SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
RIVER (Fitzcarraldo Editions) BY ESTHER KINSKY
(translated Iain Galbraith)
OR, PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY IS RIGHT WING
Now that I self-identify as a poet (see blog on that revelation here), let’s fuck about with the reviewing format a bit. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna make it into a poem, but now that I feel like language is mine to fuck with, fuck with it I AM GOING TO DO. NB: poets like to say “fuck”.
SO, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT IN THIS ARTICLE?
I’m writing, not talking, about River, a novel published at the end of 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions, the people behind many of my favourite books of the last few years (eg Pond, eg Zone, eg Football).
Fitzcarraldo specialises – as far as I can tell – in a kind of literary prose that offers both great emotional heft and rich intellectualism, with the essays they publish provoking intense catharses and their novels evidencing deep learning. Fitzcarraldo make great, beautiful, books, and River is no exception. It is a novel written by Esther Kinsky and published in its original German in 2014, with the translation completed by Iain Galbraith (who, like me, is also a poet) and part funded by English PEN (no relation to Open Pen).
WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
Not certain about this format choice, but I’m gonna roll with it anyway.
River is about lots of things, but predominantly place, memory and change. The aftereffects of war and industrialisation ripple through the novel, which is set in disparate places that exist beside and around rivers. It feels very lived, if that makes sense, as in it feels more like a collection of honest, enterable, memories, rather than fiction. I mean this as a compliment, rather than an accusation: I don’t care how realistic or realist a novel is, as long as its truth is cohesive and consistent, I’m a happy little reader.
DIDN’T REALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION THERE.
OK, right. Will try again.
River features one female first person narrator who is reminiscing on numerous personal experiences she’s had close to flowing water. In the present, the narrator has just moved into a flat, alone, in east London, near the River Lea. She wanders around the riverbanks, canals, marshes and parks that surround this river, taking photographs, collecting objects, and amassing memories from the other wanderers she meets. As she explores, the narrator disappears into her own past, too. This leads to chapters set near the Rhine (beside which she grew up), the Hooghly (a distributary of the Ganges), the St Lawrence (Toronto), the Tisza (which flows through Hungary and neighbouring countries) and the Neretva (Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia), as well as glimpses of the Thames, the Danube, the Po and many rivers that aren’t famous enough for me to remember their names (the ones here that aren’t famous are the titles of chapters, so v easy to check.)
The memories that are evoked stem from across an entire life, from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood and living away from the parental home for the first time, to brief trips made within Europe to long distance, long format, holidays taken to India. There is a curiosity throughout, a real love and engagement with water as a force, as a signifier and as a literal thing that is both beautiful and dangerous. We see rivers that bring life, that bring death, rivers that cleanse, rivers that are polluted with chemicals, polluted with excrement, rivers that are hidden by human structures that negate the natural landscape, and rivers that are used for play, albeit play that is haunted by risk (the concept, not the boardgame).
The memories that are plucked out of the narrator’s head weave in and out of different times, and frequently engage with ideas related to place, to the way that a place affects those who live in it, and how industrialisation and societal development change the way in which people interact with land and with water. River is a book that is dense in detail: it describes rich, complex landscapes and emotive personal experiences, all of them tied to rivers, all of them drawing a portrait of a character who is looking for – I think – peace.
WHO IS IT ABOUT?
The narrator is complex and, at times, confusing. The novel speaks in the same voice throughout, but there is a lot that is left unspoken, unexplored, unnamed. The narrator’s friends are never quite friends, more acquaintances, and their names are sometimes guessed, sometimes nicknames, but never complete descriptions of an identity, though they may be complete descriptions of a character. We rarely know both who and what a person is, if that makes sense?
There are immigrants from all over the world whose histories are explored, and the narrator is sociable and observant. However, she never seems to make any close connections with others, perhaps because of personal tragedy. In the narrator’s memories of Toronto she has a son, a son who does not feature in the present. Is the narrator recently bereaved, did she lose custody of the child, or are her circumstances, wandering alone in East London, perfectly happy, i.e. has enough time passed for the child to have grown up and become independent? I dunno. Am I seeking for an undercurrent of tragedy because that is what I like in fiction? Am I asking the wrong questions? Was I incorrectly looking at River for a singular human story, when in fact it is far more concerned with numerous, pluralised, lives?
I suppose what this comes down to is that, no matter how gorgeous and evocative Galbraith’s translation of Kinsky’s descriptions are, this is a book that is fundamentally about place and people’s immediate, direct, relationship with it. There are mentions of emotion and swift, moving, passages about grief and loneliness, for example, but what recurs, what never goes away, is the presence of rivers, which flow onwards, like life innit, which flows. And though the metaphorical emotionality of this text might be deep, for me there is an absence of personal emotional engagement that left me a little… unfulfilled. I, as a mature, complex, adult, though, can tell this is an issue of my taste and Kinsky’s intention: River is a strong and impressive novel, it just isn’t the kind of novel that drives me wild. I wanna cry big wet tears; this is not the book for that.
