September 2015

Will Mawhood

fiction

In Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine

The English poet, translator, and short story writer David Constantine appears to be having something of a moment -- albeit quite a stretched one. Having come to fiction rather late -- his first short story collection, Back at the Spike, came out in 1994, by which point he was already towards the end of a thirty-year career as a lecturer in German -- he has been the recipient of increasing attention over the last few years, receiving the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in 2013 and the BBC Short Story Award three years earlier; this year, a well-received film has been released, 45 Years, based on the title story of this collection (very well-received, in fact -- according to Rotten Tomatoes, it is technically perfect).

This, however, doesn't seem to be something he's been consciously writing for. Constantine doesn't give the impression of working for fame, accolades, or even attention, but to satisfy a particular internal unquietness: "I start a story because some concrete image or situation prompts or pesters or forces me to," as he has put it. And compulsion is apparently the only progenitor for fiction he respects. In an interview with The Scotsman, he said, "When I meet people who are on creative writing courses, I say, 'if you can stop doing it, stop, and that will be at least one marker of how serious it is to you.'" Biblioasis has discovered him and is pushing this selection from his four short story collections, In Another County, at readers in North America, a part of the world where he has never previously been published, in advance of a novel to come out next month.

Constantine is a sensitive writer tuned, above all, to human exclusion and inclusion. In one story, he refers, with a strange precision, to someone as looking "as though a stroke had halted her and set her oddly in relation to the world." He is describing someone who is intensely, intensely surprised, and yet that phrase, being set oddly in relation to the world, could sum up a very decent number of his characters. The majority of those focused upon are outsiders, whether this is the result of their own choice or not. These outsiders are rarely extraordinary, however: they are odd enough to be cast out, not odd enough to have achieved any kind of renown or notoriety, even limited. The forms their dissent takes are various, and are rarely if ever clearly directed or particularly demonstrative: In "Under the Dam" a love triangle moves out of a smoky industrial town to a bleak hillside by a remote reservoir; in "The Cave" a middle-aged sort-of-couple journeys together to a limestone cave, where they spend the night listening to the unique sounds it makes; "Trains" follows the experiences of a sexually promiscuous girl aroused by trains through a judgmental, possibly pre-war society. All disregard what the world expects from them. Even those characters who appear staid and entirely conformist usually have some inner mark separating them from others -- see the colorless, passionless businessman in "The Loss," who at a crucial moment suddenly feels his soul "leave, flit ahead to its place in the ninth circle," and goes on living, without it, a strikingly unchanged life.

This leads to a similar focus on communities, and especially, hermetic groups, both supportive or inwardly destructive. These recur again and again, insulated from the world around by carefully cultivated codes or practices. Constantine has a sharp awareness of the dynamics of these kinds of small, defensive groups, how emotions can be intensified by circumscription, and how revelation, expansion of the group can be seen as betrayal. In "Wishing Well," one of the most impressive of the stories, which is set in an evidently remote coastal town in Wales, two best friends, one Welsh and the other an incomer, seemingly English, develop a secret language -- "our tongue within the tongue" which they alternate with Welsh. The knowledge they share of the ingrown secrets of the ancient landscape where they live binds them together and makes them reliant on one another; when, at one point, Awen tells the narrator's father about the "cursing well" on the farm where she lived -- in English, worst of all -- she is shocked and outraged, and struggles to hold out comprehension of the rest of the world: "Don't tell him, I said, in the secret tongue. Even in Welsh he would not have understood, but I said it in the secret tongue, to impress upon her the seriousness of the matter." Elsewhere, in "The Shieling," a strange, ambiguous story that seems to subvert its own logic as it goes on, a couple creates an imaginary rural haven for themselves, which they fill with things they like and name using words they like.

The world breaks in, every now and then, to try to impose its own rules on these characters, and Constantine is good at showing how arbitrary and petty these are, how the prescribed rules are often maintained by a fear of others not suffering in the same way -- early on in "The Cave," one of the most representative stories, a middle-aged woman is rebuked by her sister for her non-sexual, semi-romantic involvement with a man with whom she sets off on curious but touching adventures ("All I mean is, does he mean it? [...] When he takes you off doing these extraordinary things, is he serious?"). The words ("serious," "mean it?") seem too skimpy to hide the meanness of their meaning, what they stand in for. Every now and then, but not too often, he throws in a flamboyantly absurd set piece of conformity enforcement: In "The Mermaid," a tale of an unhappy, constrained marriage, the husband spends his leisure time lovingly carving a mermaid from wood; when his wife discovers it, she is impressed and wants it for her own front room, but has a single demand to make -- "her tits will have to come off."

