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By (September 1, 2011) 3 Comments

To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface

By Olivia Laing
Canongate Books, 2011

To the River is an account of Olivia Laing’s week-long walk down the Ouse River in Southern England, from its source to the sea. The main tributary to the Ouse is the Uck, and that tells you a lot about the river and the challenge of this project: it’s an old river and not one important enough to have ever gotten its name changed. It was all ooze and muck in ancient times and so it remains to this day. At first, this seemed like a disadvantage, but as I read on, I came to admire Laing’s love of her humble river. To the River, too, grew on me. I am glad that I read to the end, but I find myself wondering why the beginning was not more compelling.

It took me a while to place the book’s genre. Since one subtext of the book is the coincidence of Laing’s walk
with a bad break-up, To the River seemed at times like a low-rent Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t have the budget or the deep-pocketed editor to send you to Italy, India, and Bali? Take a week and walk the Ouse instead! But this is not a memoir, nor a book of self-discovery. Instead, it is a natural history of a place Laing loves, but she could have done a better job connecting her project to other, similar books recording modest walking tours and local natural histories. Laing’s mention of Jeremiah Milles’ 1743 walking tour of Sussex in the penultimate chapter illuminates how this work fits into the tradition of Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia (1658), Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (1789), or many of Thoreau’s works, books that it intermittently reminded me of throughout. At its best, Laing’s work, like that of those before her, moves from direct observation to natural history and back. Unlike many more showy travel books, the charm of To the River lies in listening to a local take the time to really learn about a place she already loves.

Unless you live in Sussex, you most likely know the Ouse as the river that Virginia Woolf drowned herself in, and Woolf is Laing’s companion throughout To the River. Laing’s very title is an homage. Woolf makes a great walking companion, but the morbid nature of the link is inescapable. Laing’s clumsy attempts to rescue Woolf from being defined by her death always struggle against the fact that, over the course of Laing’s walk, she will pass both the spot where Woolf entered the river and the place where her body was found. When death is the chief intersection with Woolf’s life, protesting against her reputation as “a doleful writer, a bloodless neurasthenic, or again as a spiteful, rarefied creature, the doyenne of airless Bloomsbury chat” sounds unduly defensive. (Does anyone really still believe that? Anyone who does hold such inanities about Woolf as truths is not a likely reader of this book.)

It is a melancholy thing to walk from Monk’s House down the gravel track to the Ouse, following, more or less, the last path Woolf took before her suicide. I did it with a group of American Woolf scholars a few years back, our sadness cut by the pleasure of being together and the tense, slightly hysterical self-consciousness that comes from being in a gaggle of others on such a morbid walk. The Sussex Downs and the Ouse make a landscape that is neither sublime nor beautiful. Gently rolling hills are cut across by roads and telephone wires and slope down to reveal nothing much at all, just a sad little river hardly worthy of the name. Laing celebrates Woolf’s love for this landscape, although her discussions of Woolf lacked the depth that I wanted. Two errors—the consistent misspelling of Woolf’s first house in Sussex, which was Asheham House (not Asham, which is a local name), and the misnaming of The Waves’s character Rhonda (she is Rhoda)—were also distracting. Still, what Laing gave me that Woolf never quite could is a deep sense of how one might come to inhabit the landscape of the Ouse so fully that to call it love is to oversimplify the symbiotic relationship between person and place. Laing loves Sussex as Woolf did and takes more care to share that love with us.

Laing writes with marvelous, raw bitterness about the heartache of an unexpected break-up. Although the personal moments are deployed only occasionally, they comprise the most vivid parts of the book. At one point, she remembers her mother reading Woolf’s letters and, on a visit home, finds her mom’s copy of the first volume, buying it back from a local used bookshop. That detail is melancholy enough: the heartbroken writer, turning to Woolf for consolation, finds her in the flotsam and jetsam of her parents’ ended marriage. But Laing takes it one or two steps further, casting herself back to a happier moment: “On the frontispiece my father had written in his tight, distinctive hand, To Denise, from Peter, with much love, 3 December 1976. The date was her birthday, the last before I was born.” Although she is usually quite generous to her ex, on this instance she cannot resist adding: “For Christmas, Matthew had given me a Hoover.” To the River allows itself to swim in that water of heartbreak. Even in the brief week of her walk, you can feel Laing shedding the bitterness. Still, there is a splendid misanthropy throughout. Almost all the overheard conversations until that last two chapters are laced with profanity. Shocked by some particularly crass drinkers at a local pub, she writes:

After supper I walked out into the churchyard where Edward Gibbon was buried, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and died nearby of peritonitis after an operation to drain the massive inflammation of his testicles went wrong and poisoned his blood. In my head the woman’s voice translated: he had fucking big bollocks. It was an English voice and it had been going on forever: parochial and incensed, intent on cutting everything down to size.

