Writers & Company

Esther Kinsky on the ebb and flow of memory in River

The German author speaks to Eleanor Wachtel about the emotional bond between person and place.
Esther Kinsky is a German poet, novelist and literary translator. (Transit Books)
Listen to the full episode55:23

German novelist, poet and translator Esther Kinsky won multiple prizes for her novel River when it was first published in Germany in 2014. Now available in English, the book is earning wide acclaim for its haunting evocation of landscape and loss. Set in East London, it invites us into the intimate reality of a woman who's left her old life behind, seeking to lose herself — and find herself — in the natural world.  

Kinsky is the author of five books of poetry and four novels. She's worked as a literary translator for more than 30 years, from Polish, English and Russian into German, including work by Henry David Thoreau, John Clare and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, as well as Man Booker International Prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk.

Kinsky spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Udine, near where she lives in northeastern Italy.   

Distance and displacement 

"The unnamed woman in River has made a decision that is painful to her — but the pain of staying can sometimes be greater than the pain of leaving. She is at a point where a decision has been made to leave, but it's a protracted leave-taking. There's this kind of pain she's trying to come to terms with; she goes through her memories of place to somehow redefine a position in the world for herself." 

Foreign exchange

"I like spending extended periods of time in other languages and other countries. I feel this enormous give-and-take that arises from the experience of being a stranger; it's looking at a place where you learn to understand things slowly. I find this is something very important for me. 

"This manifests itself mostly through what I write. It is a process which I do not entirely understand, analytically or intellectually. It's a lot about immersion — and a lot to do with the foreignness of the language."

Land use and reclamation

"I never visit a place with the intent to write or research about it. But places seem to find me. I am drawn to places best described as 'disturbed lands.' This is, in fact, a botanical term to describe or define terrain where nature re-establishes itself after human interference. I like this mix of overgrown traces.

"I'm not interested in nature per se, but in the way there is this back-and-forth of reclaiming space with or without control. I'm interested in the way human traces manifest themselves, as traces which are always connected with human suffering. It's a good thing to have this sort of feeling of being permeated by a place. There is something that really attracts me, in a layered sense. Something that needs to be taken apart and explored."

Esther Kinsky's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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