Summer NYRBs

April is the usual [hello, global warming] start of the summer here in the Philippines. I’d know, though, regardless of any calendar—the daily twenty-minute walk from the office to the train station has me wishing I could rub against an ice cube doing the mambo.

One of the things that the season [one of blasted two, here in my country] allows me to do is to submit to my O.C. tendencies and read books set in the summer. Mostly. Kind of. [Actually, what the three NYRBs I read for the start of summer have in common is that, uh, they all have red spines. I are dorkus.] The first two books, I’ve had with me for months—acquired November of last year, thereabouts. But I had to be my uptight self and read them this April. Because it makes more sense in my head that way.

What The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim and The Summer Book by Tove Jansson have in common: Summer setting the scene for a long-deserved / much-needed escape. Also, undercurrents. Also, unorthodox yet refreshing heroines.

In von Arnim’s case, it’s four women spending summer in an Italian villa—rest and relaxation are sought, and transformations are inevitable. Reading the plot summary—a summer escape to gorgeous Italy!, basically—you’d be threatened by fluff. [I shudder to think what today’s Hollywood would do with this premise. I am giving you the side-eye, Elizabeth Gilbert.]

But it’s all so catty and funny and endearing—those sharp undercurrents, each woman’s agenda. And their distinct perspectives of what escape—and change—means. What home stands for. [The fluff threatens after the fact, no?] We’ve got a docile young wife, a do-gooder community pillar, a doyenne stuck in the past, a too-beautiful-for-her-own-good socialite.

Jansson’s novel-in-vignettes feature a precocious six-year-old and her hardy grandmother. Their isolated island serves as a backdrop for their adventures, their tantrums, and some of their secrets. It all seems so quaint—but Jansson dispels that with a blink-and-you’ll miss it sentence: The child’s mother has died. Everything before and after this softly spoken sentence shines differently: The failed camping adventure, spending the night alone under the stars; the little creatures carved into the forest’s scraggly trees; the too-sensitive flowers hoarded and cultivated by the quiet father; the child’s treatise on earthworms and the conundrums of earthworm-splitting [a section too long to include here, yet all-too charming and sad].

This island and its inhabitants’ little joys—a flower growing beneath a dislodged rock—and its near-catastrophes—a sea storm, a new neighbor—hints at so many graver things. And Jansson’s restraint is startling.

Now. No Tomorrow by Vivant Denon is touted as a companion to Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses—but whereas that was a manifesto and manipulative excess and rakehelling and salaciousness, Denon’s 32-page novella on genteel seduction and tables-turned role-playing is of exquisite delicateness. Sure, there’s illicit kisses and caresses. But it’s a hazy, dreamlike eroticism in these spare pages, involving circuitous promenades and conversations. Not to mention some of the loveliest passages about seduction. Basically, you’re compelled to quote the whole novella. But I will restrain myself to the following:

  • Our souls met and multiplied; another was born each time we kissed.
  • Our sighs replaced language. More tender, more numerous, more ardent, they expressed our sensations, they marked their progression and the last sigh of all, suspended for a time, warned us that we would have to offer thanks to Love.

The haze, this careful one-night seduction, the eroticism of so many things left unsaid [mostly the characters’ doing]: the reader is obliged to speculate, to fill in the blanks. This book, so much like the night itself, both for me and the lovers: “The night was superb; it revealed things in glimpses, and seemed only to veil them so as to give free reign to the imagination.” I saw what you did there, Monsieur Denon.

At the novella’s end, you immediately want to reread it, to experience the language again, to brush closer to the secrets each character holds.

* * *

A jaunty summer-wave from my part of the world. I’m off to haunt that cursed jigging ice cube. Until later.

5 thoughts on “Summer NYRBs

  1. I thought The Enchanted April was excellent, and yes, very topical. I’ve never heard of the others, though I do love NYRB Classics!

  2. I really did like THE ENCHANTED APRIL. I’ve been wanting to read THE SUMMER BOOK for a long time. Sounds like a perfect one for the warm months…

  3. I read The Summer Book recently for the same reason as you, but…I was kinda bored. Maybe I read it at the wrong time, or maybe I was just looking for more.

    But, I knew as soon as I saw you had read this, that you would like it for its language!

  4. Ach, yeah, I get the threat of boredom — Jansson does tend to focus on making all the subtext all the more subtext-y, no? But I couldn’t help it — man, Sophia’s “book” about the worms just tickled me, haha.


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