Archives for category: Memory

‘Incognito’ means having one’s true identity concealed. Nick Payne’s play very much questions the notion of identity itself.

There are three interwoven stories in Incognito. Two are set in the 1950s and are based on real events. One focuses on the pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein and subsequently stole his brain. The other story from that era tells us about Henry, who underwent pioneering surgery for epilepsy that left him profoundly amnesic. The third story is a present day one, and focuses on Martha who is a clinical neuropsychologist.

Harvey decides to steal Einstein’s brain in an attempt to undertake research that might explain what genius is and ‘looks like’ at a neuroanatomical level. It soon becomes apparent that there was more to Einstein than his genius, and that as a father he was often strange and cruel. What does ‘knowing’ someone really mean?

Martha has a client who confabulates. He has amnesia and his brain compensates by making up stories:

‘A damaged brain can continue to make sense of the world even if the patient can’t.’

Who are we? What part does memory play in creating our identity and our sense of self? Incognito raises these and other questions, which are most likely unanswerable, yet still important to consider.

Martha also considers the potential benefits of amnesia:

‘Imagine if you could, if you could forget all the embarrassing things you’d ever done…if you could forget all that trauma and pain’

For me, Martha had the most insightful land thought provoking lines:

‘The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it’s ultimately an illusion. There is no me, there is no you, and there is certainly no self; we are divided and discontinuous and constantly being duped. The brain is a storytelling machine and it’s really, really good at fooling us.’

I am less fatalistic than Martha – ‘We are pointless. We’re a blip. A blip within a blip within an abyss.’ – yet I am also grateful to Nick Payne and Incognito for encouraging me to consider what it might, or might not, mean to be me.

The text for the play includes the following disclaimer:

‘Despite being based, albeit very loosely, on several

true stories, this play is a work of fiction.

But then isn’t everything.’

 

‘Everything’ may well include ‘everybody’…

 

CQ

‘A true tale of love, death and DNA’

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I saw this affecting work last night at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, North London. The Penny Dreadful production is currently on a UK National tour. The play is a profoundly thought-provoking piece, which directly challenges us to consider issues around mortality, immortality, and the ultimate question of what happens to us when we die.

Do we cease to be at that point?

The Henrietta Lack story encourages a consideration of this question. Lacks died as a result of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. However, the cells from her aggressive cancer, known as HeLa and which contain all the DNA that constituted Lack’s genetic make-up, continue to survive and to replicate in laboratory conditions, producing the first ever ‘immortal cell line’. Despite the dubious ethical issues that surround the original procurement of Lack’s cells (her children were never told, and Lack’s cells were public property until 2013), research based on HeLa has been directly responsible for the development of treatments for conditions such as AIDs, cancer, cystic fibrosis and vaccines, and many more. HeLa cells have also provided the foundation for mapping the human genome.

How To Be Immortal interweaves three true stories: Henrietta Lack’s own story and that of Dr Gey and his wife who ‘discovered’ HeLa in 1951, the story that Lack’s daughter Deborah (1996) was born into (she was a baby when her mother died) but only discovered later in life, and the contemporary narrative of Rosa and Mick. Mick, similar Lack, also has a rare and aggressive type of cancer, from which he dies. The issue of research, using cells from his tumour – this time with consent – is presented to the distraught Rosa. She agrees, and the outcome leads to a healing of sorts. Deborah also seems to experience a coming-to-terms with her mother’s death, and with its aftermath

I applaud the blend of science and of the essence of humanness, particularly its essential vulnerability, that How To Be Immortal successfully balances to create a living performance that raises questions it does not necessarily set out to answer. It is our job, the audience, to consider what has been presented to us:

Who and what are we, and does our ‘make-up’ extend beyond our DNA?

When we die, what do we leave behind? A contribution to some genetic pool, or memories, that may only remain until the death of the last remembering person?

Unanswerable questions, perhaps, but worthy of reflection…

This book comes recommended, mostly notably perhaps by Hilary Mantel, who describes it as ‘an astonishing and luminous novel’.

