From the Rivers and Parting: Esther Kinsky’s Frontiers – A review essay with a view to photography
The River Lea grazes the city of London and “their distant stories”, he touches any center or penetrates the metropolis, but he flows past. He loses himself and finally flows into the Thames. Barrens mixed with nature, human souls and the remnants of civilization can be found on the banks of this river. Thrown away paper, dirty ragged rags lie between the grasses. Homeless people lay on the shore, madmen or peculiar figures who have fallen out of society meet the narrator. All this touches the ego only marginally, it is true, but these people glide past again, they briefly look into the view, become a narrative and they disappear again. A sad landscape. Endgame atmosphere – but poetic. An endgame that is able to divulge its charms in the desert. In these lost zones of London, the walker discovers a beauty of silence and seclusion. Nothing that bothers, because here it drives no tourists, no curious onlookers. Nothing is beautiful here, nothing worth seeing, nothing that could hold a viewer to linger in front of a beautiful landscape and to seek the anchor points of the scenery, after which the picture is structured and finds its structure. From the tristesse pictures of the suburbs, this emptiness reminds me of London from Aki Kaurismäki’s hired a contract killer .
Thus, the narrator walks these paths day by day, always a little further than before, beyond the old destination, and during this walk she finds part of her childhood in the Imago. Settlements, factories: a glimpse of impressions, what is actually unconnected suddenly comes into correspondence and means personal. The childhood on the Lower Rhine in the 50s. Mosaic creates impressions. Silently, these impressions point to a past that gradually opens up to detail, showing signs – a medical history. But only remoteness makes these memories, only when walking, the ego comes home “and with ever greater devotion stared into the little things that lay unnoticed on the wayside, the abandoned and the unprotected, the lost and the rejected, which crumbled to pieces became unrecognizable. “This walk, look and look is almost a penitential exercise.
Not only that Brechtian “Smudge the tracks” may be considered a reading instruction for city dwellers, but also the directive to learn to read these tracks on the edge of the fallow land . Just as the indigenous inhabitants of the natural worlds in the jungle or in savannas know how to read the signs of nature, here the garbage of civilization, which is piled up at the edges of the cities, comes into view and becomes a sign. But at the same time, these found things are only signs of something else, and this thing-ontology is a recurring theme in Kinsky’s novel. Densification and displacement push it to another place that does not seem to be entirely of this world. That Kinsky calls the Passover festival in her reflections should not be due merely to chance. Or just yet and completely immanent: to bring one’s own consciousness, one’s own life into reconciliation.
The narrator observes, she collects things she finds along the way. But above all, she is constantly photographing with a Polaroid camera. It depicts what she sees and in which she senses a special moment: the veryness of things, their trace, their position in space – even when these things are no longer viewed or used, they become meaningful through the camera. The Polaroid is the principle of direct duplication, it transforms an object into a picture in a few seconds and we hold the image of a thing in our hands. What we see is not what it is. Never before in the history of humanity was the immediate duplication of the world, its image so direct and so possible. But these photographs also serve to authenticate the real: that it was not a dream that showed itself on the river. In this context of mediated authenticity, connections also connect to Katja Petrovskaya’s debut novel Perhaps Esther and Helmut Lethens “The Shadow of the Photographer” as links: a literature as a trace of memory, in which the medium of photography plays a central role. Both in Kinsky’s and in Katja Petrowskaja’s novel we find photographs that structure narration.
“With a small, cheap camera, I took pictures that later shamed me. When I looked at them, it seemed almost indecent to keep those fractions of strange lives, these pictures of fleeting gestures, aimless looks, lurking postures in my room, snippets of completely unknown people, unaware of this temporary immortality of a portion of their time in my hand suspected. “
The photographs form a center of the novel in Esther Kinsky as well as in Katja Petrovskaya. Around the pictures a story is told, they are places of storage and memory, immediate visualizations. Photographs are the presence of the absent, remembered past. Existence of what once was. Photography is the only medium that gives us a realistic picture of what has long since passed. But it is a picture at a standstill. Fixed time. Perhaps this is the reason why poetry, which works with photographs, always gets a far melancholy tone, because it deals with transience and explicitly makes this offense a topic.