WHO IS IT FOR?
I don’t know about this.
River could be described as female-led (or female centric) psychogeography, which – as a USP – sounds like something with the potential for absolutely top sales, right? So, the target demographic would be people who regularly read psychogeography, right, plus people who are intrigued by the idea of psychogeography but find the genre too male, too self-absorbed, too flat, normally. In my opinion – which is literally what this whole fucking post is – River isn’t quite enough of a departure from psychogeography as standard to please people with a pre-existing disapproval of it. This doesn’t mean that River isn’t a particularly good example of the genre (it is), but it does mean that River doesn’t do anything to disrupt the presumptions and traits of psychogeography. Does that make sense? I keep asking that. I’m nervous, this is very much an intellectual text and I’m feeling self-conscious about being critical of it. Does it make sense?
KINDA. I WORRY YOU’RE ABOUT TO START GETTING BITCHY.
No, almost certainly not. Kinsky’s written a top book of its type here, however my point is that it’s a type of book I’m not really into.
WELL, I HAVE TO ASK: IS IT GOOD?
I’m pretty certain I said explicitly, above, that it is a great example of its genre, yes. River is more than a good text.
Kinsky’s landscape descriptions are gorgeous, a reader is transported across multiple continents and driven beside, sailed along, walked near, waded in, swam in and sat, overlooking, numerous rivers. The reader is inundated with references to the way society changes, the ways in which geography is understood differently in different parts of the world. Kinsky shows how communities behave towards water in different places, sometimes playful, reverential, fearful and – especially in London – contemptuous.
The rivers serve their imagistic purpose, and the novel expands itself into an intriguing and complex piece, however, it is ALL ABOUT PLACE, and it is all focused on how one individual responds to place, one individual who sits outside of these different societies, who is an observer, an observer and a tourist, and I don’t know if that is something that I’m that keen to be praising in this evermore fracturing world.
PLEASE GIVE THE INEVITABLE DIGRESSION.
OH RIGHT, BABY!!!! THIS IS THE PERMISSION I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR.
Think of the people you know who like psychogeography. No, I don’t mean the people who’ve read one book about a guy taking a walk, but the people you know who tell you that Iain Sinclair is a “genius”, who listen to Will Self’s Radio 4 shows (even I don’t do that and I’m a total whore for Radio 4) and who tell you that Robert Macfarlane and all those other ones I CAN’T EVEN THINK OF are good. Picturing these book lovers? Right, yeah: they’re usually white men who are like totally into rolled cigarettes, irregular shaving routines and like radical socialism or whatever, yeah? If this isn’t the case for you, then it is for me, all SIX of the men I know who LOVE psychogeography are like this, and I think there is a gentle but unignorable hypocrisy in the intersection of socialism and environmentalism. Also I think psychogeography is right wing.
Psychogeography is a selfish, individualistic, elitist, small c conservative genre, all of which strike me as pretty Big C Conservative traits. Psychogeography is a genre that focuses on the individual experience of – almost always – a well-educated white man who has VOLUNTARILY and TEMPORARILY removed himself from his own circles (and thus interpersonal responsibilities) in order to “report on” other peoples, or on nature itself.
Nature is not people. There is a reason why conservatism and conservation are such similar fucking words. The people who want to “protect the greenbelt” and “stop HS2” are the same people who vote brexit and use the 4 letter p word (not piss) to refer to the local convenience store owned by someone whose like great grandparents were born in Mumbai or somewhere else that definitely isn’t Pakistan. The environment is being destroyed, it is going, and as much as people would like to decry that Donald Trump’s administration’s ignorant policies (seeking to reduce the intended reduction in pollution) are the last railings of a dying attitude, that is sadly bullshit. Things are not – in my uninformed opinion – going to change quickly or dramatically enough for the tight balance between humanity and sustainable nature to be restored. I’m not being pessimistic, I’m being realistic (though uninformed). Most people are selfish fucking individualists and are far, far more easily tempted towards the immediate gratification of, for example, their oil investments continuing to make them money, than to earning slightly less megabucks and allowing species that aren’t humans (or the animals we keep as livestock or pets) to survive for more than a couple of hundred years.
The only way to “save” the planet is MASSIVE depopulation, which is not something a “caring” person can advocate, right? A person who cares about the environment must be caring, right, must therefore also care about people? Bullshit. The state of the world is such, now, that it is only massive state intervention on a global scale that can reverse or repair or at least decelerate the damage we, as a species, have done. You cannot genuinely believe in the conservation of the environment AND in the importance of personal freedoms. The rights and the choices of individuals MUST be curbed for the world to be saved; environmentalists – here, for a moment, like big socialists – are all for a massive state, and implicitly see the value of all individuals as equal, as part of a bigger collective whole that dwarfs any one person’s opinions or needs. So, to care about the environment means it is impossible to also care about individuals, and if you don’t care about individuals, you don’t actually care about people, because ALL PEOPLE ARE INDIVIDUALS. Keeping everybody warm and fed is not compatible with saving the planet, certainly not at present. True environmentalists must be socialists to the point where they discredit the value of any person, not just any individual person.