There are few easy answers from Constantine, however; simply striking out alone does not guarantee happiness or fulfillment. The earnest, lonely protagonist of "An Island" is the most obvious case, having moved to a remote Scottish (or possibly Cornish) island in the hope of escaping or finding himself, he finds himself equally isolated, equally set in himself, neither accepted nor rejected by the local community. He is intelligent and caring in his way, but is clearly worn down by his hermit-like life -- at one point, in one of the letters addressed to a former lover that make up the story, he says hopefully, "Everyone needs a fellow-mortal to address," a weirdly off phrase that has the ring of someone already pretty radically estranged from human interaction. And "address" is either grandiose or desperate, implying an object unresponding from awe or indifference. Another story, "Strong Enough to Help," concerns the research visit of a representative from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to Arthur Barlow, unpublished poet and soon-to-be unemployed medical record curator. This is a profoundly discouraging story: despite his sensitivity and kindness, Barlow himself seems to have reduced himself to nothing more than a conduit for poetry, whether in or out; it's hard to read his accounts of how he goes about his life without feeling faintly troubled, and faintly bored. "I go to poetry readings if there's one I can get to on a train or a bus. [...] I don't have a television. I have a wireless and a tape recorder. I listen to poetry programs and to tape recordings of poets reading their work," and so on, listless sentences that are rooted in poetry alone. He's clearly harmless, but the speech has the air of some memorized formula, seeming barren of intention; he seems permanently on the brink of the knowledge that he has wasted his life alone in this way.

The natural world and the rural is a constant preoccupation; many of the stories are set on the wilder, less populated fringes of the UK, but Constantine is perhaps sharpest when describing how it bleeds into the lives of town dwellers -- a tricky subject in a crowded little urbanized country like England, where the ineffable always has to fit around terraced houses. Case in point: one of the two protagonists of "In Another Country" is driven by a suppressed dispute out of his house, "out and along the road a little way to where the road went down suddenly steeply and the estate of all the same houses was redeemed by a view of the estuary, the mountains and the open sea." Here, registers and contradictions are masterfully juggled and allowed to coexist: the syntactically cramped and awkward "all the same houses" somehow sits perfectly with the religious pretensions of "redeemed." Nature, while providing some model, perhaps, of order and consolation, is not seen naively, romantically, as a remedy. Those characters who do try to strike out from civilization struggle, and sometimes drown -- most obviously, despite all the fine rhetoric about the purity and beauty of the place, the getting-away-from-it-all love-triangle fantasy of "Under the Dam" ends with the suicide of the most troubled of the three. Even the wise naturalist Owen in "The Cave," listening to the "cold breathing," the repetitive phenomena of the cave, refers to it, and other natural marvels as "mechanics," and concludes that "it's loveless. [...] Beautiful it may be, intricate and powerful beyond our imagining -- but loveless."

Stylistically, Constantine has a taste for words considered nonstandard, ones whose significance is bounded by geography, trade, or interest -- especially words that would seem outdated or obsolescent. It's striking how often these are raw sounds, derived from old Anglo-Saxon, shorn of the twiddles and flourishes of English's Latinate terms -- chunnering, weltering, kist, soodling. Elsewhere, they seem almost taken from scripture -- at one point the protagonist of "An Island" (who is, admittedly, a former monk) hoping to "possess [his] own soul in patience" and fearing he will lose "the power to uphold any faith and love"; elsewhere, a character is described "bethinking himself." This seems more than Constantine being a willful reactionary -- those phrases used do generally seem to fill a gap in meaning that the contemporary language has vacated. What else should he have done? "Thought again about his intentions"? Rambling and ugly. The elegant compression of "bethinks himself" is fine with me.

Constantine's characters are notable for their quibbling and quarrelling with the language as well, the way they pick it apart -- as one says indignantly at one point: "[G]iven three months to live. Given." He's a writer who doubles back and looks at the language he uses, askance. This is why in "The Shieling," which is a strange and ambiguous story, I think -- think -- he's taking aim at the central couple for their purely aesthetic view of language. They take old, underused phrases -- shieling, billet, dwell on -- to make their imaginary hideaway more authentic, but then tweak them to fit with their own meaning -- "in reality such dwellings, the shielings, are only for habitation in the summer, the brief summer, but theirs they allowed themselves to proof almost snugly against the winter months." Dialect tourists, so to speak.

The title story is probably the one that will attract the most interest, due to the film adaptation -- in the UK, they're going with the name of the film as the title of the collection -- and it is one of the strongest. It seems bizarre that a whole film could be made out of a ten-page story, until you read it -- it stretches far back into the past, and casts its implications far forward into the future. In short, it's an account of how the content childless marriage of the Mercers, a couple in their sixties, is suddenly set oddly to the world by the revelation that the husband not only had a relationship prior to their marriage, with a German woman named Katja, but that her body has finally been discovered in a glacier, where she fell during a walking holiday they took in Germany, eerily preserved in youth by the ice. It's fascinating because of its universalism: how what is remembered and what is forgotten, make up the present. Constantine presents the story sympathetically, but excels at choosing words that jut in two different directions at once, slicing up any attempted consolations as they are presented. Mrs. Mercer thinks that:

All she wanted was to be able to say it hasn't been nothing, it hasn't been a waste of time, the fifty years, that they amount to something, if not a child, a something made and grown between man and wife you could be proud of and nearly as substantial as a child.

