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From vii to morți

Altair Brandon-Salmon

Esther Kinsky is unembarrassed by stating her themes upfront. In the opening chapter of her 2018 novel Grove (translated from German into English by Caroline Schmidt and published this year by the distinctive Fitzcarraldo Editions), she describes how in Romanian churches candles are lit in two different places (‘two niches in the wall, two ledges, or two metal cabinets’), one on the left for the living and one on the right for the dead. If a person dies, then their candle is moved from left to right, or as Kinsky has it, ‘From vii to morți’. This is a novel then, about that permanent transition, from one state of being to another, which inevitably can only be perceived in horror and wonder by the living, forever encumbered by their own ignorance.

The unnamed female narrator of the novel is coping with the death of her partner, identified only by his initial M., by spending the winter in the hilltop Italian town of Olevano, south-east of Rome. The idea of mourning while alone and socially isolated in a foreign country (the narrator is German) is hardly unique, and nor is the style, which incorporates musings on nature, the social landscape of the town, memories of her childhood travelling through Italy in a promulgation of deceptively short chapters. Yet Kinsky’s writing is clear, sensitive, expertly attuned to her narrative’s surroundings. Because the reader knows that the novel stands as a reflection on grief, Kinsky does not need to over-emphasise her metaphors; indeed the prose can be remarkably straightforward—she describes what she sees, hears, smells. It is her precision in naming things, in identifying them, which gives the writing power. Here she writes on walking about the town just before sunrise:

It was still dark when I set out. A very delicate, barely perceptible rain fell. The air smelled of woodsmoke, dirt and grass. Nothing stirred in the village, it lay in the yellow lamplight like a backdrop after a performance. The first birds stirred with tranquil, shy morning noises, still half-dreaming.

In its restraint, the prose only increases in power. Even the simile ‘like a backdrop after a performance’ is low-key, determinedly anti-virtuosic. Yet the atmosphere Kinsky conjures is sharp, precise, vivid enough that one can almost extend the scene for oneself.

Kinsky is conscious of the modernist mood she evokes, peppering the novel with references to nineteen-sixties Italian cinema, particularly to the director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, while the novel itself could be a Michelangelo Antonioni film: a bereaved woman trying to find meaning and solace in a wintry (but picturesque) small town. Monica Vitti could have starred, the camera tracking through Olevano’s cemetery as she reads the gravestones. At one point the narrator even aligns herself with such films:

The apartment [she stays in Trastevere] was in a sixties block, as I knew them from films with blonde women wearing big sunglasses and scarves around their heads who would step out of doorways like this one and take a seat on the back of a vespa.

What we cannot remember, we fill in with film, until cinema and the past become inextricable from one another.

When Kinsky writes ‘Each morning I awoke in an alien place’, it is to not only to communicate her protagonist’s disorientation, but also to stress this is a novel of alienation, which has its own literary and cinematic canons. It is thus a highly self-reflexive novel and written as such; despite the narrator sharing a variety of biographical traits with Kinsky (they both grew up in Germany and subsequently lived in London; Kinsky’s husband Martin Chalmers died in 2014) we should never forget the protagonist’s fundamentally constructednature, her fictionality. Even if Kinsky drew on her own past and experiences to create this figure, it is still a creation exterior to her and these filmic references serve to remind us this is not a memoir.

It is perhaps almost inevitable as a German writer that she is compared to W.G. Sebald by the English press (as Jonathan Gibbs did in his 2018 review of her earlier book Riverfor The Guardian). Not only is it a lazy connection to draw (they’re both German academics who write fiction!), it is stylistically misleading. It is hard to imagine a cinematic equivalent to Sebald’s meandering, philosophical, dense prose, whereas Kinsky has a scenarist’s sense of structure: in the first part of the novel, we are introduced to the protagonist in Olevano and given only small indications of her past as she observes the town; the second part is chiefly concerned with flashbacks to her childhood, focusing on her deceased father, and their holidays in Italy, as well as their lives in London; and in the final part she travels to northern Italy, to the Po valley, and then finally onto Ravenna to see the Byzantine mosaics. Then she boards the train and leaves Italy to—where? Home? Germany? We are not quite sure. Yet one can almost imagine the camera pulling back as the train chugs through the outskirts of Milan, leaving this woman to her thoughts and memories. She has wintered in Olevano and now she is ready to a return, somewhere. 

It is this structure which anchors the novel and ensures the many, short chapters, often seemingly only concerned with reporting natural phenomena, or the rhythms of village life or a long-submerged memory, build into a narrative. Sebald had narrative sense as well, of course; but Kinsky’s is perhaps more classical. In that sense, Kinsky is a recognisable author of literary fiction: underneath the trappings of experimentation lies the firm bedrock of the modern novel’s structure and characterisation. It matters little that the journey the protagonist takes has been travelled by other characters in other novels in similar Continental settings (English or American writers prefer France to Italy though, for their journeys of healing). The pleasure of Grove is in its telling, in Kinsky’s turn of phrase and cadence, the surety of her writing. It may not look like it initially, but Grove harkens back to that mythical thing: ‘the well-made novel’.

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Altair Brandon-Salmon is studying for a PhD in Art History at Stanford University.