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Posts from the ‘Esther Kinsky’ Category


Whenever the word ‘river’ came to mind, I imagined panoramas, views, images from childhood—the postcards memory had sent me. I ran these views and images by countless rivers, holding them up to each river landscape as if to interrogate it for something specific. For distinct shades of blue both in the sky and in the sky’s reflection on both sides of the river? For its capacity to make magic with mist, its seaward promise and pledge of a greater brightness? The comparative allure of its unknown opposite bank? I could not have said myself what it was.

The woman who narrates Esther Kinsky’s novel River doesn’t tell us why she has just moved to Hackney, in London’s East End, but she has abruptly “excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo.” “Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind,” she is now living a “provisional existence” in a rented apartment full of unpacked boxes. Her neighborhood is a mix of Hasidic Jews, Croats, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Romas, and immigrants from various African nations, and she has become a passionate observer of the people around her. Smells, sounds, or other aspects of their daily routines set off recollections of her childhood. She buys things she doesn’t need in the Kosher store just because they “called forth lost memories.” During the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacle, she walks the streets of the Hasidic community, listening to the sounds of “plates clattering, voices, and table prayers spoken in the festively decorated gardens and backyards of the pious,” something that had been part of her own growing up. She begins dreaming of the dead, of her father and her grandfather and her youth.

But what has really called to her to Hackney was the River Lea. Nearly every day the narrator spends time taking long walks, exploring the marshes of the river and its banks.

On its back the river carried the sky, the trees along its bank, the withered cob-like blooms of water plants, black squiggles of birds against the clouds. Between the empty lands to the east of the river and the estates and factories along the other bank, I rediscovered bits and pieces of my childhood, found snippets cut from other landscapes and group photographs, unexpectedly come here to roost. I stumbled on them between willows under a tall sky, in reflections of impoverished housing estates on the town side of the river, amongst a scatter of cows on a meadow, in the contours of old brick buildings.

Her river walks evoke memories of growing up near the Rhine, reminding her of her father’s work as an amateur photographer. When she digs some of his photographs out of her boxes she realizes that she is seeing the world through his eyes for the first time. “I was astounded how many of these pictures had been taken on or beside a river.”

Her memories tend to dwell on the travels which have taken her to rivers—to the Po River in Italy, the Tisza River in Hungary, the Hoogly River in Kolkata, or the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. “Every river is a border; that is one of the lessons of my childhood.” Those borders may be peaceful, or, as the narrator knows first-hand, those borders might represent hate and near certain death if one attempted to cross it, like the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, “the most wrecked place I had ever seen.”

One day she remembers an old instant photography camera, packed away somewhere in her boxes. She locates it and begins to take pictures as she walks. When the prints are ejected from the old camera, she is surprised by what she sees.

What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of grey was a memory I did not even know I had. These 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 possible never knew. There was something unquestionably familiar about these landscape scenes which, apart from the odd passer-by, were generally empty. Something waved to me, whispering: Do you remember? You do remember, don’t you?

“the town came closer on both sides of the river, darker from the west, with bricks, stone and broken window-panes facing the river…”

At first, we might take Kinsky’s narrator for the pastoral equivalent to Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, walking the marshy paths just outside the city rather than the paved streets within city limits. However, she turns out to be an equal opportunity stroller. It’s just that when she finally does explore her corner of London, she doesn’t go as a typical urban flâneuse. Instead, she haunts the difficult, unloved places, heading straight into London’s industrial ruins or down its far less affluent side streets.

Now and again I took a train in one direction or the other and studied the backs of the terraces, roofs, chimneys, gables, and rear gardens in varying light, the strips of waste ground with crows and cats, the whole hinterland of the city that stays hidden from bus-window views of street façades. With my finger on the map I followed the fine line cutting through the green and grey paper surfaces like the jagged outline of a distorted half-moon, wending across the red, brown and black threads of streets, thickening around stations, then trickling through no-man’s-land like the hairline strand of a brook. . .
I set off east, working my way through a wasteland of thorn-thickets, fox dens and rusty remains of old railway equipment near the edges of the big stations. Budding lilac nodded along semi-derelict fencing; battered shopping trolleys were rammed into bare spring bushes. Behind this zone of neglect and devastation, in the shadow of run-down factories and warehouses and within smelling distance of a sewage drain, the viaduct arches were home to goods that had been lost, given away, misappropriated or stolen elsewhere in the city, a loosely pitched series of junk-stall arches, selling anything which, for whatever reason, had been rejected, released or purloined from the commodity circuit. Under the rumbling trains trembled coach-loads of bicycles, chairs, fridges and tables, half-gutted washing machines, car seats, shelves full of fragile and unbreakable items, jackets, coats and flowery dresses, books and records, all darkened by dust that trickled from the pores of bricks and nipped by pigeon droppings. When the weather was fine the stallholders sat on camp-chairs and torn car tyres in front of their open arches.