I liked it. It resonated with me in ways that were not initially obvious. It grew on me, as did the main character, ‘The Professor of Poetry’ Elizabeth, who I empathised with much more with as I progressed through the book than I had at the outset. There is much to consider here, even after, or perhaps particularly after, reading the final sentence.

Elizabeth is an academic, a serious academic in her early 50s whose single life revolves around her work, which is poetry, particularly Milton and Eliot. She becomes ill, and is subsequently diagnosed and treated for a brain tumour. Her post treatment scans reveal a remission, something Elizabeth was not expecting. In the light of this news, and reprieve, she decides uncharacteristically to do something different, to be spontaneous, and to seize something from the gift of time that she has just been granted. She decides to revisit her past, the university of her younger years, and also her tutor of that time, who still teaches there.

‘The day was perfect and it was her own, had been wrapped and presented to her, and she smiled at the pleasing coincidence: the present, for once, being precisely where she found herself.’

We learn much about Elizabeth’s character as she commences her journey, and as she reminisces on her present and on her past. We discover that, for example, ‘Elizabeth doesn’t ‘do’ love poetry’. She also doesn’t ‘do’ summer. But we also learn that as a child growing up, her mother used to retreat ‘from the everyday world by a process of not-being, not-saying, not-doing’.

Elizabeth has mastered, at least in her professional life but one also suspects in her personal life, ‘The Art of Detachment’:

‘It was easier to eschew human beings than interact with them.’

She had a troubled and a tragic childhood, memories of which flood persistently Elizabeth’s consciousness.

‘The sea taught the child that pain takes place only in time, that it was impossible to hurt and be truly occupied, but if your hours were empty, pain could be felt very clearly indeed. Pain had much in common with the sea. Both ebbed, both went unnoticed for hours on end, then reared up and took your breath, and neither pain nor the sea was ever completely at rest.’

From an early age, poetry was her consolation, her safety net.

‘A poem could usually be counted upon to shatter the quiet, carry them through the wilderness and bring the knight back safe.’

As she considers her childhood, lost moments and regrets of her time as a university student, and also explores the poetry of Eliot, Elizabeth gradually experiences an epiphany of sorts:

‘What must it be like to produce a living creature instead of one made of paper and ink? A creature that became a real entity, no longer merely an appendage to its creator.’

 ‘She was suddenly reminded of something Eliot had written somewhere, that most people were ‘only very little alive’. Eliot was obsessed with buried lives, unlived lives, the life of the living dead.’

This realisation culminates in one night of inescapable and painful self-reflection:

‘It suddenly occurred to her that she had travelled further this night than she had her whole life.’

Speaking to her body, which she mostly ignored all her life until illness happened (although ‘For as long as she could remember Professor Stone had lived with a pain in her chest’):

‘I am sorry, hands, because you served me well and I have not been good to you.’

‘And I am sorry, arms, because you never wore bracelets and never hugged and never saw much of the sun.’

‘And I am sorry, heart, because you beat fast for fear many more times than for joy, and never for love.’

There is much tenderness in the book’s denouement, and McCleen’s style throughout is as poetic as the poetry she refers to. So much of the prose passages made me stop and think, not just about Elizabeth, but also about who or what I might be and have become:

‘It was strange to see people one had known a long time ago: they were always unchanged and changed completely, and somewhere within that contradiction lay the state of ourselves, she supposed.’

CQ

Seamus Heaney has been a hero of mine for as long as I can remember.

I was due to see him read in London towards the end of January 2013. I did not make it, as my sister died that night. Over the years, the same sister gave me many of Heaney’s poetry collections, and more recently, the glorious gift of the audio collection, read by the poet himself.

So much that I can relate to in terms of the personal impact of Seamus Heaney, the man and his words, has been movingly and eloquently said and re-said over the past days.

I have little to add apart from a few brief thoughts…

The poem Mid-Term Break has always been a favourite of mine. Written many years after the tragic death of Heaney’s younger brother, the poem, as written by the adult, convincingly captures the voice and the imagination of the child Heaney, as he recounts the event as if he were contemporaneously experiencing it.

from Mid-Term Break

‘I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying –

He had always taken funerals in his stride –

And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

When I came in, and I was embarrassed

By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.

Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,

Away at school, as my mother help my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.’

