A Review of Grove, by Esther Kinsky. Trans, Caroline Schmidt. (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Nothing happens in this book – at least nothing that will not happen to every single one of us at some time in our lives. Esther Kinsky’s writing underlines the temporary and porous nature of the divide between those who have passed and those of us who, for the moment, remain.
Grove is about the search for consolation in bereavement by journeying both physically through landscape and re-visiting the landscape of memory. The book is set in Italy – but this is not the Italy that many of us will know from 2 week vacations, with pasta and singing waiters, nor is it necessarily a dark place. Rather the language of the book makes it seem as though the landscape is waiting to emerge from some sort of limbo.
There are gothic elements that surprise. Do not look for lemon trees or olive groves.
Kinsky subverts our usual expections of Italian sunshine in the cold and fog which predominate here. There are wide terrains, often empty. Commercial premises are closed or abandoned. Shops are shuttered.
Death is ever present whether in the stonework of the necropolis of Spina, the house by the cemetery, in visited mausolea, or in the narrator’s own memories of bereavement – and all these things combine into a narrative of acute loss. This is the language of psychogeography – where the external landscape reflects the narrator’s internal mindset. The colours are all grey, white and blue, the colour of winter light.
‘This small plain in the winter light, too, was punctuated by tumuli. The field of burial chambers … which the living prepared for the dead…’
A woman who is unnamed – rents a house in winter in a hillside village called Olevano, South East of Rome. There is no dialogue, there are very few characters other than the narrator herself. We do meet a few ethereal others, they blow across the pages like autumn leaves: a woman passed in a visit to the local cemetery, a man selling citrus fruit from a cart, a cheesemonger in a shop who keeps laminated photos of goats in a binder to prove to his customers that his cheese is local, a few sullen teenagers on mopeds in the square. Then there are the cats.
“There were cat days and dog days in Olevano. The windless waiting days were for the cats. They crept around every corner… as if born of the same quarry stone most of the old houses were built from.”
In wandering and looking, recording and layering new impressions over the old ones partly recalled, there is for the narrator a coming to terms, a movement towards the hope. Threaded through it all are memories of a man who we simply know as ‘M’.
“I knew exactly how we would have walked between these graves together. How we would have entered the chambers, the stony beds, how we would have looked at the things depicted with a near tender accuracy…”
The book is divided more or less into two halves. In the first half are the journeys, the observations, the descriptions of the narrator’s trips around the area of Olevano and the rented house.
“The leaden heart grew entwined with all I had seen that took root in me. With the sight of the olive groves in fog, the sheep on the hillside, the holm oak hill, the horses that from time to time grazed silently behind the cemetery, with the view past the plain and its small shimmering fields on cold mornings frosted bluish.”
Ruminations on long past family trips to the area dominate the second half of the book – the father wanders off for hours leaving child and mother alone in a strange guest house where ‘every piece of furniture and every step creaked’. It is interesting that a great deal of the second half of the book is given over to descriptions of the father, yet he is not the one being mourned but ‘M’. We learn nothing about M except that his death has inspired this grief and this journey and that he took photographs:
“… these sepulchre images were a plea not to be forgotten, an anxious call of the visible, which arose with the invention of photography and wanted to be more powerful than any name.”
This is not a book for those who want plot and action, but for those who admire the intense poetry and lyricism of description and who find comfort in this excellent evocation of a coming to terms with the past.
I will definitely be ordering more books of these collectible books from this indie press although maybe I wouldn’t want a whole row of these dark blue spines on my shelves – please change up the covers guys – but the paper used is of excellent and sturdy quality designed to last, as it will need to. Like poetry this book requires more than one reading.
Grove is the fourth of my 20 Books of Summer.