This is a book which is sometimes so private that reading it seems very nearly like an act of invasiveness. There is nothing salacious or rude in it, but its tone of voice is whispered, intimate, as though the reader were an interloper, a clumsy stumbler into the most secret thoughts of the author.
Its occasion is a walk down the River Ouse in Sussex, from its source in the High Weald to the sea at Newhaven, but its substance is only marginally to do with that simple and very ordinary bit of geography. The river becomes the thinnest of wire coat-hangers on which almost anything can be hung. The result is a meditation, a drifting sequence of thoughts on time and change, on loss, love and meaning, on hell and happiness, geology and evolution, science and poetry.
The grandfather of the form is Rousseau, whose 1770s Reveries of the Solitary Walker created the flâneur, the wandering thinker, the man who had learned too much, who only saw the world through the books he had read or half-read, who felt very, very lonely and not entirely connected to the rest of humanity, who felt there was more life in the half-random fragments that came drifting up on a walk than in any systematic take on the structure of things. Rousseau had heard of a German who had written an entire book on a slice of lemon peel and thought of that as the ultimate goal for the thinker-writer-walker: come close, get disconnected and, amid all the disappointments of love and work, you’d somehow get in touch with the real thing.
All sorts of shades hang over Olivia Laing’s summer journey. Rousseau, Wordsworth and Baudelaire are all here justbeneath the surface, as well as the more modern practitioners of the art, none more than Iain Sinclair, W.G. Sebald and Roger Deakin. But the presiding genius is Virginia Woolf, who lived on the edge of the flood plain of the Ouse at Southease and drowned herself in the river in March 1941, stones in the pockets, an elastic band on the hat. Woolf’s life-long entrancement with water and the fused experiences of drowning and freedom, of self-fulfilment and self-destruction which submergence in water provides, is the core of Olivia Laing’s own book.
A deep sadness is soaked into almost every page. A man called Matthew, who no longer loves her, recurs as a memory and a form of longing at regular intervals, like the ringing of a melancholy bell. Other lost loves appear now and then, and their absence colours the whole short journey. It is as much an inward as an outward experience and the inwardness of the river itself is what attracts Laing:
I’d enter the swift water in trepidation that gave way to ecstasy, tugged by a current that threatened to tumble me beneath the surface and bowl me clean to the sea. The river passed in that region through a chalk valley ridged by the Downs, and the chalk seeped into the water and turned it the milky green of sea glass, full of little shafts of imprisoned light. You couldn’t see the bottom; you could barely make out your own limbs, and perhaps it was this opacity which made it seem as though the river was the bearer of secrets.
The book is full of moments like that, elegantly expressed interpenetrations of self and landscape, a longing for absorption which, as she says quite explicitly, is the child of eros and thanatos, love and death as the same sensation.
Nowhere does her focus tighten more than when empathising with Woolf as the wartime depression took hold. The Germans, perhaps aiming for Newhaven, bombed the river so that its banks were breached and the water poured out all over the ancient floodplain, the old bed of the sea. ‘Oh dear,’ Woolf wrote to Ethel Smyth, ‘how I love this savage medieval water.’ She went for long walks through the flood, falling into holes, getting wet and finding herself ‘so eliminated of human features that you might take me for a stake walking’. That kind of psycho-suicide is what Laing is longing for here too. ‘If we have any hopes at all of seeing the world,’ she says, ‘it is in those moments when the “I” winks out, when the self empties or eddies away.’