‘…I saw him

For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,

He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.

No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.’

I love Heaney’s prose, which I first encountered through the essay ‘Feeling into Words’. In it, the poet talks about Digging, the first poem where he felt his feelings had truly got into the text, ‘where I thought my feel had got into words.’

from Digging

‘Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.’

With characteristic humility, Heaney dismissed Digging as a ‘coarse-grained navvy of a poem’, its interest mainly lying in its success in ‘finding a voice’, and arriving at that place where ‘you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them’.

I have just re-read Heaney’s wonderful Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry. Here, Heaney credits poetry ‘both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative  between the mind’s centre and its circumference…’for its truth to life…’

In a TV profile that included a series of interviews with the poet in 2009, Heaney was asked about his views on death. He replied that his attitude towards his own mortality had eased with age, and that any sense of fear in particular had gradually diminished. Prescient perhaps of his final words to his wife Marie before he died last week, ‘Noli temere’, which translates as ‘Don’t be afraid’.

Heaney’s poem A kite for Michael and Christopher ends with the phrase ‘long-tailed pool of grief’. Prescient again, on this occasion of a nation’s sense of loss.

We no longer have the man. Yet we do have the words, so many words, which he chose to share. A lasting comfort, of sorts.

CQ

This is one of those films that you are still thinking about, days after the event.

An autobiographical work, where various members of Polley’s family speak to the camera, the film attempts to piece together the story of the director’s mother’s life, as well as her own origins.

The film opens with an extended quote from Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace:

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything about like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”

Individually, we are all the sum total of a storied life and irrespective of the fact that the film focuses on one particular family and its story, there is much here that potentially holds resonance for all of us.

As such, the film has encouraged me to consider many things around the narrative form that our lives take.

As I have mentioned here before, I believe that we are born in the middle of someone else’s story. When exactly it becomes our own, when we can claim it as our own (and only ours?), I do not know. But I do know that I feel an increasing responsibility, and need, to reclaim my story, to shape it, and to write all headings for subsequent chapters.

Inevitably, (unanswerable) questions around ‘truth’ also arise. I am no longer sure that truth matters here. There is probably little that is true when we are dealing with the memories that inevitably shape our stories. Thus, truth as a end-goal feels like a self-defeating aspiration in this context.

Even if we are born in the middle of someone else’s story (and it follows that our stories too lead onto anothers), that feels ok. We can still take ownership, and reversion those bits where we have a starring role…

CQ

I heard the American writer, activist and feminist Rebecca Solnit speak recently at the London Literature Festival. Since then I have read her current book, The Faraway Nearby, having previously read and loved an earlier book of hers, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

The Faraway Nearby did not disappoint. It is enigmatic, sometimes elusive, and ultimately stimulating and thought provoking.

The book was largely inspired by the unexpected gift of a (very large) box of apricots. This makes sense when you have read the book, the fruit bounty, symbolic of both abundance and decay, serving as a catalyst for this memoir/’anti-memoir’, which is in essence a series of connected personal reflections on stories and storytelling.

The fruit was shared and eaten, with some decaying before they could be enjoyed. Some apricots were canned, the jars and their contents mirroring the fate of stories, a preservation of something that would otherwise disappear.

And so, the stories of our lives preoccupy The Faraway Nearby, from its very first words:

‘What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.’

Our stories, and those we intersect with, create our connection with the world we inhabit:

‘You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world.’

A significant thread that forms the backdrop to The Faraway Nearby is Solnit’s longstanding problematic relationship with her mother:

‘My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.’

At the time of writing Solnit’s mother had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and as a result was losing her stories, living increasingly in an ‘unremembered past.’

Solnit journeys far, both on the page to Frankenstein and Shelley, to Che Guevara, and to many fairytales and myths, and physically to Iceland, always considering stories, and the self along the way:

‘The self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist.’

‘Not to know yourself is dangerous, to that self, and to others.’

Solnit develops breast cancer  – ‘Where does a story begin? The fiction is that they do, and end…’ – and her experience of diagnosis and treatment leads to reflections on where an individual’s story is positioned in the face of illness:

‘The real story of your life is always all the way from birth to death, and the medical experts appear like oracles to interpret and guide even as they turn you from your familiar self, a dealer in stories, into mute meat, breathing or approaching last breaths.’

