly, capable of great insight or displays of great intelligence. He is a man, a drunk you might say, who, for example, will sit dreaming at a bar and when he moves to open his wallet will fling upon the counter a mouse or let fall one from his trouser-leg. Yet he also quotes Nietzsche, Hegel, Rimbaud and Kant. Although lacking in formal education, Haňt’a is well read, having received an ‘unwitting education’ from the books he saves from destruction, from the jaws of his press, and takes home. In this way, I am reminded again of that child, myself as a child, standing before the seemingly endless rows of books, timidly reaching out my hand. Where would I be without the activity that I now so disparage, which gave me my own unwitting education? At least Haňt’a has the good grace to feel gratitude. He writes, lovingly, lovely lines about popping a sentence into his mouth and sucking it like a fruit drop, lines about thoughts that dissolve within him, infusing his brain and heart. Am I so bitter these days that I cannot acknowledge how beautiful that is? For Haňt’a education allows, or gives birth to, thought; without access to profound ideas, one cannot have profound ideas of one’s own; one’s brain remains foetal. Yet, for me, education was a means of escape from a situation I found intolerable, from an environment that was harmful. My mother, bless her, cried at the station as I boarded the train that was taking me away to university. She cried, I’m sure, because she understood that I had dug my way out, which is something she had once hoped for herself but never achieved; and books had been my tools, books it was that had broken the earth; without them I would have exhausted myself frantically clawing at the hard surface without making an impression. Haňt’a, however, is much less demanding of life than I was. One does not get the impression that he has ambitions to be elevated above his current station; and yet books allow him to escape too. He is so good-natured that it would be easy to take lightly how heavy-hearted a man might feel deep in a mouse-infested cellar, compacting wastepaper, day in and day out, for thirty-five years; all while living in a police-state; a police-state that doesn’t look too kindly upon books, to boot. It is no surprise, therefore, that he drinks; and it is no surprise that this underground man values, and takes pleasure in, the printed words that transport him to another, better world. Our world, Haňt’a repeatedly informs us, is not humane; and he, furthermore, provides the reader with numerous examples of this inhumanity, such as the working girls who draw the insides from still living chickens and his gypsy lover who is murdered in a concentration camp. Yes, there is a cellar-deep strain of melancholy running through the book, although it is easy to miss it, to be seduced into missing it by the soothingly good-natured, and unassuming, voice of the narrator. Indeed, Too Loud a Solitude is a book of contrasts of this sort: Haňt’a, the wise fool, the intellectual simpleton, who decorates his bails of wastepaper with art and rare books, like flowers in the barrels of guns; Haňt’a, the ‘refined butcher’, the cultured artist and the destroyer of culture. Doesn’t this topsy-turviness, this two-facedness, sum up human existence? The supreme and the inhumane, the good and the bad, love and hate, creation and destruction, suffering and joy, etc. Just look at Manka, poor Manka, the pretty girl who, when at her most divine, her most winning, twice falls foul of faeces. And Haňt’a too, who takes pride in his work – which is itself a kind of shitting, what with paper going in one end and lumpy bails coming out the other – to such an extent that he wishes to purchase his press for his retirement; Haňt’a, poor Haňt’a, who falls foul, not of faeces, but progress, inhumane progress. Ah, how beautiful the world’s hands are, but how dirty its fingernails. Bohumil Hrabal, as much as any writer, understood this; and I can’t help but love him for it, even now. So I guess that this is a love story, in the end. Yet it is the worst kind of love, the kind that flickers with life, that occasionally reminds you of what you once had, that tricks you, for a short time, into thinking that you will have it again.
Philip Pullman called this book marvellous, beautiful, wise and added that it is also very funny. I think someone might have spiked Phil’s tea. Marvellous, wise and beautiful, yes, it is all three of those things on occasions. Very funny, though? Er. Maybe some people’s funny bones are hellishly tickled by airy Scandinavian short stories about nature and human existence, but I can’t say mine was.
Tove Jansson, it seems necessary to mention, was the Finnish author of the Moomin series of books. She was, then, primarily a writer for children. However, in the last few years her adult novels, of which The Summer Book is one, have gained greater attention and praise. I’ve always thought that the distinction between children’s fiction [not to mention young adult etc] and adult fiction an odd and irritating one. We seem obsessed with the idea that things ought to be directed or targeted, more so to sell those things than for any other reason. I mention this because there is nothing about The Summer Book, aside from the absence of white Hippo-like creatures, to mark it out from so-called kid-lit; and certainly there is nothing that makes it unsuitable for or unappreciable by children. In fact, while some adults might find it dull and uneventful, I’d wager that kids, who are way more open-minded than we are, would see something of their own experience of the world in it and dig it on that basis.
In keeping with the tone of the work, Jansson’s prose style is direct and simple. There really is nothing challenging about The Summer Book, and that could be construed as a criticism, but it is not intended as one. While I absolutely did not have the profound experience that some readers and critics would like to convince us the book is capable of providing, I did enjoy it very much. If you liked that scene in American Beauty with the plastic bag floating around on the wind, if that scene made you gulp a little bit and squeeze your partner’s hand, then you’ll probably enjoy these stories too. I am keen to avoid hyperbole in this review, because I think that leads to disappointment; too many reviews of this book give the impression of it being something it isn’t. Take it on face value for what it is: nice. There ain’t nothing wrong with nice, yo.
I often alternate between the words book and novel in my reviews; they are, for the most part, interchangeable, of course. Not here though; The Summer Book is often called a novel, but it is no such thing. It is a series of connected short stories, featuring a child, Sophia, and her Grandmother. There is absolutely no more continuity beyond that [except the island where they live, and a father who is absent in all but name]. There is no narrative, no plot, and, actually, no character.
All of the stories, or episodes, are likeable and pleasant and worth reading, but one or two stood out for me. My favourite was The Cat, which involves Sophia adopting a moggy who will not return her affection.
“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
Eventually she exchanges the cat for one who loves her back, who sleeps on her bed and purrs madly. Only Sophia eventually comes to realise that she can’t simply transfer her feelings from one animal to another and so wants to make the exchange again.
“It’ll be awful,” said Sophia gravely. “But it’s Moppy I love.”
The morals, the lessons learned are all very obvious and straightforward, but that is not to say that we can’t all do with being reminded of them once in a while.