Photographs and photography play a critical role in River, and a number of images are reproduced in the book. One day, while taking a photograph of the entrance to a building, something goes awry and the photograph shows only the feet of some passers-by, the pavement, part of the door, and a hand in a window, which she had not noticed when she took the picture.

A scrawny and presumably old hand, a hand that was unsure, reaching for something hidden to me. The picture was an image of my own uncertain future, one I would hold on to, and one day pick up, saying: Yes, Stamford Hill, London: that’s how the bricks felt under my fingertips, how the cracked paving stones with their sprouting grass and weeds felt under my feet, and how their great scattered flocks darkened my field of vision, this and no other lack of shadow was typical of the light there, that was my place, and this scrawny old hand will hang on to a piece of my life forever.

With the novel coming to an end, her seemingly aimless meandering stops and an actual destination is announced for the first time: the Thames must be found. Not only that, but she wants to find the specific location where she went with her father as a child, which means an expedition out of London toward Southend-on-Sea, where the Southend Pier extends more than 1.3 miles straight out into the Thames Estuary.

At the end of the mile-long pier that jutted into the heaving mass of waves and currents, I was practically on my own. The wind gusted across the platform from every angle and waves crashed against the steel girders below, between the rows of lights that were Sheerness to the South, and the gay blaze of colour that was Southend’s lit-up amusement park on the northern shore, between the enormous cupola of unbroken darkness over the sea in the east, and the distant glow of London in the west. Nothing began here, and nothing ended, and maybe that had been the message of the blinking lights I had seen from Sheerness. This place was the centre that never stood still.

After her experience where “nothing began” and “nothing ended,” the narrator packs up what few things she unpacked during her April to August stay in Hackney and prepares to move on in her “restlessness” to her next stay, which is in a country in “distant Eastern Europe.” As she prepares to depart, still as anonymous as when she arrived in her neighborhood, she watches one final sunrise.

Then a great torrent of light poured over the park. . . a luminosity that made each object stand out for a brief moment in an exuberant radiance that melted to fool’s gold and the sunburst delusions of cold spring days, glimmering, glistening, sparkling, and finally dissolving in a blinding, golden tremor, in which all that had accompanied me in the past months evaporated like a cloud succumbing to sunlight, and this effulgence, which broke over all I could see, transformed the marshland beyond the River Lea and the Lea itself into a shoreline that could barely be distinguished from the sea, and which, as it rose and fell like the surf, let all that was built on it founder.

There is no plot to River and only one character, about whom we learn very little. In fact, we learn more about the narrator’s childhood than her adult life. Kinsky plays with time in a curious way in River. Through memories, she exposes us to bits and pieces of the narrator’s childhood, but what we learn about her adult life is so meager that it’s like looking at a painting that has doesn’t really have a middle distance, just a foreground and some mountains very far away. Perhaps this is Kinsky’s way of telling us that it makes no difference what her narrator left behind (there’s mention of a child, although that episode seems many years earlier) or why she left her previous life in London. In any event, the book’s emphasis is on what kind of woman she is or aspires to be. We witness a woman of great curiosity and generosity of spirit. She is the sort of person to absorb everything she can about her international community of neighbors and, although she makes no deep friendships during her brief stay, she nevertheless routinely interacts with others just like a kind and helpful neighbor.

Photography tells us a little more about her. Early in the book, she looks at the images she took of some strangers and she “felt ashamed.” “It felt almost indecent to keep in my room these fragments of other people’s existence . . . snippets of the lives of strangers who knew nothing of the persistence in my possession, for the time being, of a fragment of their life.” After that, she “resolved to photograph only inanimate objects.” Later on, she buys an envelope of photographs at a flea market, only to discover that they seem to be the “testaments to a family visit” of some kind during a summer in Hackney.

