Sunday, 29 March 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when the clocks go forward

I’ve been longing for the clocks to go forward for the past three months – impatient for the lengthening evenings, the light at the end of a wintry tunnel – but I’m also aware of how time seems to be passing more quickly than usual, which is as much a symptom of growing older as the wrinkles around my eyes. And if an hour has been lost today, then what else have I lost in the last year, whilst anticipating what hasn’t yet happened, instead of living in the moment?

Hence my swooping between exhilaration and melancholy -- a blend of shadow and sunlight that seems to me to be characteristic of this time of year, as well as my time of life -- making Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’ more timely than ever. Written in 1972, when the author was 58, and grieving for her mother, who had died the previous June, the book is a celebration of the joys of summer – swimming, gathering berries, making boats of bark -- yet also an acknowledgement that winter always returns.

Anyone who loves Jansson’s Moominland adventures, as I have done since childhood, will recognise her gentle humour and wisdom; but this less famous adult novel is more rooted in autobiographical realism than the quirky Moomintrolls. The story of an elderly woman and her granddaughter, Sophia, who spend the summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland, it reflects Jansson’s equally remote retreats to an outer archipelago, and her relationship with her mother and niece (also named Sophia).

The early pages of ‘The Summer Book’ describe Sophia’s awakening on an April night, when the moon is full and the sea still covered in ice. She remembers that ‘they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.’ “When are you going to die?” she asks her grandmother. “And grandmother answered, ‘Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.’” Death, like winter, is unavoidable – that much is clear, even if its timing is not quite as predictable as clockwork -- but Sophia discovers the simple freedoms of summer are precious, and her grandmother’s love undimmed, even as darkness falls, and time seems to be running out.


Rob Hardy said...

Lovely "Bibliotherapy" this week. I love The Summer Book and blogged about it myself last year (here). I loved reading your thoughts on the books, which were quite similar to my own.

Kentishmaid said...

I have come across this book mentioned so often now it has gone onto the reading list. It seems it would tie in well with Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, which I have just read. The way of island life, seclusion, being all appeals to me, if just for a few months at a time.

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite books of all time!
And do you know Mary Oliver's poems?
x Elspeth

Justine Picardie said...

So glad to know that other people love this book as much as I do. But please tell me about Mary Oliver. I don't know her poems, but clearly, I should add them to my reading list, along with Adam Nicolson. There's something so seductive about the idea of escaping to an island -- I used to go to the Scilly isles as a child, and returned with my own kids, and also with my mother and my niece and nephew -- so there was this wonderful feeling of going back to the past, and finding it as magical as it was for my sister and I, once upon a time, when we were little girls.

Anonymous said...

Mary Oliver is feted in her native America, winner of Pulitzer prize etc etc but, like May Sarton, not widely known here. This is one of her most famous poems - which I love - Waterstones may have her 'Selected and New Poems' or 'American Primitive' collection.


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

xx E

Anonymous said...

Justine - I have just remembered that Mary Oliver's poem 'On Blackwater Pond' was read at Ruth's funeral/thanksgiving - and that is how I discovered her. What a strange full circle...
x E

Anonymous said...

On Blackwater Woods, sorry - here it is - remember?
x E

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

night night
x E

Justine Picardie said...

Elspeth, thank you so much. It's so strange -- I love that Mary Oliver poem that a friend sent Ruth when she was ill (and Ruth read it aloud to me, and we both cried) but somehow, I'd forgotten it was by Mary Oliver. I just remembered the poem, but not the poet. Why is that? Anyway, I gave my mother a May Sarton book -- "At 70" -- for her 70th birthday last October. Is there an anthology of Mary Oliver that I can buy? Am so grateful to you for this...

kairu said...

I love love love Mary Oliver. There are several poems by her in A Book Of Luminous Things (a poetry anthology beautifully edited by Czeslaw Milosz, one of my favorite poets). I have some of her books as well.

Lou said...

Reading this poem,I literally feel a lump in my heart.Thankyou Elspeth.

Justine Picardie said...

Just ordered the collection that contains 'In Blackwater Woods' -- American Primitive.

Unknown said...

Mary Oliver is new to me too, as is commenting on your blog, Justine. What an unnerving gaze she has! Is she in the brave tradition of Dorothy Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson -- looking fearlessly at the natural world, accepting and finding consolation in the fact that it does not submit to human wishes? Maybe she'd be useful bibliotherapy for the G20 summit …

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks for joining the blog. Mary Oliver is interesting, because critics tend to sneer at her, but she evokes a powerful emotional response from readers... She seems to be in the same tradition as May Sarton, who I discovered last year, thanks to the recommendation of a wise friend!

Anonymous said...

Yes Justine, you absolutely MUST read May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, if you have not already (good column in it on What To Read if You are Coming Out of a Depression/Going into one or whatever) and Plant Dreaming Deep - What to Read if you are setting up your first proper home (May S was 46 when she did this and took it v seriously - "at this age, one cannot afford to buy the wrong house or marry the wrong person".
And the anthology of Mary Oliver that it is easiest to get hold of here is New and Selected Poems. Waterstones may even have it in stock - or any independent would order it in for you.
At my yoga class today the teacher read us her poem 'Spring' which sent shivers down my spine in its intense love of the world.
Glad you remembered In Blackwater Woods - knew you would.
x Elspeth

Justine Picardie said...

I'm looking forward to the prospect of emerging from depression; actually, I'm not depressed, but grieving for the end of a marriage, which feels like a bereavement. Have ordered the Mary Oliver anthology, and will add May Sarton to my bibliotherapy list.

kairu said...

I found this Mary Oliver poem, one of two included in A Book of Luminous Things (the other is "Wild Geese"):

The Kingfisher

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is
the prettiest world - so long as you don't mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn't have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn't born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water - hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don't say he's right. Neither
do I say he's wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn't rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

I love the line about a "splash of happiness." There is always something, anything, even if just a moment, a kind comment on a blog or a smile from the cashier at the supermarket, that gives you a little spurt of joy, even on the darkest of days.

I have never been divorced (or for that matter, married), but I have watched other people go through it, the grief and anger and loss; it is, as you describe it, a bereavement. I think of you often. (Of course, I am also reading Daphne at the moment, so of course you are often present in my thoughts).

kairu said...

Another Mary Oliver poem, Justine, which I thought would be perfect for you: "Percy and Books (Eight)," from Red Bird. (Percy is Mary Oliver's dog).

Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out and the neighbor's dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.

Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Let's go.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks, Kairu -- the poem about Percy made me smile, and reminded me of my dog, Molly. She's never actually eaten a book, but she occasionally bites into them when they arrive in the post, and leaves teeth marks on the front cover -- I think she thinks she's defending me from a hostile outside world!
And yes, I love that line about the splash of happiness. The comments on this blog bring me splashes of happiness each day, as does the blackbird singing in the back garden, and the love of my sons (more than a splash -- a wave...)

Jill said...

I love piling up books for my summer read list. One of my all time favorite books is The Shipping News - E.Annie Proulx.
Kairu I love the Percy and books poem. A month ago I got a new (used and reconditioned) dog at the Humane Society, since it has been 2 years since my old Border Collie passed. I am rediscovering the joys of walks and reading with a a little pal on my lap

Justine Picardie said...

My dog sleeps under my bed -- in it, on very cold nights -- and has been the most comforting companion since my husband left...

Anonymous said...

Jansson is principally known as the author of the Moomin books – stories for children that involve Jansson's creations, the Moomins. They are a family of trolls who are white, round and furry in appearance, with large snouts that make them vaguely resemble hippopotamuses.

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