Kinsky’s novel is preceded by two photographs, so far he does not begin with language, but with two pictures. The first photo, blurred at the edges, held in sepia tone, and sharp only in the center, where a child finds himself in the middle of a garden. Written below: the blind child . The child looks, his head tilted slightly upwards, his eyes raised, but looking out of dead eye sockets into nothingness or into the sky, while around him the blur of the world sets in as if in a twirling vortex. See without seeing: Blindness and Insight . The second photograph shows a landscape with a river, taken from a slightly elevated position, power pylons in the background and a heap. One suspects something like industrial or commercial buildings: a landscape that can be found on the fringes of many cities, when the river, industrial estate and nature merge and the city loses itself more and more into the natural environment.
“The ultimate condition of everything is river.” The (falsely) attributed to Heraclitus “Everything flows” may resonate as a philosophy and view of life: on the opposite left page is a quote from the writer Iain Sinclair. Of course, photographs are exactly the opposite of flow and flow. They capture irretrievably elusive time, the tearing life, and freeze the moment: memories that should remain. When we look at these pictures, which we find in our personal photo albums, we keep descending into the same river, seeing each other in the portrait as what we once were and yet coming out as others, because we, as the viewer, see the distance between us think about it today and us today. We have aged.
Even literature can be such a medium of remembrance. However, the literature works differently, metaphorizing the flow, as in the quote by Sinclair, who, as a role model for Kinsky’s Walk, also traveled through East London and whose landscapes in literature are soul images – not unlike the prose of Kinsky. Iain Sinclair is as good as unknown in the FRG. The edge of the Orizont appeared last year at Matthes & Seitz. If one reads his book Rodinsky’s room written together with Rachel Lichtenstein, one discovers some literary references to Esther Kinsky’s On the River : These moments of the riddle, the play between document and fiction determine both texts. If one traces once again the routes described by Kinsky in East London, we would surely recognize one or the other described detail.
But what good is such a realism of a literature that is aimed at recognizing places, if it is not about realistically portray? Literary landscapes are not real landscapes. For Charles Dickens, I do not need a map of London to understand the scenery, as Nabokov once posited. Kinsky is about something else. Memories are not listed on any city map. At best, when the finger leaves the streets, imagination flashes.
Here, in these linguistic and photographed images, a multi-layered phenomenology acts: it is not only the states of the soul that are reflected in the things, but at the same time the things and the locations show themselves, at least for the moment, taking shape: the rundown quarter in which the narrator lives, with its shops, the resident small traders, the charity shop for Bosnian refugees, the trader Greengrocer Katz (who also appears in Lichtenstein and Sinclair’s text), and the pious Jews who shop at Katz and come to an end of the novel to prepare for Passover. Enigmatic, alien and unrelated.
All that Kinsky tells about walks and changes of location remains strangely out of time. Despite interspersed data such as the Bosnian war. No sooner is there any information about when everything that the ego tells me is going on. Nothing social from the proliferating London, at most the poverty of the district. At most we know that the narrator grew up on the Lower Rhine “My childhood was on a river”, probably in the 50s. We learn that she had a child with whom she eventually emigrated to Canada for a while. We read about her father, who for the first time in his life stood with tears on his face at the airport in Germany when she said goodbye to him. But these tears touch the nameless narrator unpleasantly. Farewells as crystallized and magnified under a magnifying glass or from the ice. Then travel to Israel, to Poland. Penances and Judaism.
We only know a few things from her biography, and many things turn out to be an idea. There must have been a drastic event, but the readers learn nothing or only hints: why the narrator moved to East London, in this neighborhood of immigrants, people on the edge of society, a Hasidic Jewish community, the devout, who occasionally appear in their narrative contexts and incidentally the Gypsies – earlier, in their childhood on the Rhine, still with shaggy horses and carriages moving from place to place, stocked, later with caravan and automobile. As sedentary as the narrator in the course of her strange life.
