Tag Archives: Fitzcarraldo Books

Grove by Esther Kinsky

I had never heard of a ‘field novel’ before, but I had read River by Esther Kinsky. I loved that book, for it mostly concerned the River Lea in East London, a river I knew well as it was the nearest to my home of 35 years. I decided to read Grove because I was confident in Esther Kinsky’s ability to describe landscape and people’s relationship to it. My confidence was well placed, and I also found a deep meditation and exploration of the experience of grief.

Grove: a field novel

It seems a very autobiographical book. The funeral of the narrator’s partner ‘M’ took place two months before she travelled to Italy, to a small village Olevano near Rome, to decide or find out ‘how for the next three months to force my life into a new order that would let me survive the unexpected unknown’. (23)

She records three sets of journeys to Italy: this one following her bereavement; journeys with her family, arranged by her father, in her childhood; staying one the salt flats of the Po River valley sometime later.

I tetti di Olevano Romano by Pietro Scerrato via WikiCommons

The novel is suffused with the tension between death and life: especially the material manifestations of them. She is frequently interested in cemeteries and their post-funeral rituals. Cemeteries are so much part of village and town life, and as she looks around the areas where she stays, she visited them and describes them to us.

It is winter, evening comes early. When darkness falls, the old village of Olevano lies in the yellow warmth of streetlights. Along the road to Bellegra and throughout the new settlements on the northern side, stretches a labyrinth of dazzling white lamps. Above on the hillside the cemetery hovers in the glow of countless perpetually burning small lights, which glimmer before the gravestones, lined up on the ledges in front of the sepulchres, When the night is very dark the cemetery, illuminated by lux perpetuae, hangs like an island in the night. The island of the morti above the valley of the vii. (19)

In Olevano she seems passive in the winter landscape, looking out across the valley, walking to the cemetery and to the village every day. She appears to interact with nobody. We have no explanation of why she is staying in this village, in this house. She travels around the valley, visiting places she can see, and with no apparent purpose but to be there. Absence suffuses her descriptions.

In the central section she focuses on the visits to Italy, from their Rhineland home, organised by her father. Her father loved Italy, for the museums, the blue of Fra Angelico’s paintings, the seaside and for the wildlife they came across. Her father liked to lecture her, and her brother, about these things. Eels and snakes are a frequent topic. This section too is concerned with death, including the death of her father. 

In Rome they visit a cemetery:

Eventually the wind abated. Beneath a white sky, which the sunshine filtered into a uniformly soft brightness, we visited the grave of John Keats. The cemetery was full of cats, which rambled about the graves, rubbed against our legs. At John Keats’s grave cats had a good chance of finding affection. Near the entrance, placed between pruned cypress trees, were small plates, as if set out for a society of dwarves, an elderly woman came over with a pot of food scraps and distributed them onto the plates, which already thronged with cats. Next to the cemetery a sharp pyramid protruded above the traffic, and angular sign that seemed to refer to this island of the dead, lying here surrounded by the swells of the city. A Roman general had the pyramid erected as his tomb, perhaps consumed by a yearning for the sands of Egypt where despite his warrior trappings, he had been a different person than he was here in Rome, where his eyes were inevitably drawn, day after day, to sombre clusters of dark parasol pines. (179-80)

Finally in the third section she is in the Po Valley, on the flat lands, the salt plain, watching birds – flamingos, heron, egrets – and the people who live in this marginal and declining area. 

I had ended up here [Valli di Cimacchio] by accident, in an accommodation with a view to a half-wilted potted pine tree, reeds, willow bushes, and ample sky. Far from the coastal road, inland of the deserted seaside resorts. The owners had given up all hope for a livelihood – a slight bitterness hung in the air, a melancholy astonishment that the desolation of the seaside destinations and view to the emptiness of salt pans in winter could leave the viewer overwhelmed not only by doubt. (226-7)

The trucks trundle passed, endlessly, to and from the big towns. Eventually she finds her way back. She has become more active in her life, engaging with the people who she meets. Her tension between life and death is eventually resolved, or at least understood and accommodated. Grief in the end is absence, and a matter of living with death.

