To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface

To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface
Olivia Laing
Canongate, 304pp, £16.99

A "dry" English person, Olivia Laing had long felt herself "haunted" by rivers, and so one June solstice she set off for a week's walk along the Ouse in Sussex. Although the journey took place in the immediate aftermath of her break-up with a long-standing boyfriend, Matthew ("the man I loved" doesn't get a particularly good press), clearly it had been some time in the planning. Laing had spent the winter reading up on the history of the Ouse and delving into the "vast disordered library of river literature". She makes full use of all her resources here.

The book proceeds day to day and mile by mile, from origin to sea. Laing describes how she wakes, usually in a pub, "demolishes" a hearty breakfast, walks along the riverbank and sometimes takes a dip, observes various things (entomological and etymological), recalls "stray lines" from river poems or pertinent historical anecdotes, muses philosophically about "this little life", and then proceeds to the next pub for yet another hearty meal.

Carefully monitoring her sensations and moods, she finds that life and art often coincide. On Midsummer's Eve, for example, she notices that her vision has become "untrustworthy" - it might be "a synaptic upheaval brought on by the sun" or "the gift of the date", but in any case it lets her talk about Shakespeare's play.

The river yields many stories, about floods and pollen and those whose lives were shaped by its presence and that of the surrounding landscape: Gideon Mantell, Charles Dawson, Kenneth Grahame, John Smeaton, William Jessop and Simon de Montfort. The most important of the book's ghosts, however, is Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in the Ouse in 1941. Laing doesn't seem suicidal, just a bit low, but she is drawn to Woolf and her watery metaphors like "an apprentice escape artist studying Houdini". She, too, wants to "get beneath the surface of the daily world" and to "shrug off the ordinary air".

Laing talks about the relationship between the natural world and "that which belonged to man", but her preferred landscapes are unpeopled, as, it seems, are those of all writers who ramble in the footsteps of Woolf, or more often W G Sebald. Noting how odd it was that "nobody is ever about" in Sebald's work, Alan Bennett once commented that "it may be poetic, but it's a short cut to significance".

Wildlife also helps: closing her eyes, Laing hears a grasshopper and begins "to catch what the day has to say"; as she listens to the screeching redshanks, a "melancholy line of thought" dissolves. After one "turbulent" night, "oppressed by the heat and the constant sound of a spring I could not see", Laing awakes to the sight of a deer drinking. "There were thousands like her," she reflects, "as there were millions like me." But no matter: "for a moment", their paths "intersected", and she can conclude her chapter by asking if there is "really more to the world than this".

More there is, however, and worse: intrusions from the ordinary air, from discarded Coke bottles and England flags that "bloom from car aerials and the windowsills of council houses". And then the natives speak. Or rather they scream "like car alarms", or bray into their mobile phones. In the pub, they swear and boast about their regular use of the morning-after pill. It's like the pub scene in T S Eliot's The Waste Land. Eliot escaped into a quotation from Hamlet; Laing into the cemetery where Edward Gibbon is buried.
It's no use. She recalls that Gibbon suffered from scrotal inflammation. "In my head," she writes, "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." Ouch.

In many ways, To the River, like so many memoirs, is a book about the discovery or rediscovery of a voice. Laing's "destination" is not only Newhaven, but reconciliation to a life without Matthew and an awareness of human separateness. "It struck me that I had not spoken more than a couple of sentences all day," she says at one point. And yet To the River, for all that it incorporates and absorbs so many other writers, is dominated by Laing's own, rather self-conscious literariness ("the ghost of aniseed lay on the tip of my tongue like a word I knew but could not speak").

At times, reading this book is like following a paper river in which one thought or allusion flows gently into another and then another. At others, it's like sharing a room with someone who won't let you go to sleep because there's just one more thing to say. l

Kasia Boddy is a senior lecturer in English at University College London. Her most recent book is "The American Short Story Since 1950" (Edinburgh University Press, £19.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0