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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

River by Esther Kinsky

River is a novel with very little narrative. A woman comes to live in London. She was born by the Rhine, but while staying in Hackney she explores the River Lea. This novel is about location, where poverty and migration are characteristic features and feature the changing patterns of the riverbanks, the paths, the marshes, unspecified marginal areas. Location is the emphasis of this novel.

I read River for two reasons. First it was recommended by a writer friend, who always makes interesting recommendations. And second, it is about the River Lea that I knew well for 25 years as it bordered my home territory, provided places to walk and a place t mingle with the mixed population. There is a peculiar pleasure in knowing this location, the shops (EGG store), Springfield Park, Hackney Marshes and Abney Road Cemetery. Esther Kinsky sees them as she passes through, they illustrated my life while I lived in London.

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith

River  by Esther Kinsky

The novel is made up of 37 chapters, all linked in some way to a river, not all the Lea, several in other parts of the world: Germany, Canada, India. Some readers, including me, are reminded of WG Sebald. It is not just the walking, although it is that, or the long sentences, that too, but the meditative quality in the content, the narration of incidents on or near the river. There are even grainy photographs in the text, which may or may not relate to the chapter.

The narrator, a woman, moves to a room in north London. She is escaping or evading something unspecified and spends her days walking the River Lea. This brings to mind other rivers, the Rhine, which she grew up beside, and rivers in Canada and India as well as Europe.

It seems her life is perpetually on the move, nothing resolved, no focus, only scraps of contacts with people who are marginal and ignored like herself, and she views things from the river, and from the edges of London.

I returned on the path that looped around the filter beds and led back to the river between open terrain and the electricity pylons standing by as ever like lost, harmless giants frozen to the flat land, slender, immobile and delicate, their six arms splayed out to no conceivable purpose underlining their defencelessness, or their perplexity over the question of which way they should go next. The more familiar I became with this flat world in the milky winter light, the more I thought of the pylons as parts of the landscape that by some strange quirk of nature had surged out of the ground featherless, hairless and leafless in time immemorial, honest custodians of this intermediate realm between firm ground and a deceptive alluvial flood plain that was underwashed by countless waters; they were fine-boned guardians of the void uttering nothing but their spidery buzz and hum, a rarefied, highly-pitched song that was only audible in pauses between clattering trains, and which attempted again and again to subvert the city beyond the Lea whenever it drew a deep breath to roar. (162)

I draw your attention to a feature of this paragraph – it contains only two sentences. And its subject matter is electricity pylons.

The chapter describing the narrator’s experiences on the Hooghly River, a distributary of the Ganges, is one of the most vivid of the book. Perhaps this is because there is more of a narrative than elsewhere in the book. Some of the novel is fantasy, like the craters that appear, and other episodes may well be based on events such as the narrator’s meeting with the gypsy woman.  But mostly the reader accompanies the narrator as she observes the uneventful, storyless lives, people waiting, just getting through the day: the man at the charity shop door, the woman in the EGG store, the King making his ritual flights with the birds, passers-by, people leaving only the slightest indications of being here.

This is a novel about locations and lives that move away from the mainstream, often ignored, forgotten, in inconvenient places.

Every river is a border; that was one of the lessons of my childhood. It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. (171)

Esther Kinsky

She was born in Germany in 1956, and lived for a while in London. She is a linguist and has made a living as a translator.

River  by Esther Kinsky, first published in German as Am Fluss in 2014, and in English by Fitzcarraldo in 2018. 359pp

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith. Winner of an English Pen Award.

A completely different novel set in Dalston, Hackney, is Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo.

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