She has moved from being an observer to being a more active participant in the landscapes she finds.

 You can find the link to my post on her novel River (2018) from April 2019 here.

Grove: a field novel by Esther Kinsky, first published in German in 2018. The English translation by Caroline Schmidt was published by Fitzcarraldo in 2021.  277pp

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Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk took me several weeks to read. It was a slow read. But I persevered because it was my choice for August in Bookword’s monthly Women in Translation series. In addition it won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. And August is also celebrated as #womenintranslation month on twitter and several blogs.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk Translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish.

Reading Flights

It is not easy to read a book that does not follow a single line, does not build plot and characters through one scene following another. This novel resists linearity. It is a collection of 116 vignettes, some fictional, some nonfiction, some no more than notes or ‘philosophical riffs’ (Adam Mars-Jones in LRB).

Olga Tokarczuk told the New York Times:

I realized that we don’t travel in such a linear way anymore but rather jump from one point to another and back again. So I got this idea for a ‘constellation’ novel recounting experiences that were separate from each other but could still be connected on different psychological, physical and political levels. (From Olga Tokarczuk’s Book ‘Flights’ is Taking Off, New York Times, August 2018)

Since completing the book a few days ago I have puzzled about how to write this post. I read many reviews, mostly from literary pages. I have come to see that it is an intelligent, rich and rewarding experience, in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian).

The title in Polish is Bieguni, for which Flights is not an exact translation. Rather the Polish title might be closer to wandering or wanderers, or even refer to a sect, possibly mythical. A member makes a memorable appearance in a story set in Moscow, traversing the city endlessly on the metro.

The themes with which Flights is concerned are travel and the human body. The novel has been described as a constellation of stories, and although several reviews indicated a similarity with WG Sebald, this lack of linearity distinguishes them. (They may also be referring to the illustrations included but not explained or referred to in the text, something one also finds in Sebald’s novels.)

I especially enjoyed the passages where the unnamed sort-of narrator muses on experiences, such as what happens to time, and the body’s experience of time.

IRKUTSK – MOSCOW

Flight from Irkutsk to Moscow. It takes off at 8 am and lands in Moscow at the same time – at eight o’clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, which means that the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself.

So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t trickle out of it. (232)

The stories, like journeys, begin and are left without warning. Some reappear. A woman and child go missing for 72 hours on holiday on a Croatian island. Her husband is eaten up by what they did when they were away from him and he is unable to accept his wife’s explanation. There are rough living Muscovites, including a woman who is escaping from her caring responsibilities for her disabled son; the history of some seventeenth century dissectors; a restless sailor who has drifted to an archipelago and runs the ferry, and who one day takes flight with its passengers; a researcher who returns to Poland to visit her first love and to make him an ultimate gift; a professor who cares for her older husband as he lectures on a Greek island cruise ship … and so on.

Olga Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist and for Flights she invents a psychology of travel, a kind of opposite of traditional psychology, studying people in transit rather than in a fixed context. Studying people on the move, their reactions to different circumstances challenges the idea of ‘any sort of consistent whole’. (83) We are ourselves a constellation. The idea of a fixed identity is flawed. I love the idea of lectures in airports, where people can expand such ideas to travellers caught in the departure lounge.

Not for nothing did Matthew Turner in his review on Quietus suggest the novel is a ‘cabinet of curiosity’. Such a description is a reminder that such a varied novel will be experienced differently by each reader, who will respond to it individually.

Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk was born in Poland, and not able to travel until she was 28 due to restrictions by the Communist regime. She later travelled extensively, and her reflections indicate deep thought about the meaning of travel, especially for the human body.

She has published 8 novels, two collections of short stories and also poetry.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in 2007, and in the English translation by Fitzcarraldo Books in 2018. 417pp. Translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish. Winner Man Booker International Prize 2018

For another review see Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, translated from the French by ModupéBodé-Thomas

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Love by Hanne Østavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken

Brother in Iceby Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation