To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing

A relationship ends, prompting the author to plan a journey that follows the course of the River Ouse in Southern England, a river that has changed over time, through man’s battles, interventions and industrial/agricultural practices.

To The RiverAs she walks the river, Olivia Laing narrates a number of those historic events, occurrences that the river today bears little trace of, including the last immersion of Virginia Woolf, her pockets laden with heavy rocks as she strode with purpose into the river, her corpse emerging downstream three weeks later.

“Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream.” Virgina Woolf

The narrative meanders like the river might have done, had it not had its more interesting aspects and life-filled curves, sliced and straightened long ago, making it in parts more like a dredged canal. By bringing disparate events together in one narrative, Laing attempts to connect history to the landscape, reviving ghosts of the past, on a route where no markers inform the casual walker of its gruesome days gone by.

It is an attractive premise, to walk the length of a river as a form of therapy, writing and researching its length, though rather than submerge as Virginia Woolf was so drawn towards doing and did in this same river, Olivia Laing’s journey is more one of, walk, pause, reflect on great battles and digs, other lives lived, move swiftly on.

She spends little time reflecting on her own troubled narrative, the barely mentioned Matthew, a ghost-like figure never fully formed, their dilemma not shared on the page, instead it is the river we begin to grieve for, her character sliced and cut and reformed to meet the purpose of man, ignorant of the smaller life forms dependent on it for survival.

Deflecting attention away from her own purpose, Laing has written a tribute to a little known river, a metaphor of life, with all the events that chip away at and form its character, though its true essence remains.

She recalls the brutal Barons’ War of the 13th century, the dinosaur hunters of the 19th century at a time when that word had not yet been invented and the many writers whose lives and works were inspired or touched by rivers.

“I’d been thinking that morning of  The Wind and the Willows, and it struck me that if it had nurtured my love of rivers,  might also be responsible for this faint mistrust of woods…”

As she recalls listening with her sister to tapes of Kenneth Grahame’s stories of Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger, she tells the tragic tale of the author’s son Alistair, aspects of whose nature were immortalised in the character of Toad, his difficulty adjusting to the expectations of public school and university life and his premature death. This event segues into the question of whether A.S. Byatt in her novel The Children’s Book, who casts a character who writes children’s stories and uses her children as inspiration, has created an epitaph for Kenneth Grahame.

Of particular interest to those familiar with the landscape and interested in its history and of Virginia Woolf, it provides a brief introduction to many subjects, meandering off course at times. The book may have held my attention more, if the author had reached deeper into her own inner journey, though perhaps these lessons are realised long after the physical journey has taken place.

“Water,in Woolf’s personal lexicon, represented a way of slipping the superficial self … and ducking down into a deeper, nameless realm.  When Virginia writes about writing, the images she employs are liquid. She is flooded or floated; she breaks the current. When the books are going well she plunges off, happy as a swimmer, into the marine element of private thought.  When the work is going poorly, however, when headaches prevail,  or sleeplessness sets in, her descriptions begin to acquire a nightmarish dryness.”

Trip to Echo SpringOlivia Laing combines a present day physical journey with threads of the past, as she does with The Trip to Echo Spring, a journey across America via a topographical map of alcoholism that examines the link between creativity and alcohol apparent in the books of John Cheever, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.

Ragnarök – The End of the Gods by A.S.Byatt

Seduced by the cover and the promise of something a little different from her norm (having read ‘Possession’ and ‘The Children’s Book’), I picked this up in its beautiful hardback form and for once allowed the impulse a rare indulgence.

Part of The Myths series, which includes Margaret Atwood’s, ‘Penelopiad’, the publisher Canongate invited select writers to retell a myth in their own way and this is A.S. Byatt’s contribution.

Ragnörak is a Norse myth, the story of how things came to be and how they and world are destroyed after a series of conflicts, revenge takings, mutations and natural disasters. Byatt’s version is neither a short story or novel, more of an insight into the myth, the perspective of a thin young girl in wartime, an immersion into the created world and its end, concluding with the author’s thoughts on myths.

Yggdrasil, the imagined world

Coming to it without knowledge of the mythological background, I found myself immediately immersed in life forms that grew and transformed, creatures that came into existence, hunted, survived, wrapped their tentacles around and invaded trees, forests, lakes, streams, oceans and the planet.

Strange but alive, it is a kind of living nightmare; the young girl (who I immediately came to think of as the author as a young girl) tries to understand and make sense of the world around her, while rereading her ‘Asgard and the Gods’ stories that invade her imagination and develop her awareness and understanding of belief or disbelief as it turns out.

She did not believe the stories in ‘Asgard and the Gods’. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive.

The pages are infiltrated with images of nature in abundance, colours, textures, millions of living things and creatures, moving, sliding, digging, squirming, biting and gulping, with an omnipresent sense of foreboding. The Gods celebrate as they always do with fighting and shouting, self-destruction an ever threatening accomplice. Jörmungandr, the angry, sensuous, snake with an insatiable appetite is particularly haunting and memorable.

In her ‘Thoughts on Myths’ at the end, Byatt notes the difference between fairy tales and myths, the former giving the reader the pleasure of recognizing repeated variations on similar narrative patterns, while myths often torment, puzzling and haunting the mind who reaches into them.

We are reminded of the world we live in and the corruption, contamination, pollution and ultimate destruction of the living organism we inhabit and can only wonder if we too are destined for such a fiery end. For me, it was more of a beginning, another entry point into the mysterious and meaningful realm of ancient mythology.

Further Reading:

Peter Conrad, The Observer

M John Harrison, The Guardian

Ursula K Le Guin, Literary Review