River writing and “the tyranny of beginnings:” Autobiographies along rivers

Linda Karlsson Hammarfelt


Many contemporary autobiographical texts that depict a transcultural self prominently feature waterscapes in the foreground. The present study focuses on how rivers are functionalized in two autobiographical accounts: the essayistic Flodernas bok (The book of rivers, 2012) by the Swedish poet and essayist Nina Burton, and the autofictional novel Am Fluß (2014) by Esther Kinsky. Both combine the literary representation of travels along rivers with an exploration of European cultural history, but also the history of the self.Using Schmitz-Emans’s (2008) concept of ‘water writing’ for studying ‘riverlike’ writing modes and discussing the findings against the backdrop of research on the cultural significance of water, this article demonstrates how both texts challenge the presumed linearity of rivers by focusing on how they are embedded in a global circuit of waters. It shows that a river’s ability to transgress national borders makes ‘river writing’ attractive for autobiographical enterprises. Finally, both texts emphasize the relationship between man and water as well as that between man and the environment through water. This relatedness of humans and landscape through the fluid element indicates that the self is not sovereign, stable and hovering above its environment, but rather an embedded entity, interwoven in complex fluid networks of interaction.


transculturality, water writing, rivers in literature, autobiography, contemporary literature

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