Between Life and Death

Esther Kinsky, trans. Caroline Schmidt, Grove

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 277pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781913097288

reviewed by Daniel Baksi

In his 1953 essay ‘Les Tombeaux de Ravenne', the French poet Yves Bonnefoy remarks upon a frequent motif found in the ornamentation at Ravenna that decorates the many resting places of the dead:

‘It represents two peacocks. Erect and facing each other, skilfully done and yet simple, like hyperbolae they drink from the same chalice and peck at the same vine. In the tangle of the mind that takes up and completes the one in the marble, they stand for death and immortality.’

Together with his first book of poetry, Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve (also 1953), ‘Les Tombeaux de Ravenne' would see Bonnefoy become widely regarded as the one of the most important French poets of the post-World War II era. The essay expresses an idea that would serve as a foundational principle for Bonnefoy’s later work: that of the dichotomy between the ‘concept’ as an abstracted ‘dwelling place of logic’ on the one hand, and a true, sensual presence on the other – in this instance, ‘the reality of death.’ The ornamentation at Ravenna bridges this divide. By fixing the notion of death in the primary material of stone, it brokers an ‘alliance’ that marries the finite to the eternal.

Grove, the latest novel by Esther Kinsky, opens with a similar image. Kinsky’s unnamed narrator describes a ritual she has observed on film, in which Romanian churchgoers light candles for the living, to be placed among a set of niches on the left-hand side of a wall. ‘If someone dies for whom in life a candle was lit in the left’, we are told, ‘the burning candle is transferred to the right’ – from ‘vii’ to ‘morți’. Kinsky is concerned with death, and its proximity to life. Grove is positioned between these polarities, following a journey across Italy which the narrator had initially planned to undertake with ‘M’, whose death occurs less than ‘two months and a day’ prior to the beginning of the novel. The narrator is tasked with re-orientating, in a foreign landscape, the unfamiliarity of a part of the world which is ‘remote from the space of memory’ and serves as a metaphor for the enveloping, alien world of bereavement.

Settling in the hillside commune of Olevano, the narrator proceeds to detail the landscapes, the towns, the flora and fauna she encounters. Translated by Caroline Schmidt, this depth of detail is Kinsky’s forte, her language tailored perfectly to a natural world inherent with life and a mystical beauty. In their outcrops, trees are ‘scattered messengers’ or ‘vagrants’; she recalls scenes of winter that ‘clung indecisively to grey vestiges of snow.’ For the narrator, this offers a degree of consolation. The novel hints towards an understanding of death that is understood as not only final, but natural. Playing out against the narrator’s changing perspective as she visits various local towns, grief is re-contextualised within a palliative notion of transience. Likewise, Olevano’s status in the periphery of Rome gives the impression of a bigger life playing out elsewhere to place the narrator’s inner world in perspective.

Bonnefoy’s dual image is atemporal: once traced, the motif is fixed in the stone, privileging neither one side nor the other, neither death nor immortality. For Kinsky’s narrator, however, the symbolisms of vii and morți remain distinct. ‘I have read them as names, designating the one space for hope . . . the other for memory’, she reflects, as the candles’ motion also bears a clear direction: ‘from what-shall-be to once-was’. Grove does not sit back impassively, but lingers on this ‘once-was’. The opening chapter, which promises equivocation, ends with a dour proclamation: ‘the absence of light in the space of the vii overshadows all flickering in the space of the morți.’

In her reading of these symbols, Kinsky’s narrator becomes implicated in their making. There is, for instance, a persisting dissonance between sight and substance, in which the sound of voices or birdcalls are often heard, but never seen. The word ‘perhaps’, too, is frequently used to impress a conjectural quality across a world that is hypothesised about as much as it is described. By contrast, projections of death are abundant. The novel is laced with excerpts of dreams in which the narrator imagines herself reunited with M, or visions in which, ‘as if on a double-exposed photograph’, she sees M’s hands placed beneath her own. The unnamed narrator shares some notable similarities with Kinsky, having grown up in the Rhine, and later moved to London. And though M’s name, identity, or personal relation to the narrator are never revealed, Kinsky’s husband Martin died in 2014. This would suggest that Grove is as much a memoir as a novel, a rendering of Kinsky’s own experience that straddles the form’s ever-blurred outlines.

The narrator’s time in Olevano, though it benefits from the subtle beauty of Kinsky’s prose, is monotonous. Each chapter resembles the last: the excursion to a nearby town; the cemetery visit; the glimpse of an ‘African’ betraying a limited perspective when grappling with the realities of the migrant experience. In the novel’s second of three sections, the narrator recalls a separate childhood trip across Italy, offering an interlude to Grove’s main narrative arc. Kinsky depicts the vivacity of the child’s mind, taken by the sound of a foreign language, dreaming of an alternate future, or plagued with the knowledge of a parent’s secret. There is a stronger focus on the act of writing; the section opens by describing how ‘words rolled in [the narrator’s] hand like marbles, damaged glass . . . with dull, scratched surfaces and tiny nicks’, but ‘became soothing’ over time. The image gestures towards the novel as a product of the author’s fractured world, with language a faulty tool, if also an essential material function of memory. A flock of pigeons is witnessed as ‘a small script in the air’, while the sight of a river becomes a ‘sentence addressed to the plain’.

Bonnefoy shared these anxieties. Though the essay has its grounding image in a stone engraving, ‘Les Tombeaux de Ravenne' is a request for presence, repudiating the concept while offering a sceptical assessment of language’s ability to achieve it. In the case of Grove, the reader nearly doesn’t make it to Ravenna, which goes unmentioned until the end of the novel’s second section, when the slightly older narrator meets her father – a tour guide ‘specialized in tours of Early Medieval mosaics and Etruscan necropolises’. Their encounter occurs in Trieste, but it is in Ravenna that her father has just given what would be his final presentation, before his death a few months later. The city thus assumes the status of a promised land, ‘a mission’ to be fulfilled by the narrator’s journey there.

On arrival, the occasion is not marked by grief. Rather, it is a light-hearted experience; Kinsky’s Ravenna appears ‘brighter . . . less solemn, despite the day’s harsh winteriness’. Contemplating a pair of mosaics recommended by her father, the narrator declares that ‘they are in a tête-à-tête about life, light and the open air’. Grove presents Kinsky’s own tête-à-tête with life and death, or with a bereavement that stretches between the two. The novel oscillates from the very depths of despair to the ardent joys of a sensory world – an embodiment of the language Bonnefoy so desperately desired.
Daniel Baksi is a freelance writer based in Norwich, UK. His work has appeared in The i Newspaper and Literary Review, among others.