It is no wonder that Laing’s best discussion of Woolf is her sympathetic reading of a diary entry from Woolf’s final weeks. There, Woolf writes about the shame of having to pee in a public restroom while some local whores apply makeup just on the other side of the partition. Woolf despises humanity in this entry and Laing understands that feeling.

Laing’s not a very good traveller and some of the book’s best passages bristle with frustration and self-mockery. Keats might write of the romance of birdsong at twilight, but Laing writes: “a whole Greek chorus of tits exchanging apprehension and admonition. I could hear them perfectly, but apart from the chaffinch I couldn’t see a bloody thing. After straining through binoculars for twenty minutes I became petulant.” Later, in the final few kilometers of her walk, she loses the path in a semi-industrial wasteland: “I burst out, sweating, onto the marsh, but my relief didn’t last a minute. It wasn’t the path I wanted, not at all….I pulled off my rucksack and kicked it.”

The chapter titles evoke the progress of a journey and suggest development. Images at the start of each chapter capture the main themes. We begin with “Clearing Out,” the story of her split, her obsessive reading of Woolf’s letters and diaries, and her preparation for her walk, equipped with “a pair of sandals of unparalleled hideousness” from her mother, sandals which, alas, did not prevent blisters as they were promised to do. This little detail, amidst wrenching grief and rage, kept me reading: here is someone with a mom who loves her in that strange, wonderful, exasperating way of moms, sending gifts that, in the end, cannot fully protect us from the world. “At the Source” follows, with a beautiful, wry account of the difference between studying a map and being in a place, and “The Lady Vanishes” tells of the part of the Ouse where Woolf’s body was found.

In-between, we read about The Wind in the Willows, the Piltdown Man, how archaeologists learn about our ancestors from the structure of the pollen in the soil, the Battle of Lewes (1264), and how John Bayley built a swimming pool for himself and Iris Murdoch in their Oxford home. At its best, this information is delightful and amusing, although it scarcely builds to any larger point. The Ouse just is not important enough to pin even a history of Sussex around it. Too often, however, the shifting context and the bits of potted history, literary gossip, and anthropology left me feeling adrift. The information about pollen, for example, is interesting but why is it presented in two different chapters? The explanation of the strategic errors made by this or that Baron during that Battle of Lewes was just too confusing to follow. That seems a shame. A better book would have a clearer organization, and clearer narratives within it, even in the midst of this meandering.

This is a wonderfully English book. One of Laing’s strengths as a writer is her use of ordinary but uncommon Anglo-Saxon words, words which we don’t use at all—or only very rarely—in North America. She mixes them in with contemporary details, so there is no gap between the A27 and the chaffinch, the stagnant wallow and the parasailing vacationer. Passages such as this one make To the River worthwhile:

The first pipistrelles were crossing Coos Lane as I reached the water. There were three cars left in the car park, along with the remnants of someone’s McDonald’s. It was just after sunset and everything had stilled, the sky shot faintly with rose.

In this brief passage, Laing shows that she knows her birds, she writes with great reserve, and she refuses to ignore the modern litter that scars our landscapes. Best of all is this sentence from near the book’s end, with its pile of great, angry verbs, its misanthropy, its solitude, and its profound hope for the promise of a great swim: “I sat down on a railway sleeper, yanked off my trousers and jerked my swimsuit on, then abandoned the pack, shucked my sandals and darted in.” Yank. Jerk. Shuck. Dart. For all that is not quite right in this young writer’s book, there is power in her voice.

Anne Fernald teaches modernist literature at Fordham University and is currently at work on the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. She can be found blogging at Fernham.


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