26 August 2019: as if searching for something

22 August 2019

I was in the Bay Area, second of my home areas (after Texas and before Massachusetts) with my partner this past week. For the first couple of nights, we were staying with friends in San Francisco, one of whom told me that he had heard that River by Esther Kinsky was good. A second-hand recommendation, to be sure, but when I held the book in my hand, something about it felt right. Do you know what I mean? When you just have a gut feeling?

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It might be partially due to the fact that my friend, Justin Carder, impresario of EM Wolfman, designed and typeset the book. The exterior has a blue spine and buttercream cover. The title, author, and translator appear in the same blue, but shot through with a black fluvial pattern running north-south on the book. It’s repeated eight times, overprinted—or digitally made to appear to so—such that the black text, which appears at various points perpendicular or parallel to the ink river, presumably denoting locations, mostly overruns the text from the adjacent parallel river. “Nazing” and “Sewardstone” and “Chinkford” are still visible. The overall effect of this aspect of the cover is akin to the textual collages of Susan Howe: deracinated words and word-stuff at the threshold of legibility.

Pull the cover back and on the inside blue lines, running east-west on the page, flow in perfect parallel undulations. At this point, I feel fully conditioned to begin in the proper riverine spirit. Yet there is still more conditioning to come. The epigraph reads, “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more. —Charles Olsen, ‘A Discrete Gloss’.” On the next page a caption “for the blind child” below an image, best described by Kinsky herself:

On the mantelpiece I noticed a picture I had never seen before. It was an old sepia photograph, printed on thick card, a small postcard: on the back were lines for the address and a dotted outline for the stamp. The postcard format was a little too large for the print, and there was a broad white margin to the left of the picture with half a sepia-brown fingerprint. Could one of the packers have been carrying a photo like this? A photograph that was evidently so old that the figure portrayed in it could not have had anything directly to do with the life of the packer? Could it have fallen out of a book I had bought from a barrow or second-hand shop and never opened? I couldn’t make sense of it. The photograph showed a girl of about eleven. Her bright hair was tied at the nape with a broad white ribbon. She wore a dress embellished with dark bands beneath her rib-cage and around her sleeves. She was holding a stick diagonally in front of her with both hands. She had a faintly surprised, questioning look, which was nonetheless assertive and not dreamy. Her face was inclined upwards, her mouth, nose and chin clearly recognizable, and yet, for all the expectant alertness of her expression, her eyes seemed closed and unseeing. She was standing in a garden, behind her a wooden table, bushes and a tall, iron, pointed fence. Everything around the girl—leaves, grass, flowers—was flying towards the blurred edges of the picture, as if caught in a maelstrom that left only this still centre intact: the child’s face, breast and arms. I placed the photo back on the mantelpiece. I did not want to forget it. (350)

This passage characterizes Kinsky’s narrator’s approach. As I’ve said before of, well, Susan Howe, or Sebald (to whom Kinsky is frequently compared and with whom she shares a translator), Kinsky pampers the scraps, reading traces. There’s something lovely here about the narrator’s quality of attention. Esther Kinsky writes these exquisite long sentences about a character like a roving eye—a female eye roaming alluvial byways, ravening but never rapacious in its looking. Is she looking at the wrong things? That’s not it, exactly. Maybe what it feels like is the wrong kind of attention? Wrong in the sense of disproportionate to a print of a photograph which is not personally meaningful. But perhaps not wrong in the sense that one of the subjects photography photographs best is photographing, and its documentary and archival impulses.

The narrator, let’s call her EK, cares for things. Her archiving as diligent as her looking. One gets the feeling that because her own life or perhaps her family’s life is too painful to archive, so she turns her attention to rivers, the people she meets by them, found photographs or photographs she makes which nonetheless have the same aura as found photographs, in that they do not index her own family life. This idea I have about EK being in pain would be one that the character would find distastefully Romantic, as she does when her friend Sonja uses a pinhole camera in a graveyard, making prints and calling unidentifiable blurs of light “angels.”

Distasteful to EK perhaps, but perhaps not untrue. She frequently notes when buildings or neighborhoods are post-war, pre-war, inter-war. One gets the feeling that the narrator thinks of herself as “interwar”—not in terms of the way in which she applies it architecturally to discuss the history of the built landscape around her, but in terms of a sensibility of someone having been uprooted without having really been able to put the roots back down. The narrator is a stranger, at times literally peering into the windows of her neighbors. EK regards the man whom she calls the King, Greengrocer Katz, the Croat, Jackie, and the rest, with passionate yet paradoxically detached intensity. The care and intensity of her looking, both at the edgelands of rivers, and at the human aspect of that landscape, become her methodology for taking root and arriving home.

The narrative follows her walks along rivers in England, interspersed with memories other locales. At one point, she is a child in Germany. At another, she moves to Canada, to raise a child who enigmatically falls out of the narrative. Memories of her deceased father recur frequently. Kinsky evidently intends us, her readers, to come to know her narrator in relief, through negative space—a fitting technique for a character who is a photographer.

As the rivers and countries accrued, my questioning increased. Why was she at the Hooghly? Well, why was she at the Lea or the Neretva? What was her business there? What connexion did she have to each place? In Tel Aviv, where she goes after her father’s death, her friend Mi says, “You don’t need to stay here…Nobody here has been waiting for you” (141). This questioning amplified, until it eventually flung itself back to England, and I was forced to admit that she didn’t really have a greater reason for being there than any of the other places she had visited, realizing that I had invented a narrative of some kind about her family. And my instinctive desire, despite (and because of) my literary training, to identify the author, who is German, and who, according to her bio, “grew up at the River Rhine and lived in London for twelve years.” To make that the first sentence of your bio is to invite suspicions of autofiction!

What does she do for money? The book suggests she leads a frugal life in which her only indulgences are rivers and photographs, but she does need something to keep body and soul together. Kinsky describes her nameless narrator as having worked as a translator, pushing words to and fro between languages (that was about how she put it—I can’t find the passage) and, in one of the more explicitly surreal passages, she takes a job at a world radio station, professionally murmuring and sighing. Mainly, though, she goes places and she knows not why—other than dwell near their rivers, of course. Something about the character—a certain resistance to being known, or to knowability itself, paired with spartan excess—reminds me of a friend of mine. But the searching and roving, the continuous walking as if searching for something resonated with my experience.

I remember walking in Austin, despairing to find a seam in its surface big enough for me to crawl through. Measuring out my green age in footsteps. Attempting to encipher the world into hieroglyphs so I could finally read it. Marching in a decentralised army of the restless. These days my pace has slowed. Have I arrived? No…but I who am mainly a city walker struggle to make the transition to town and country. And so a certain torpor sets in, and the energy of walking retrogrades—but where? Walk with me, o walk with me. Keep me company for a spell. Chance or choice forming us, travelers, into a company of pilgrims without an institutional god who nonetheless are driven to cut our knees as we drag them across pebble-strewn turf.

Zoe Tuck