Empathy is inextricably linked to how we tell and hear stories. Considering doctors specifically, Solnit suggests that they need a ‘balance between empathy and separation, closeness and distance, to find the right distance at which to function best for their own and the patients’ well-being.’

Empathy for Solnit ‘is the capacity to feel what you do not literally feel…’, or more lyrically, it is a kind of music akin to Wordsworth’s “still sad music of humanity”.

The capacity for empathy requires an imaginative leap. ‘…a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.’

Following on from a recent piece in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2013/05/20/130520crat_atlarge_bloom), which read as a cautionary note on how we perceive the benefits of empathy, particularly where it becomes our moral guide – ‘…empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future’ – I asked Solnit to comment on this perspective. She remains resolutely passionate about the importance of empathy in the creation of a humane society:

‘Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members, just as people can and do erase the humanity of those close to them.’

There is much to consider in this relatively short book. Solnit brings you on a journey, where you feel guided through many imponderables, and less alone in your questioning and searching:

‘Books are solitudes in which we meet.’

CQ

I Could Read The Sky, written by Timothy O’Grady with photographs by Steve Pyke, first appeared in 1997.

The photographic novel was later adapted by Nichola Bruce to create a film of the same name (1999). I recently received a gift of Iarla O’Lionaird’s haunting accompanying soundtrack, which also features Sinead O’Connor, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Noel Hill and Liam O’Maonlai. The music inspired me to re-explore both the book and the film.

A deeply melancholic and tragic narrative, I Could Read The Sky has loss, poverty, isolation and loneliness at its core.

It tells the story of one man, as he looks back on his life from solitary old age in Kentish Town. We get flashbacks of growing up in Ireland and of his life after leaving his native land to find work in England. The book unfolds as memories, as a looking back, to what has constituted a life.

The tone of the book is set at the outset, with a poem by Peter Woods on exile:

‘Exile is not a word

It is a sound

The rending of skin

A fistful of clay on top

of a coffin.’

We first see the lone figure in a Kentish Town bedsit:

‘This is me. I have a round bald head. My eyes are blue and watery and my fingers are stained with tobacco. I am alone here with a black dog. I sleep badly.’

His life in England has variously included working in a beet factory in Ipswich, slab laying in Bedford, and working with drainage pipes in Coventry, before settling in London amongst his compatriots:

‘There are men on the Kilburn High Road you can only see unfinished buildings in their eyes.’

He shares his flashbacks and memories, ‘sounds and pictures but they flit and crash before I can get them’, images of long-left Ireland and Labasheeda (‘The day of the Stations is a big day’) interspersed with the reality of his today:

‘I open my eyes in Kentish Town. Always this neutral air.’

‘A chair beside the bed. Tablets. A shirt with little blue squares, the collar shot. A bottle of Guinness here and another on the ledge. Maggie’s rosary, crystal beads.’

‘A wardrobe made my people I’ve never met.’

We return again and again to the Kentish Town bedsit:

‘I roll onto my side. The wardrobe door is open, Maggie’s dress with the bluebell’s hanging there.’

Maggie was the love of his life, and her death its greatest tragedy. The story of how they met, and what she meant to him, is a most beautiful and moving thread that weaves through the narrative.

‘I’ll not be leaving Kentish Town now except in a brown box and when I do I’ll be going to Labasheeda to lie with Maggie. I’ve left the instructions.’

His grief is almost tangible:

‘What is it to miss someone? It is not the throbbing ache of a wound. It is not the pain you get under your ribs from running. It is not a befouled feeling, the feeling of being in mud. It is the feeling of being in a strange place and losing direction. It is the feeling of looking without seeing and eating without tasting. It is forgetfulness, the inability to move, the inability to connect. It is a sentence you must serve and if the person you miss is dead your sentence is long.’

As fragments of his past and present life come and go, he pieces together a list of sorts:

‘What I could do.

I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs…I could dance sets. Read the sky…Make a field…I could read the sea…Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes…Read the wind…Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories.’

‘What I couldn’t do.

Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch…Drink coffee…Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from west Kerry…Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.’

It makes you think about what we are, what constitutes our lives, lists of dos and don’ts, the memories we hang onto and those we forget, the people of our lives…

Watching the film again after re-reading the book, I love the collage of images, music and voices that interplay on the screen. How fragmented and bitty our lives in reality are, and the challenge is to try and pull it all together and somehow create a meaningful whole…

‘I remember loneliness and the walls of Quex Road. I remember pure sadness.’

CQ

I have been eagerly awaiting the novelist’s new book, Levels of Life, which will be on the bookshelves on Saturday.

Last night, on BBC 4’s Front Row programme, Barnes was interviewed by Mark Lawson (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rlnht). I was struck by how open and candid the author was, particularly as he has always been intensely private about his personal life.

During the interview, Barnes spoke of the “private devastation” he experienced following the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh in 2008. Resistant as always to publicly exposing himself, Levels of Life appears to be part biography and autobiography, and part fiction. The grief Barnes has experienced since the death of Kavanagh, who was “the heart of my life; the life of my heart” (http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21575738-writer-reflects-love-loss-and-ballooning-sense-no-ending) appears to resonate strongly throughout the entire book, irrespective of the different genres involved. Barnes himself refuses to categorise the book, or to attach any definitive label to it.

In the interview, Barnes refers to the power of grief to reconfigure time and space, creating a new geography of sorts.

Each individual’s experience of grief is unique, and as Barnes discovered, there is no way of predicting how one will deal with it until it happens. Some things surprised him following his wife’s death, such as his new found love of opera. Sport also unexpectedly served a purpose, providing an ‘ocularly involving’, but an emotionally detached, distraction.

Barnes also spoke of the suicidal moments within his grieving process. For him, the ultimate antidote to suicide lay with his role as the principal rememberer of Kavanagh, a moral responsibility of sorts to continue on as a repository of his wife’s life and memories.

The author challenges Nietzsche’s maxim (as did Christopher Hitchens), “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. For Barnes, grief weakened him, and in no way gave him strength. Time has helped, and he has to some extent experienced a physical and mental recovery. When he questions himself about how he should now live, he allows himself to be guided by his wife, leading his life as she would want him to.

Barnes challenges the notion that time diminishes grief. It is clear that his love for his wife did not diminish during their time together, on the contrary, and he therefore questions why his grief should fade with time.

I look forward to reading Levels of Life

CQ

Another gem of a Christmas present was a subscription to The New Yorker. The first issue arrived last week, and there is so much of interest that several days later I am still reading it, and this week’s issue is due tomorrow…

For now, I want to mention an article by James Wood on Becoming Them: Our parents, our selves (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/01/21/130121fa_fact_wood).

Woods reminisces, movingly, of Sundays when growing up, mostly the rituals and the boredom, but also memories of classical music, which his father was passionate about, but perhaps his children suffered from composer overload at an early age…

However, years later Woods discovered himself a passion for classical music, which persists in his forties. Perhaps this, just like the gesticulations, the little phrases that creep in as we age, not to mention the physical reminders, are part of the ‘plagiarism of inheritance.’

Seeing my parents in myself traumatised me around 10 years ago. Now, I am much more accepting of it. When I first noticed it, they were both alive. Within recent years, both died in relatively quick succession.

Woods suggests that we ‘mourn them [our parents] only haplessly, accidentally, by surviving them.’ A friend of Wood’s challenges this view and believes that the real point is that we become our parents, taking on their gestures and habits once they have died.

A preservation of past generations, but not as in ‘they live on in our memories’, more in terms of those before us continuing within us in an unavoidable physical (and social) sense. Utterly rational when you consider science and DNA, not to mind ‘nuture’, but…

Thus, you potentially mourn your parents by becoming them. This feels more than a little weird to me (but may also merely reflect my own mourning processes, or lack of).

But Woods moves onto another interesting point. if you can mourn your parents by becoming then, then surely you can also mourn them before they die. This I get. As I child, I (shamefully and secretly) wished that my parents died together in a car accident. The thought that one would be left alone, forever grieving and sad for the other, felt unbearable to me.