At most, the narrative ego is sedentary on the banks of the rivers when it walks, collects the objects or when it takes pictures. Life in the pictures. “My walks on the River Lea were slow and haphazard. I looked and listened and sought memories. I took pictures and leafed through layers of memory. “
Detailed and branching, the narrative self depicts in a dense, partly poetic language that fills with perception, these days in London’s East as well as in hints and as a digression of time in other places of the world. This story also meanders like the river and seeks its way: from the source into the sea and without pausing. A rapt literature, sometimes a quiet mourning, but without despair. Nothing is celebrated melancholy as an effect here. The melancholic is melancholy – no more, no less. Contemplative might be the right term.
The perception of the world reaches into the tonal colors of concepts. There the narrator finds a term like “Gadenruhm”. One hears him, reads, trivializes, ponders: certainly, the narrator works as a translator, and just as strange the concepts must first sound in order to be able to transfer them to their place of meaning, if we translated the term from one to the other sphere; from the sound to the sense of: Gardenroom.
On the river , this foray through the brief episode of a life in a sometimes lyrical tone is atmospherically dense and intense. This prose of a thing-ontology with sensory added value is not really my thing, because in some places the observing is overloaded with the finely chiselled and the exalted tone. Rilke sound, which even then tipped into the arts and crafts. But despite this fine tone of heightened sensitivity, the novel works, we do not come from the river while reading. Something about this prose captivates. Maybe it’s the urge to go for a stroll, which sharpens the eye and captivates the reader. Volatility without intention and intention: To describe all those moments, spellbound by the narrator and yet freed again from the fixation, and to confront them with one’s own gaze. A narrative as a presumably biographical search for clues and a prose that does not convey any message.
“… the city that I had laboriously learned to spell in years to give my own names, names that I’m only going to see from the network of memory trickles, the rubble of deposited images and sounds and the tissue intertwined Must fish and read words. “
Also, this setting of names has something to do with Judaism. With the adamite naming, a kind of prayer, and we are thinking of Walter Benjamin’s theory of language magic. Telling is mysticism.
A book review must necessarily reduce and trim its subject matter. Choosing the specific from the multitude of impressions is the task. In this case, it is difficult for me to grasp what – that perhaps motivated the length of this criticism. In Esther Kinsky’s At the river, there are many such places that do not go out of their heads, because they trigger reflexes in their exact perception. Physical reading. And at the same time the text flows in its observations, could continue to flow in this way of narration.
This is perhaps the compositional lack of the book. Because little is covered in the prose by a continuous history, the links are loosely and associatively fragments, which are indeed significant in context, but could have turned out completely different. Like the scraps of life we are struggling to bring into a durable order. Contingency. Literature of this kind, as Kinsky writes, is contingency consciousness compensation. That telling about shock helps to make no sense in everything. The Jews celebrating Passover. We need our rituals and we need the traditions.
But the novel solves this perpetual sketch of reminiscence in prose, which never breaks off, because the eye and the mind are always aware of it, so that he can make a cut: Passover is her own departure for the narrator – it is just spring and therefore time for a new, for another beginning. Enough and done. On the banks and through the eastern quarters, strolling enough, sifting enough, photographing enough, she moves away from London, has her few belongings tucked away by the movers and taken to somewhere else. And as at the beginning of the novel, at the end of the last walk, that confused king appears again: the man who speaks with the ravens, insane, and a prophet wrapped in cloth around his head. A messianic emptiness that narrates in a wonderful picture of nature: the place where the river flows into the sea and water in water divides into each other indiscriminately is a zone of indifference. Movement is the essence of the rivers and streams of this world. Sensually rich, this novel condenses the aimless. In melancholy and in intensity. A great lyric prose. And I’m already looking forward to Kinsky’s grove .