What was I doing here, on this wind-buffeted, elevated station platform with its view over the zone of discontinuities gradually annexing the River Lea and its wild hinterland, with these snapshots of lives so remote from my own that I had been granted unsolicited access to them through some petty burglary or disappointing inheritance or ill-starred coincidence? I could not even think of names to give the two women who turned up in all of the photographs. I asked myself the unanswerable question of what name some other person might give me if they happened upon my photo?

Feeling like a voyeur, she abandons that envelope of flea-market photographs on the train. This obsession with names, I suspect, goes back to a temporary job she previously held in London at the Jewish Refugee Committee, where she did translations and answered inquiries “concerning the whereabouts of German Jewish refugees who had come to England in the 1930s.” She “reeled miles of microfilm,” “became embroiled in stories of strangers,” and was obsessed for days trying to solve cases. “I always took the names of the missing with me.”

The narrator’s instincts throughout the book are with the immigrants, the poor, and the struggling, those who live largely unseen and ignored in the underbelly of the city or in temporary shelters they have created among its marshy fringes. She flows through their community—almost like a river, one is tempted to say—then moves on, leaving little trace of her presence.

Three years ago I wrote about River in two posts in 2018 and I read the book rather differently then. Here is part one and here is part two of that review.


Esther Kinsky. River. Translated from the 2014 German original Am Fluss by Iain Galbraith. Originally published by Matthes & Seitz Verlag. Published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions (London) 2017 and Transit Books (Oakland) 2018.

This is book number 3 in my Vertigo 15 Books Project, in which I am looking back across fifteen years of my reading and writing Vertigo, and I am selecting the fifteen titles that have really stood out during that time.

Esther Kinsky Wins First Sebald Prize

Photo of Esther Kinsky
Courtesy Transit Books

The new W.-G.-Sebald Literature Prize, endowed with 10,000 euros, was announced earlier this year by the German Sebald Society in conjunction with the cities of Kempten (Allgäu) and Sonthofen and the municipality of Wertach, where Sebald was born and grew up. Now, the first winner has been announced: writer and translator Esther Kinsky has been selected for her text “Kalkstein.” The jury selected Kinsky’s text from 900 entries submitted anonymously. Authors from Germany and abroad were able to submit an unpublished German-language prose text dealing with the topic of “Remembrance and Memory.” The jury included: Hans Jürgen Balmes (S. Fischer Verlag), Prof. Dr. Claudia Öhlschläger (University of Paderborn), Prof. Dr. Jürgen Ritte (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris), Marie Schmidt (Süddeutsche Zeitung) and Dr. Kay Wolfinger (Ludwig Maximilians University Munich).

“We are really overjoyed to have found such a worthy and suitable winner. The award of a writer who began working as a translator in a competition dedicated to a writer who had a worldwide impact through the translation of his texts written in England into German is a coincidence that can almost be described as fateful, “explains Prof. Ricardo Felberbaum, the first chairman of the society. “We have selected a text that lets landscape and stone speak in a fascinating way and thus develops a new poetics of remembrance that can be found in a similar way in the work of W. G. Sebald,” says Dr. Kay Wolfinger, lecturer at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and second chairman of the society.

This is the fourth prize Kinsky has won in 2020. The other three have been the Deutscher Preis für Nature Writing (German Prize for Nature Writing), the Christian-Wagner-Preis (Christian Wagner Prize), and the Erich Fried Preis (Erich Fried Prize).

“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.

I wrote about Esther Kinsky’s novel River here in Part 1 and in Part 2.

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).

A River in Hungary

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Children_s_Games_-_Google_Art_ProjectPieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560

Summer means beaches, beer, flirtations, rowdiness. For people in northern climates, the brevity of summer puts people who are in a rush to celebrate on a collision course with nature—with sand, water, heat, bugs, snakes, sudden storms. Written five years earlier than River (which I wrote about in two recent posts), Esther Kinsky’s novel Summer Resort is a condensed story of one very hot summer at an üdülő, or a resort, on an unnamed river in Hungary.  The book, which has no real main character, is reminiscent of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, providing a macro view of the village, as if seen from a drone drifting overhead, replete with brief stories that convey the joys and irritations that comprise daily life.

Late in the evening two vehicles crashed at the corner of Main Road and Garageland Lane, a bright blue car and an egg-yolk yellow one, both made of soft pliant metal, the moon was high above the river and was orange, almost golden indeed and shone on the crushed and shifted metal, on the shards and splinters, on the now ruined lustre of journeys begun, on the pale faces of the injured, on whose temples the smile of departure still crouched in shock, it shone on the curiosity-crooked faces of the onlookers, on the last pale pink blooming hollyhock bell on a brown dried-up stand beside the Hotel Oasis where no one looked. So the day came to an end once and for all, and Katica stood on the cracked cement at the edge of the filling station, exactly at the point where the petrol station light and flashing blue light met, one shoulder raised, the other dragged down by her window cleaner’s bag, there she stood, profoundly exhausted by bearing witness to the evening.

The world that Kinsky gives us in Summer Resort is stylized, as if it were a world in miniature, housed in a terrarium. Some of the people that live in or are drawn to the üdülő have cartoony names, like the Kozak Boys, the Onion Men, Microphone Man, Ruthwoman (whose real name is Éva), and a group known as the Englishmen, who drown in “the sea of alien incomprehensible, unknowable words.” And then there is the New Woman, another foreigner, who steals Antal from his wife, an act that ends in tragedy. The village where everything takes place is decaying, its former economy shuttered. Its glorious past, when the sugar beet factory was still in operation, is described as:

the great toytime, when a key, which looked almost like a small heart with two holes in it, wound up the world on both sides of the river, so that the route from the earth-brown beet to the white bag of sugar was smooth and flawless, lined by horses, trams, waving fisherman, aproned cleaners with rattling pails, workers with bulging muscles under their blue jackets, with moustaches and laughing mouths, and smoke billowing white from the chimney.

But all this is gone now. Instead the village is full of weeds and decaying buildings. There are wild dogs on the loose and perhaps a few too many bars. “Nothing was as it used to be, they said.”

Summer Resort is a lyrical book filled with startlingly fresh imagery. The focus is as much on nature as on the cast of characters that populate the üdülő during the summer. In these respects it foreshadows what Kinsky will do in River, although it’s a much less solemn book, as is hinted at by her choice of an epigraph: “You should’ve wrote a book.” This comes from the title of a song by Dan Reeder, an American-born singer-songwriter and painter who has lived in Germany for decades and whose songs are often irreverent and humorous. But if pressed to say what the book is about, I would say that it’s about words and writing, which is perhaps not surprising, given that Kinsky has published several volumes of poetry and is a long-time translator. While the New Woman often feels that she has “gone astray in the inhospitable language of these parts,” Kinsky adores playing with language, as she does here, when she describes the arrival of a swimmingpull at the house of one of her characters, using a crazy quilt of a sentence that keeps switching vantage points and time:

The swimmingpull arrived, glowing blue, a large round basin that had nothing to do with dust and rust and ashes, a gaudy interloper between the crooked fences of the back yards, and the truck drivers who drove past on the main road stared and spat out of the window when they saw Ruthwoman who, eyes shut, drifted across the calm surface of the water on a brightly coloured airbed.

Summer Resort, published in English in 2011 by the wonderful Seagull Books, was translated from the German original Sommerfrische (2009) by Martin Chalmers. Chalmers and Kinsky were married in 2014, only months before he died of cancer.

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River of Images, River of Memories

Kinsky River Blind Child

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.

In 2022, I reread River and wrote about it again.

Esther Kinsky. River. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith.

Rivers of Memory, Rivers of Language

River Kinsky

The Oder drew a border line up and down the country, writing a Here and a There in the sandy earth. Under it, however, countless watery question marks and intertwining letters tugged in both directions, east and west, a water-script of histories granted continuity through the river, under it, beyond it, its tributaries and ramifications annotating the landscape, reversing its sides with befuddling mirror images of the sky and its blues of Here and There.

Esther Kinsky. River. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith.

The narrator of Esther Kinsky’s luscious, elegaic novel River is an unnamed woman who is living, albeit temporarily, in a very liminal part of urban East London that edges up against Tottenham Marshes, a handful of reservoirs, Leyton Marshes, Hackney Marshes, and the River Lea. Alone and apparently jobless, she spends her time exploring and mentally mapping her environs.

South of Hackney Wick, beyond the lake-like stretch of unfrequented, placid water formed by the confluence of the Hertford Union Canal and the tame arm of the Lea, the town came close on both sides of the river, darker from the west, with bricks, stone and broken window-panes facing the river, and grass and weeds breaking up the surfacing of the riverside path…Scrap sidetracked for recycling now reinforced the borders of Bow, which the city had once declared to be its boundary, and where bricks from the clay pits and brickworks of London Fields were once loaded and began their journey upstream to Stamford Hill, there to mutate into the new arms, fingers and arteries of the city. To the east of the river had once lain Essex, green and flat…

Through countless place names and references to maps, Kinsky’s rootless narrator continually makes an effort—futile in the end—to locate a place where she belongs.  Looking at a map of Canada, where she once lived, “under my fingers I felt the still, pale blue of the cold estuary, the countless small elevations of the islands, white and pale green in the river.”

