River of Images, River of Memories
My days always followed the same route: downstream and back. I returned with photographs and small found objects such as feathers and stones, or the seed pods of withered flowers. Little by little the fluvial landscape took over my flat…The river itself would probably have been astonished.
What are we to make of the way that Esther Kinsky’s novel River begins? Immediately after the title page, the book reproduces the photograph shown above along with the dedication “For the blind child.” Then, after the Table of Contents, with the titles of the 37 chapters, there is an epigraph from the American poet Charles Olson: “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more.” Turn the page once more and there is a small reproduction of a photograph taken from the top of a hill, looking down on a line of trees and what appears to be a river in the distance. [If you haven’t read my earlier post on River, you might want to do so, as it will help provide context for what follows.]
This opening sequence underscores the centrality of photographs and photography to understanding Kinsky’s central themes of River—especially the intertwined themes of memory and trauma, which are introduced scarcely four pages into the novel when the unnamed narrator hints that some sort of breakup or divorce or argument has led her to move into a cheap flat in a London neighborhood “where I knew none of my neighbors.” Immediately after this move she begins to dream “of the dead: my father, my grandparents, people I had known.” Every day she goes for walks, taking a camera with her that is described as something like an old, cheap Polaroid instant camera, and each time she pulls the developing print out of the camera, “the same thought entered my mind:”
The secret of this rather unsightly plastic box was probably that its pictures had less to do with the things seen than with the person seeing them. What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of gray was a memory I did not even know I had. The pictures showed something that lay behind the things the lens had focussed on, things which, for an imperceptible moment in time, the shutter release must have brushed aside. The images belonged to a past I could not even be sure was my own, touching on something whose name I must have forgotten, or possibly never knew.
Photography, then, might be a process that can open up new paths of access to one’s past, even one’s unremembered past. At other times, her photographs seemed more like evidence of a trauma than a memory:
Sometimes, on my way home in cold weather, I would remember a picture I had inserted into my jacket pocket to develop. It was difficult, then, to separate the foil from the photo; the former would remove strips of surface coating with it, leaving a wounded landscape. A rent would gape in the middle of the grey, fuzzy scenery of the traduced and fragmentary reminiscence, and through this cleft broke a formless world of dull colouring, unmasking the black-and-white surface as a flimsy disguise for a wild variegation that was wholly unconnected to memory. These shattered images scared me sometimes, as if they were evidence of a trauma. They had nothing to do with my walks along the no-man’s-edge of the river Lea, but I returned to them again and again, as if their unmasking of the degenerative process of imaging might provide a clue to unraveling the secret of the relationship between picture-taking and memory.
On the other hand, Kinsky’s narrator consistently reacts very differently to photographs that she herself has not taken, even those made by her own father. One day, she comes across a box of old family photographs that had been taken by her father, who, with his tripod and light meter, was clearly a serious amateur photographer.
I realized for the first time that I was seeing all this—my mother, my siblings and myself, as well as bridges, squares, Alpine peaks, the pale light of northern Italy in springtime, Renaissance palaces in Florence, the angels of Fra Angelico—through my father’s eyes. These tiny fragments of the world showed the decisions he had taken behind the camera’s view-finder, and he too must have viewed them with astonishment sometimes, since they would have reminded him of things to which the scenes depicted held the sole remaining clue, a clue only he was capable of finding.
The clues to any deeper implications within these particular photographs died when her father did and are not accessible to her. Then, in an even clearer instance that the photographs of others do not speak to her in the same way, the narrator impulsively purchases a group of snapshots of one family at a flea market, only to discover that they make her feel uncomfortable.
They gave no hint of a narrative, revealed no intensity of feeling, no suspense of any kind, no loose thread of some drama to pick up. I found it impossible to attribute anything to these faces and figures, found no way into the scenes portrayed, and the emptiness that presented itself in this bundle of tiny segments of life I had purchased on some off-chance made me feel intrusive.
This is not the only moment that Kinsky’s narrator mentions the intrusive nature of certain photographs. After she makes a few photographs that included people in the image, she says “it felt almost indecent to keep in my room these fragments of other people’s existence. . . Following this experience I resolved to photograph only inanimate subjects.” But, after photographing some industrial ruins along a canal, she admits “there was not much to see on [such] photographs.”
The narrator spends time with a young woman named Sonja, who makes photographs using a pinhole camera. Sonja is convinced that she sees angels in several of her pictures made in a nearby cemetery. But when the narrator looks, she sees only “a blot of the kind that had occasionally appeared in the photos I took with my old instant camera: white shadows, caused by light penetrating the primitive casing.” Kinsky is once again implying that only the photographer can see special elements in his or her photographs, although in this case Sonja’s photographs do not connect to memory, but to a kind of visionary spirituality. One of Sonja’s photographs also raises the specter of photographic intrusion anew. When Sonja gives the narrator a photograph she made that includes the roof and window of the narrator’s own flat, the narrator is taken aback. “I felt watched.”
The Charles Olson epigraph and its accompany photograph of the blind girl might provide a clue to what is going on here. The epigraph, “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more,” is from his poem “A Discrete Gloss,” originally published in Cid Corman’s Origin 6 in the summer of 1952. Elsewhere in the poem Olson writes:
In what sense is
what happens before the eye
so very different from
what actually goes on within…
In The Poetry of Charles Olson: A Primer (University of Delaware Press, 1982), Thomas F. Merrill suggests that “‘mere sight’ or, for that matter, mere sensory perception in its broadest sense, is what ‘A Discrete Gloss’ militates against. . . . Experience from within, the memory and emotions, enriches and shapes the visual sensations from without.” This was a theme that Olson seems to have borrowed from Alfred North Whitehead’s writings on perception. Sight, to express it poorly, is not merely a method for transferring images from the world into the brain in some neutral fashion. Instead, it is nearly impossible for us to “see” without involuntarily engaging our memory and emotions—in short, our past. Kinsky, in turn, seems to be suggesting that photography can act as a specialized form of sight, in that sometimes the images that a photographer takes can act on the photographer —and the photographer alone—in an even more complex voyage of memory and emotion, even to the point of arousing a sense of past trauma.
Esther Kinsky. River. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith.