The girl who cried Woolf
MEMOIR: To the River: A Journey Beneath the SurfaceBy Olivia Laing Canongate, 285pp. £16.99
GREAT COMFORT is to be found in rivers. While oceans are compelling with their vast endless views of sky and water, they tend to overwhelm, reminding us of our irrelevance. But a river, unless it has become a torrent, offers ease of mind. Rivers draw us to them. When Olivia Laing set off to walk the course of the River Ouse in Sussex by following a track through nearly 70km of the English landscape at its most benign, she was troubled. Having become unemployed, she had also lost her boyfriend.
It seems that their relationship collapsed over a dispute about geographical location. Place can have a funny effect on people. Rather than stay at home and despair, she set off to a river best known for its connection with Virginia Woolf’s suicide in 1941. The outcome is a quasi-confessional meditation-cum-travelogue of immense charm, personal observation and historical fact.
She begins her pilgrimage at midsummer. Her spontaneity is impressive, as is her lack of preparation. Laing travels light and strides off wearing sandals, armed mainly with a handful of maps. Contained within her modest rucksack is a lump of sweating cheese; it acquires a kind of symbolism. Her tone is conversational, reflective and enthusiastic; she is excited by the allusions and the connections. The style, and particularly the handling of the material, is a mixture of reportage and literary anecdote. It is not as ambitious as Claudio Magris’s Danube.Perhaps she has been stylistically influenced by the great German visionary writer WG Sebald, although To the Riveris less cerebral and far less enigmatic. The soul and demeanour of Laing’s book frequently soar beyond the quality of her prose, which is graceful if also, at times, awkward.
Above all, for all the references, digressions and awareness of natural history, there is a guiding presence, that of Woolf: her words, her works, her life and, of course, her death. To the Rivertakes its cue as well as its title from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.Laing embarks on a quest that may well have won her peace of mind, and is most certainly a subtle celebration of the English landscape. Her major theme, in common with Sebald, is the passing of time, the layers of history and story that make up a human life and the traces that remain long after that life has ended. Laing notes, “The tenacity of our physical remains, their unwillingness to fully disappear.”
Yet there is another element that intrigues. Laing confirms that it is not necessary to hack through the jungle or battle across the desert: adventure is to be found as close to hand as a river or a nearby wood. This gorgeous book possesses an abundance of eccentric intensity. All the while the reader is waiting for Laing to sit down and weep, but she doesn’t: she goes swimming. The random information continually delights and the narrative demonstrates the way in which the mind works, filtering experience and information. She is not so much driven as lured along a path that runs parallel with the river.
She becomes conscious of the physical reality of water. Early in the journey, when considering the ditch that contains the Ouse’s source, she writes: “I couldn’t remember when it had last rained, when this water might have gathered, seeping steadily through the grasses until it trickled here. The average residence time of a single water molecule in a river this size is a matter of weeks, though this depends on currents, rains and a dozen other vagaries. If instead it infiltrates the soil, becoming groundwater, it may linger for centuries or, if it’s sunk deep enough, hundreds of thousands of years. Isotope hydrology suggests that the trapped fossil water in some of the world’s largest confined aquifers is over a million years old . . . In comparison, this ditchwater at the river’s head was brand new, freshly fallen from the sky.”
Thoughts of the river bank invariably remind her of listening to The Wind in the Willowson tape in her father’s car, but Laing quickly moves on from the wonderful classic to consider the tragedy of Kenneth Grahame’s life, his son’s suicide and the restless grief it imposed on a father who had never been prepared for parenthood. Images from English history of vengeful kings and rebellious barons dart into Laing’s mind; she ponders the fall of Thomas Cromwell and the scepticism the geologist Gideon Mantell endured on discovering the iguanodon bones.
At the height of summer it is a different place. “You could live here,” she thinks, “snaring rabbits and minnows, feeding on berries and the itchy green of nettle tips.” But Laing is no adventurer and admits to being terrified of cattle. Instead she is naturally bookish and feasts on facts. “The word brook, from the Old English broc, more commonly means a freshwater stream, but in Kent, Sussex and some low-lying regions of Germany and Holland it is also associated with waterlogged land.”
Along with Woolf’s battles with various demons, and the succession of breakdowns caused by family tragedies, is the surrender of the novelist Iris Murdoch to Alzheimer’s. Swimming brings Murdoch to Laing’s mind. “This association between water and happiness remained palpable throughout Iris’s life,” writes Laing. “Her first memory was of swimming in Ireland with her father.”
Laing makes the connection between Woolf and Murdoch, both gifted women minded by clever husbands. In ways, this is Woolf’s book, a sympathetic bid for understanding why the English novelist’s body was finally discovered, three weeks after her suicide, by young men who had been tossing stones at what they had thought to be a floating log. But it is also Laing’s personal odyssey; an attractive exploration, traditional and accessible and wholly original.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times