Olivia Laing’s To the River – A Midsummer meander

Laing’s To the River is a travelogue of sorts as the writer sets out on a midsummer morning to walk the banks of the River Ouse from source to sea. Peppered with memories of a failed relationship, this is a journey through memory, not just hers but those of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, whose diaries she refers to frequently. It’s very much in the vein of Seband’s The Rings of Saturn but with less spiralling into tangents and much more lyricism.

It’s beautifully written, with the descriptions of the natural world incredibly detailed in a way that brings the countryside to life. What really makes the prose sing are the fresh and unexpected comparisons she draws: “The water pleated as the carp sank and climbed”, “…the air seemed to have set like jelly, quivering as I pressed against it.” and “The fields rising like foam.”

Each chapter is roughly divided into sections of the river and the narrative moves from day to day, spanning around a week. Each section of the river correlates to another story, another narrative and, much like in The Lonely City, Laing explores the character behind the figures, ranging from Gideon Martell and his archaeological discoveries to Kenneth Grahame and the motivations behind The Wind in the Willows. As befitting a narrative based on the River Ouse, Laing lingers a lot over the Woolfs and their story, but she also draws on the story of Iris Murdoch who lived in the area. These biographical segments are not just the relation of a well-worn narrative, but the examination of the ways in which the world has influenced these writers who have had such an influence on the writer herself: “Water, in Woolf’s personal lexicon, represented a way of slipping the superficial self.” However, it’s not just recent, literary history – there’s also an extensive narrative on Simon de Montford and the medieval battles of the area.

One of the elements I took most from was the explanation of the etymologies of the language we use to describe the natural world, as Laing explains that “the source of the word ‘Ouse’  is generally supposed to be usa, the Celtic word for water, but i favoured the argument, this being a region on Anglo-Saxon settlement, that here it was drawn from the Saxon word wāse, from which derives also our word ooze” and, similarly fascinating, “The word hell comes from the Anglo-Saxon helan, meaning to hide; it is related to hole and hollow”

This etymological exploration is paired with a questioning of the notion of religious faith prompted by the commentary on Bede’s writing which engenders a philosophical pondering on the nature of life and the power of the natural world “What is one to make of this great weight of waters? Though they are beautiful, they carry with them the risk of annihilation too.” It is this personal touch that makes this such a thought-provoking read. Water becomes its own character as Laing explores her own fascination with it: “Sometimes, moving through water, I feel I’m washed of all thoughts, all desires… there have been times when, sunk in a river or a chalky sea, i have felt the past rise up upon me like a wave.”

As I came to the close of the book, I felt as bereft as Laing did as she begins to re-enter the world at the end of her journey: “I looked across the reeds to where the ruins [the shattered remains of Tide Mills] were and saw an ominous glitter.” But, like the writer, I felt both inspired and calmed in the face of the world and also glad that: It’s a mercy that time runs in one direction only, that we see the past but darkly and the future not at all.”

 

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