And the other, the other, the OTHER big issue is this:
The people who write psychogeography believe themselves, implicitly AND explicitly, to be BETTER than the rest of us. To take the position where your individual musings on the lives of others are worth more attention than other people’s musings on YOU is to imply a hierarchy, is to acknowledge an-
OH MY GOD YOU’RE GOING TOO FAR AND TOO HARD. STOP.
Psychogeography is a genre of writing about individuals excising themselves from their roles within society. To go and wander in the countryside – or the city – on your own evidences a certain privilege, not just the economic security required to either a) take this time off from paid labour or b) have the position where one is able to exchange the intellectual labour undertaken while walking and thinking for money. Being a writer, regardless of ones origin, is a privileged position. I am writing, here, from a position of privilege, and though – now that I’m not depressed – I no longer feel that my privilege invalidates the value of my expression of thought, I am firmly aware that it is privilege that has allowed me to get to the point where I can write and be read, and where I can afford to write, mostly (though not entirely #highfive) for free.
I, like many white liberals, can make a case for myself as a working-class voice, but it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and scrutinising the realities and the media of expressions of privilege is EXACTLY what we should be doing as self-defined liberals and/or progressives, who tend to be the kind of people who read Psychogeography uncritically. People seem to behave like there is something progressive in entering the wilderness, or an unfamiliar city, alone. But there isn’t. In many ways it is an act of cultural colonialism. Most people writing about the Lake District, to take a “less” colonial example, are not “of” it, and here in River, as in Self, as in Sebald, the individual doing the observing of British working class districts is far more literary and intellectual than the people they are observing. Psychogeography, when it doesn’t bother to ignore people – as in more naturey and thus even more socially valueless texts – tends to observe people with a presumed air of importance. It is the eternal idea that we have been asked to do by writers, which is to see their thoughts and observances as “better”, more valid, than those of – for want of a better word – ordinary people. (Yes, I know I’m saying this in writing.)
Now, the trad critique of this borderline “we’re sick of experts” argument is that somebody has to record existence and that writers who do so, do not think they’re inherently superior to those they write about. They think they are of them, they think they are part of them. But if they’re not, then they’re not.
Writing about one’s own community, or communities one has a genuine connection to in another place, is not condescending, but when anyone others anyone else, whenever anyone describes people *unlike* them, aimed at a readership *like* them, there is an implicit distancing, an implicit condescension. Kinsky’s descriptions of other European migrants living isolated lives in East London have a validity: though her narrator has more education, i.e. more cultural capital, than these people, she is as similarly “alien” in this location. She wanders London as a place that is unfamiliar – familiar enough to understand, but unfamiliar enough to be interesting. However, when she encounters white working class Londoners she – as to be fucking honest I do – has a disconnect. These people live amongst grey London with an attitude of familiarity and a casual sense of entitlement that only really exists in rich people in the rest of the country. Working class Londoners may be more friendly than middle class Londoners, but they still have that raucous tone of self-importance.
I feel like I’m knocking London here, and that really isn’t my intention, but meh, fuck it, London can handle my mild critique in the midst of a takedown of an entire genre of literature.
Kinksy, actually, disproves my earlier comment about psychogeography reducing the importance of people. For though she does, yes, fail to connect with people who claim a firmer connection to some of the places where she is, she repeatedly manages to evoke a very strong sense of lives that are also travelling, also moving, also – like rivers – unrooted, non-static.
Psychogeography is a weird genre in that it is both very masculine but not very macho. What I meant above about River not being enough of an escape from the genre as I’d have liked was that, to be blunt, it was as sexless as psychogeography normally is. I’m trying to avoid writing that normalises sexual repression, and – as a genre – psychogeography is about as chaste as you can get (certainly in the bloodless texts I’ve read).
There is no plot of desire within River, but as a text about emotions and physicality it is present, though never central. River does consider the lives of disparate people, River does offer a nuanced portrait of people from different classes without trying to sell preservation and conservation as important fucking goals. This is a text about people, not about nature, and though it fails in many of the ways that psychogeography as a genre fails to address wider societal problems, it succeeds a damn sight better than a lot of similar texts. For many people, this won’t be a problem, it’s just me with my class-confusion and thus bizarre and confused disapproval of so many things from so many angles. Well, at least since Brexit I don’t have to defend Wales or Middle England any more. Londoners, you were right: they all are a bunch of dogging, racist Morris dancers.
THIS REALLY WENT WRONG, DIDN’T IT?
I’ve spent almost a month working on this, on and off. Like the two many cooks thing, but with TIME, innit?
o o o
Scott Manley Hadley
is a poet now (apparently) and blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.