“Remember what it was like to be me”: Esther Kinsky’s “Grove”
“When a scene has little or no apparent structure, we are likely to be confused and frustrated: the eye will roam fruitlessly seeking interest and points of connection, from one fixation to the next, without much success.” Simon Bell. Landscape: Pattern, Perception and Process.
The sublime prose of Esther Kinsky’s 2017 novel River has made it one of my favorite books of this still young century. The writing in River transformed ordinary moments—walking in a London park, taking instant photographs with a Polaroid-like camera, rummaging at a flea market—glimmer with the magic and potency of a Vermeer painting, suggesting that an introspective, watchful life could lead to small, miraculous epiphanies on a daily basis.
The events in her new novel Grove (Transit Books, 2020) take place in the first year or so after the death of “M.,” the partner or spouse of the German narrator, who has temporarily moved to rural Italy to try to reset her life. “Each morning I awoke in an alien place. . . Each morning it was as if I had to learn everything anew. . . Dressing. Washing. Applying bandages. The imposition of my hands.” It’s hard not to see Grove as an autobiographical novel, since Kinsky’s husband, the literary translator Martin Chalmers, died in 2014.
The narrator begins by telling us that her house sits at the midpoint between the cemetery and the small village, halfway between death and life. This is more than just a symbol for how she feels in her bereavement, it’s a signal to us for what we should be looking for as we read further in Grove: themes dealing with patterns and mapping. Each day the narrator chooses to walk to the village by a different lane, attempting to mentally map her surroundings.
As she ventures on foot or in her car further and further out into the countryside around her rented home in Olevano, a hillside village east of Rome, she often becomes lost and has to ask for directions back. “I became dizzy looking at this unfurled country which was laid so bare yet remained so incomprehensible to me. A rugged terrain with a restless appearance—it presented itself differently from each side.” Even when she stays in the house, she is intently gazing out the windows at the fields and the woods below and at the hills across the valley, trying to make sense of the landscape. She is also constantly listening, attempting to recognize the calls of birds both seen and unseen, mapping the soundscape, as it were.
The bulk of Grove is dedicated to the narrator’s daily explorations. Some days she wanders aimlessly, at other times she visits museums, Etruscan ruins, Rome, the mosaics at Ravenna. But more than anything else she visits cemeteries, including Cerveteri, the famous necropolis outside Rome that features in Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. She and M. had planned to go to Cerveteri one day, and as she stands among the graves she thinks: “I could imagine M. next to me on these paths, his gait and gaze, more clearly than in any other place yet in Italy.”
The book’s second section is devoted to memories of the narrator’s childhood and the many vacations that her family took in Italy. Her father was obsessed with Italy and in retirement even became a tour guide there. Now, years after her father’s death, the narrator realizes that these trips she is making to Italy after M.’s death are being guided by a plan that seems to have somehow been handed down from her father. “I suddenly felt as if I had to fulfill a mission. To complete some set of instructions. To visit places, inspect terrains, to fumble my way along the thin string of clues between my memories and pictures, places, names.”
In the third section it is the second year after M.’s death and she stays in a house in the Po Valley, near Ferrara. Here, there is a breakthrough. Over the course of a five-page chapter that focuses on a view looking down into the Po River valley, the narrator begins to describe the landscape in terms of language. Pieces of heavy machinery are described as letters. A church steeple is a punctuation mark, and exclamation mark against the sky. A flock of pigeons creates a script in the air. The river below “is a sentence to the plain” with a forward slash. A motionless man fishing beside an imperceptibly moving river becomes a short verse. There are the “rattling winter syllables of sparrows.” [Always my italics.] It seems clear that the narrator is no longer lost in the landscape, but can now read it clearly. And perhaps in her life, as well. For in the midst of this scene, a woman appears. “The sun lies low, encircling her figure in a halo of light.” The woman strides “decisively” and “resolutely” and is dressed in the clothing of “another time,” as if she were “an extra from one of the many films shot here in the past.” I couldn’t help but see this mysterious, almost unlikely figure as a symbol of the narrator emerging from her bereavement.
Grove is not really so much about bereavement as it is about what comes after. It’s a book that examines how one reestablishes the self that has gone missing in bereavement, the self that gets jarred loose when a loved one dies. For Kinsky’s narrator, that rebuilding process occurs through reestablishing patterns, by learning the language of the world all over again, by understanding one’s place inside the structures that one finds meaningful—like nature or family.
By chance, I just happened to be reading Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she writes that for her, the point of keeping notebooks was never about other people, they were always about her. She kept notebooks in order to “remember what it was like to be me,” she says. Perhaps this is what Grove is really all about. Esther Kinsky’s narrator must remember what it was to be herself again—alone, without M.
Esther Kinsky. Grove. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020. Translated by Caroline Schmidt from the 2018 German title Hain: Geländeroman (or Grove: A Novel of the Land).