The narrator is the central enigma in River. We are slowly given the basic arc of her life, but the nearer we get to the present the less we know.  She was born and raised in Germany, but moved to Canada with a newborn son (who never reappears in her narrative). At some point (years are never mentioned) she moves London where she struggles to find work. “I regretted never having learned something practical, something that might have impressed people.” At the end of the book, without ever having fully unpacked, she is already leaving again for parts unknown. She seems driven by forces beyond our—and probably her—understanding. There are only a few hints at the melancholy so obviously embedded in her history. “After many years I had excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo. Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture I left behind, and unsure where the cut-out might end up next, I lived a provisional existence.”

Her “provisional existence” is primarily consumed with walks, which form the basic content of River. As Kinsky’s title suggests, most of her narrator’s walks are rural (or, at least as rural as you can get within London city limits). Kinsky depicts the world that surrounds her narrator as an anthropomorphized being that speaks. Things like rose beds, a cafe, and hedges “signified a town.” The city tells tales to the river that passes through it. But to the narrator, the world prompts memories. “I heard curlews, lapwings, bitterns, melancholy calls from throats not at all in mourning, and saw my grandmother standing at the window again.”

Many of these family memories are not fully revealed to the reader. They remain mysterious scenes from a disconnected life. One day, for example, walking along the River Lea, something put the narrator “in mind of an oxbow by the Rhine on which my father once took us rowing in an old wooden boat.” “An incident of some kind,” she goes on, “had caused him to remove us from the house with barely concealed haste.” She remembers the details of that sudden outing, but we never learn what caused her father to abruptly gather up his family and flee in a rowboat.

“Hidden in the middle of the large Hackney Marshes Playing Fields…were memories I was only learning to read.” Seeing the goalposts on these playing fields sends the narrator back into an extended memory of her own childhood school’s sportplatz, or sports ground. Notably, this memory, as do several others, repeatedly spirals around a single word. In this instance it is turnwart, which is translated as “gymnastics supervisor.” “Turnwort—what a word, redolent of the reek of summer rubbish, the smell of linoleum from the gym, the odour of sweat, which, an invisible flag, is the marker of any sports facility.”

While the Lea is central to Kinsky’s novel, other rivers make an appearance, too, rivers from the narrator’s childhood in Germany and rivers that she encounters during her travels: the Oder River in Poland, the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the St. Lawrence River, which separates the U.S. and Canada, the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv, the Tisza River in Hungary, the Hooghly River in Kolkata, the Rhine, and, of course, the Thames. Every river, she notes, is both a border and a “bustling stage” for the gaze of the walker.

Still, some segments of the book take place in the narrator’s gritty, urban neighborhood, which is populated with Hasidic Jews and immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. As a fellow immigrant (although with a very different backstory), she is a sympathetic participant in their daily life of her neighborhood and gives voice to the people she befriends. There are hints that her sense of statelessness (she never suggests any emotional ties with Germany, where she was born and raised) might well be the source of her feeling of melancholy. At one time in her past, she worked briefly for the Jewish Refugee Committee in London, dealing “with enquiries concerning the whereabouts of German-Jewish refugees who had come to England in the 1930s.” As she left work each day she “took the names of the missing with me.”

Kinsky’s narrator seems to be one of the missing. Her walks are, at least in part, an antidote to the “purposelessness of my life in this place,” a place where she has come in order to experience an unexplained and “protracted leave-taking” during the “uncertain months ahead.” River will remind readers of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and the urban roaming books of Iain Sinclair, like London Orbital and Lights Out for the Territory, but something else is going on here. For her narrator, simple sensory acts like seeing, listening, smelling, and moving are ends unto themselves, in keeping with the book’s epigraph from the poet Charles Olson: “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more.” But Kinsky’s prose continually reminds us that the process of reconstructing the world through language is actually a radical act of translation, and the result is more like a memory than a photograph—shifting, contingent, and personal.

Photography and photographs play an integral and complex role in River. I write about this aspect of Kinsky’s novel in a second post.

In 2022, I reread River and wrote about it again.