Esther Kinsky, River, trans. by Iain Galbraith (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)
By Daniel Davis Wood
Only a few pages into Esther Kinsky’s River, I began to anticipate a very particular word. Sure enough, fifty or so pages later, there it was. The novel is narrated by a young woman from Germany who has spent a significant portion of her life in London, and at one point she recalls the summer she “landed temporary work in a basement office” while coming to terms with the death of her father. The office “was situated in a dark building on a permanently busy thoroughfare near the big north London train stations”, and every evening, after she had completed her menial work pulling files, she would step out into the smog and make her escape from “the crepuscular cellar”. “Crepuscular” is the word I was waiting for.
The use of that word is an intriguing choice on the part of Kinsky’s translator, Iain Galbraith, since Kinsky’s original text, in German, describes the cellar simply as “dämmrigen”: “dim”. Strictly speaking, in English, “crepuscular” is an adjective that applies only to motion or behaviour, not to a static space like a cellar. Foxes and badgers are crepuscular animals, awake and active twice a day, once in the hours between sunset and true darkness and again between the softening of night and the first rays of dawn. The light at these times of day is crepuscular, too, moving as it does, ever so slowly, from one state of illumination to another. With regard to a space like the cellar, dank and dim but not in a state of activity or flux, a term of greater precision but similar poetry would be “twilit”. “Crepuscular” might apply to the people who work there, but not to the cellar itself. Still, I was happy to see the word appear in River — and reappear five or six times throughout the novel — because even if it felt askew, it didn’t feel like an error of judgment on the translator’s part. It is, in fact, the word most apt to describe the mechanics of River as a whole, as the novel sets about enacting an aesthetics of the crepuscular.
To be crepuscular, ultimately, is to dwell in a sort of transitory state, not because you are moving from one space to another, but because you linger in a circumscribed place while your environment changes around you. In one respect, River seems not to fit the bill: to the extent that the novel tells a story, it follows its narrator’s journey on foot along the banks of the River Lea in East London. But the novel is not exactly a Sebaldian travelogue, in which a peripatetic narrator lyrically interweaves historical anecdotes, nor a work of psychogeography and cultural commentary in the mould of Iain Sinclair (whom Kinsky translated into German). Rather, as the narrator’s Leaside ruminations dredge up memories of rivers past — rivers she has visited in Canada, Germany, Israel, and elsewhere, all of which are depicted as metaphorical tributaries of the Lea — it becomes clear that, despite her perpetual movement, she remains immersed in an irrecoverable past, enveloped by the fug of time between then and now. Irrecoverable: her early years in London, ripe with possibilities for self-discovery and self-invention. Irrecoverable: her beloved father, whose death precipitated her first relocation to England. Irrecoverable: her childhood visits to Britain in his company, her temporary escapes from a divided and largely militarised homeland.
For all the contemporaneity of River — it was published in German in 2014, and is set in the previous decade — it’s so formal, so mannered, and sometimes so consciously outdated, that it often reads like a novel from the mid-twentieth century. Although the narrator lives in a world that has long since moved on from the trauma of two global conflicts, her roving eye tends to snag on present-day traces of the destruction they caused, and she repeatedly encounters people displaced by them — people whose experiences of past injuries are ongoing, still burning, while a new era unfolds before their eyes.
The novel opens with the narrator in an empty park at dusk, where, she says, earlier in the day she usually “espied” “observant Jewish women and children” and “Hasidic boys [whose] sidelocks trembled when they were cold”. The characters belong to the twenty-first century, but the imagery that adorns them belongs to an earlier, almost monochromatic age. As if to reinforce this notion, the narrator recalls finding an old camera at a street market, an analog device that produces instant pictures. Never mind the technological wonders of the digital era: she reclaims the camera from where it had been lost amidst her other belongings, to toy with it during her walks along the Lea. And those other belongings are themselves more of the stuff of the narrator’s crepuscular life: they are bundled up in the boxes that crowd her rented flat, boxes she has neglected to open since she moved into the place.