The sentence quivers with a believable anger and fear, but works against itself as it does so -- "grown between" is wonderfully ambiguous, evocative just as much of separation as of unity.

Despite its universal applicability, Constantine works hard to summon up those characteristics that firmly locate it in England, and firmly set the age of the protagonists. These include a fear of openly stated profundity -- cushioning anything that cuts too openly at the raw material of life with platitudes and fillers -- "she'd have no mother and father, would she, if you think about it." Even the epiphanies have a certain hesitancy to them, checking themselves against others: "Whatever is in there behind the eyes or around the heart or wherever else it is, whatever it is that is not the husk of us will cease when the husk does but in the meantime never ages, does it?" There's a perfectly placed "I daresay," that most passive-aggressive of means of agreement, in the middle of the sad, awkward drama. Through all this harshness, here and elsewhere, there's a certain indefinable kindness to Constantine's tone, as though he's relating your problems to a mutual friend, trying if possible to put things in the best possible light, however ridiculous or humiliating they are.

It's thus hard to separate the fiction from the author's stated belief that imaginative writing is a social good, not an end in itself, articulately expressed in an interesting book completed for the proselytizing book series The Literary Agenda. In it, Constantine considers the value of poetry, in a sense the value of his life, which has after all been spent writing, translating, and thinking, and the forces that are ranged against literature, whether from within or from without -- apathy, dogmatic relativism, and the free-market philosophy. In it, he comments that he believes there to be "no such thing as a nihilistic poem." To Constantine: "By its very act, even in saying the worst, by its rhythms, by its beauty, by its tough and agile vitality, poetry asserts the hope of better."

Despite this, it's interesting that the most passionately well-meaning stories are generally the weakest. "Asylum" is a dark piece that struggles to develop beyond its blunt title. At its center is an inspiring proposal of imagination as a way out of horrible circumstances -- a doctor encourages a depressed, self-harming refugee child to continue a story she has started about Somali asylum seekers seeking refuge in Wales. It's an idea one would like to believe in, but here it comes across as glib, unearned. The etymology of asylum is dwelled upon, but it seems a rather obvious point that neither clarifies nor comforts greatly; and Mr. Kramer, the doctor, seems altruistic in a depthless kind of way. What's more, there's a subplot involving his daughter researching their Jewish roots at a former shtetl in Ukraine ("a terrible place, I never want to go"), which seems at best cursory and tacked on. It didn't seem insignificant to me that Constantine gets the time difference with Kyiv wrong, and the rest of the tangent seems equally soft-focus terrible, dragged in to underline its seriousness, as if asylum and war and self-harming hadn't done that enough already. It results in a flurry of good intentions, not bad, just not what it wants to be.

"Charis" also isn't hugely successful, despite the interesting concept -- an evangelist using his sister's death to raise awareness and money for his particular projects -- is overstrained by the quantities of rage the narrator, the evangelist's other sister, forces it to support. Insufficient attention is paid to developing the central character, who remains a cartoonish manipulative amalgam of preacherman tropes, and thus the furious attempts to skewer him with sarcasm and florid parody fall flat: He hasn't been built solid enough to stand up.

Recurrent weaknesses, which are minor, include a reluctance to date that is perhaps tempting for an older writer -- a great many of the stories take place in a kind of smeared 1950s, unfixed in the past, caught only within certain loose temporal parameters, one full of "smoking chimneys" and ladies who have "young men" and suffer from "palpitations." This is unproblematic for the openly speculative tales like "Goat," which is a weird reverie in which a semi-deformed being and a defrocked cannon cavort in an abandoned Victorian school, which a harsh winter has filled with "swords of ice"; its bizarre concerns are unconstrained by era. Where it is more of an issue is for tales like "Trains" and "Under the Dam": here the themes brought up -- relationships, class, sex, idealism -- seem too shifting and tied to social mores to be consigned to a vague nonspecific past. He's excellent, though, at those moments that prove definitively that the world has made up a new set of rules, leaving you flailing. Look at this, from the last story in the collection: "Not knowing, not wishing to learn, how to send a text to two people at once, he composed his text twice and dispatched it west and south." Even the verbs themselves ache for connection with the physical world.

But really, looking for weaknesses is like panning for gold in reverse. The odd sentence or story here or there rings dull, but quibbles must be put aside, for the greater part of this is alive and strange and sympathetic. The vast majority of it succeeds, and that which doesn't fails for all the right reasons. David Constantine cares and can match life with his writing. North America needs him as much as Britain does.

In Another Country: Selected Stories by David Constantine
Biblioasis
ISBN: 978-1771960175
304 pages