Sometimes life provides its own pathetic fallacy and sometimes the opposite is true. Some funerals are held in grey dismal winters, and sometimes bright summer light streams through the stained glass like a wedding.
I’m lucky enough to have access to a public-private space, a little communal grass square in the middle of the housing estate where I’m staying, a place I can sit in the sun alone or at a wide distance from others as I read. When I take a photo everything looks ‘normal’, the picture doesn’t convey anything except ‘1960s-style housing, sunny day’. If I lay down with my headphones on listening to music I can pretend nothing is different; if I lay down with my headphones on listening to podcasts I am part of what the world is now. I can’t see this crisis, so I can choose to come close to forgetting.
When I read, I am reading Grove by Esther Kinsky, translated by Caroline Schmidt, in which an unnamed narrator travels to the Italian village of Olevano following a recent bereavement. It is a strange novel to read just now, being about travel, new places and the experience of foreignness, when everyone is so utterly at home, so forcibly rooted, so still. But it is also a novel which mirrors lockdown routine, as the narrator takes the same walk around the same village every day, looking at the same view every morning and night, seeing how it is the same and how it is different. The slow, same days with nothing of consequence to do.
Grove is a novel largely of description, the grief itself not directly present in the scenery but pervading its aspect with a focus on hooded crows and the minutiae of what happens in the village cemetery. Bird cries are anxious, mournful, the winter grey and quiet; the narrator’s gaze imbued with loss. The landscape is not about grief and yet it always is.
Of course, you’re talking about travelling to grieve, a privileged action at the best of times, an almost impossible one now. There is a sort of ambivalent idea of travel as a cure for grief—a change of scene offering perspective or taking the mind off things. The narrator’s memories of M, the subject of this grief, are imbued with place in the photographs she remembers him through, but images of him living and dying pervade her thinking even having travelled so far. She seems drawn to the cemetery of every town she visits, recording artificial flowers and faded portraits, and the large, incongruous pyramid of the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome.
Cemeteries offer a place to make you think of death, obviously, but also remind of previous griefs, of those buried elsewhere. All griefs contain a little of all other griefs.
Grief is about lack, about impassable distance—but the act of grieving is also about encountering what we have lost, and coming up against the space where what we lost once was. Our current situation adds a second layer of distance. We are both unable to reach what we grieve, and unable to make contact with the space it once occupied. Unable to fully experience the feeling, the motions, the rituals of loss.
The novel is interested in these two unblendable worlds—the living and the dead, or the vii and the morţi, the Romanian words the narrator refers to them with. The cities of the living sit beside the cities of the dead, as in the Etruscan necropoli the narrator’s late father was obsessed with. In Olevano, the narrator lives halfway between the village and the cemetery.
I am lucky again in that I’m not grieving for anyone lost to this crisis—I feel a fear of grief, for numerous family members in their seventies and nineties, lonely and vulnerable. A fear of them dying at a time when I can’t reach them. I feel grief in the abstract, at the huge, flat numbers of deaths that continue to rise day by day, that I can’t hope to visualise and gain nothing by knowing, but can’t stop knowing all the same. And I feel old, past griefs rise quietly, being picked at, as the narrator’s grief for her father emerges within her grief for M; all griefs contain a little of other griefs.
Grove is not a novel that offers comfort, exactly, so much as a tender understanding. In its mirroring of the aloneness of both self-isolation and bereavement, there is a feeling of being un-alone in our aloneness; a kind of communal isolation, a communal grief.