“Every river is a border”, the narrator says during her reminiscences on the Oder, which forms the land border between Germany and Poland.
It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. The river is dynamic, a bustling stage, in contrast with which the otherland opposite is integral to the fixed picture, a background painting which impresses itself on our memory.
With these words, the narrator offers an indirect articulation of her own aesthetic project. To hew to the river — the border — is to confine oneself to the space between two fixed absolutes, and although the narrator casts her observation in topographical terms, it also speaks to the way the Lea etches a border between two temporalities in River. This is especially true when the narrator reaches the juncture between the Lea and Bow Creek, long ago the site of brickworks, slaughterhouses, and a porcelain factory. As she envisions the offal, the “sinew and gristle”, that would once have been cast into the water from the abattoirs, she wonders: “What happened to the bones?” and then: “What was it like when the formulation for bone porcelain was being devised?” “In Bow”, she reveals, “in specially designed furnaces with air vents, [the bones] were converted into bone ash”, and what follows is an eerily detailed and evocative account of the burning of piles of bones. It doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to see the ghostly presence of other, more distinctly German furnaces in this imagery — and indeed, the progression of the passage mimics gut-wrenching description of the furnaces of Treblinka in Mathias Énard’s Zone: burned bones, the ashes of flesh, human grease, and more. In River, the East London of the twenty-first century is anything but where and when it really is, although it takes this particular narrator, with her particular background and her piercing gaze, to see it as someplace elsewhere, elsewhen.
Like the Lea itself, River is sometimes gracefully meandering, sometimes misshapen, sometimes lush and sometimes arid. It is thick with meditative and descriptive passages, with swells of poetry and lyricism, but its most impressive sequences are, unexpectedly, those in which the narrator serves up the traditional pleasures of characterisation. A homeless man known only as The King, whose story bookends the novel, makes for a pitiable presence, and one of the narrator’s few emotional touchstones. There’s also a startling encounter with a fortune teller whose “bone-dry” fingers are “like thin lizards’ legs”, and another with a “corpulent woman” who brings an extra dimension to the narrator’s experience of the Hooghly River in Kolkata. The narrator’s encounters with these characters involve deviations from the course of the Lea, or moments of respite in her journey along it. In a way, they are the whirlpools and eddies in the river of the prose: they stand in the places where the narrator’s wandering thoughts relinquish their onward momentum to swirl, for a while, around a clear and present object of attention.
River, then, is not only a novel about a person with an idiosyncratic experience of time, but a novel that structures time for its readers in a similarly distinct way. There is nothing propulsive, compelling, or urgent about it. It is a leisurely book, unhurried, content to move at its own speed with only subtle variations; and, aided in no small part by the fine textures of Galbraith’s alternations between formal and florid prose, it unfolds at a tender pace which encourages a way of reading that honours the narrator’s own movements. The narrator walks along the Lea for a day, then stops. She describes what she remembers of her voyages abroad. Then she returns to the Lea at a later date, several weeks on, perhaps in a different season, and she continues her journey where she left off. In moving just so between her materials, wavering between the visible and the memorial, she encourages a reading of River that respects the novel’s drifts. Don’t aim for a single sitting, or two. Read a few pages, maybe a chapter, then set it aside. Return to it when the need moves you. Read a little more, then put it down again. Come back when you feel the pull.
You’ll lose the thread of countless other books if you try to read them this way, but River feels palpably different. It is a book that offers gifts granted rarely to readers — particularly in an age when readers are starved for attention — including latitude and airiness, leeway to wander astray from a singular line of narrative. It doesn’t seek to subject anyone to the compulsive pressure to read on, to turn page after page after page, but instead strikes a tone that liberates us from that inner urge. It opens up expanses of time for us not only to read, but to consciously delay ourselves, consent to being detained, in company of a preternaturally alert and speculative consciousness: to halt, as crepuscular creatures in a world changing rapidly around us; to be guided into a textual space that gives us room in which to calm ourselves; and, calmed, to be made conscious of the sensations of loitering with no greater aim than to draw breath.