As I grew up, and left, I dwelt less on the fact that my parents would inevitably die. Old age arrived, and with it a world for them that became increasingly smaller, and exclusive. In latter years, I never seemed to find a way into this terrain.

Woods challenges Larkin’s line about life being first a thing of boredom, then later replaced by fear, suggesting that fear comes first.

I am not convinced. Boredom seems to me the prerogative of children, and, from what I have witnessed, fear, if and when it appears, and this is of course by no means universal, can escalate as both time and worlds shrink.

CQ

I had been meaning to read this book for some time, and only just got round to it this week. Timely, as a BBC documentary on the author’s life will be screened over the Christmas period.

Jansson was already famous for her Moonintroll cartoon strips and children’s books before The Summer Book appeared in 1972.

The narrative focuses on the relationship between 6 year old Sophia and her grandmother, who live on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. The child’s father is also there, but is very much a silent presence in the background. To some extent the book was a response to the death of Janssen’s beloved mother in 1971, and is based on ‘real’ people from the author’s life, her own mother represented by the grandmother, and Sophia the author’s niece. The location also reflects Jansson’s personal history, with the setting based on a house that she and her brother built on a remote island off Finland in 1947.

Although the (short) book predominantly follows the companions as they spend time together, exploring, talking, swimming and foraging, there are also other threads running through the narrative, particularly the grandmother’s musings on ageing and death. Deceptively straightforward sounding chapters such as ‘The Morning Swim’, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Magic Forest’ contain much more than is apparent at first glance. In the latter chapter, for example, the forest itself becomes a metaphor for living and dying:

‘This forest was called “the magic forest”. It had shaped itself with slow and laborious care, and the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable.” (p.27)

The notion of death is introduced early, when Sophia asks her grandmother directly, with an endearing frankness and openness that only the very young can engender:

‘When are you going to die?’ (p.22)

Shortly afterwards, we learn that Sophia’s mother has died:

‘Sophia woke and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.’ (p.25)

The book is about imagination, in both the old and in the young, and it is also about wisdom that similarly transcends generations. What is particularly impressive, is Jansson’s ability to portray a dual perspective, the simultaneously believable voices of both a child and an elderly woman.

It is thus not only 6 year old Sophia who bubbles with imagination, but her grandmother also displays impressive imaginative ingenuity. When Sophia’s friend Berenice comes to stay, and is bored and tiresome, the grandmother suggests that she draws something:

‘”Draw a picture,” she said.

“I don’t know anything to draw,” the child said.

“Draw something awful,” Grandmother said, for she was really tired now. “Draw the awfullest thing you can think of, and take as much time as you possibly can.”‘ (p.45)

Death features again in Sophia’s questions about heaven, and in the grandmother’s internal reflections on the euphemisms for death:

‘It was too bad that you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.’ (p.135)

The grandmother struggles with the process of ageing, as she becomes aware that her memory for recent events is slipping (p.56), and how much she hates the chamberpot under her bed, a ‘symbol of helplessness’ (p.170). At times, she seems weighed down by sadness, and by an almost palpable sense of loss:

‘A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge.’ (p.90).

She also feels that she cannot describe things anymore, the words have somehow been lost to her, and so, it will all die with her death:

‘And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost.’ (p.90)

But, just as she is there for Sophia, listening and reassuring during her many tantrums, so too is the little girl there for her grandmother. She attends to the older woman’s outburst:

‘But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!’ (p.93)

And so, on a night when she was unable to sleep due to ‘thinking about sad things, the grandmother shared her anxieties with the attentive child, thereafter sleeping soundly…

The relationship between the older and the younger companion is very moving. Even when they quarrel, it is with love:

‘One evening, Sophia wrote a letter and stuck it under the door. It said, “I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.”‘

The prose is just delightful, for example the tree trunks ‘formed a tangled mass of stubborn resignation’ (p.27), and when the pair quarrelled, they ‘quarrelled the wrong way.’ (p.111).

The Summer Book has never been out of print in Scandinavia. I am not surprised. It is a truly magical work, which can tell us much about humanness, but perhaps especially about relationships, and how being there for the other can enhance, and even make sense of, the whole business of being.

CQ