Who was the person you loved, before they loved you? In The Life-Writer, this question worms away darkly in the mind of Katrin, a Polish biographer who has lost her English husband Eric, an academic decades her senior. Grief, Katrin discovers, is an unbalancing novelty: “you are the host of it now, its abode, it will come and go as it chooses.”
To sustain herself in this limbo, Katrin turns to her work, which she has devoted previously to “brief lives”, the ordinary people who otherwise would slip through history’s fingers. Dangerously, and thrillingly for David Constantine’s layered narrative, Katrin decides to make her dead husband her new biographical subject. The better to resurrect him, she focuses on the passages of Eric’s life when he was perhaps most keenly alive: his troubled student years at Oxford and his unhappy first marriage. She rifles through attic boxes, searching for “significant juxtapositions” between photos and letters, but becomes only closer to her loss.
Constantine is the author of one other novel, Davies (1985), a fictionalised account of a petty criminal, but it is the short story form for which he is best known. Here, he has a persistent interest in the discarded pieces of other people’s lives that can reawaken one’s own past, or open up the uncommunicable in the present. Although he is an intimate writer, these symbolic interruptions are frequently brutal. “In Another Country”, the title story of his recently published selected stories (and basis for the film 45 Years), a long-married couple are shattered by the discovery of a body in a thawing glacier. The corpse is that of the husband’s former lover who died in a mountaineering accident, and it contains another corpse, that of an unborn child, the chambers of life and death profoundly intertwined.
But in The Life-Writer, the odyssey triggered by letters and shoeboxes of personal detritus unfolds more gently, with the additional question of why we keep such ostensibly dead signifiers of our experiences: “All these ephemera, hoarded for half a century, not ephemeral in fact, they have lasted.”
For Katrin it creates unwelcome revisions to her view of the past; old love letters to Eric from a French girlfriend, Monique, suggest a sexuality that the widow feels was never quite as ripe in her own relationship with her husband. The suffering of all the women in The Life-Writer — from Katrin’s glimpse of her unflattering reflection, to the “mortal sadness” of Eric’s first wife Edna — is shown an encompassing kindness.
The accommodation between life and death is ever present, and looms rather sentimentally in Katrin’s developing friendship with her angelic, terminally ill doctor, Liz Gracie, whose soothing of Katrin’s grief will soon be removed. Yet for all its apparent gloominess, The Life-Writer has its rhapsodies and indulgences too. Eric and Katrin resolved their platonic love into a marriage through an almost Hollywood-style change of heart by lonely Eric, who chases a departing Katrin to the airport.
And there is something nostalgic about the long, dreamy phone conversations Katrin has with her husband’s oldest friend Daniel, as he describes what he knows of Eric’s youthful hitchhiking journey through France. “From nowhere the word éclosion came to him. Whether he walked or stood, sat down on the embankment and read, lay flat with his hat over his face and dozed, he felt the softly insistent pulse of his life in the world opening.”
The more vast Eric’s hinterland appears to be, the more unknowable he becomes. Like many of the couples in Constantine’s work, Katrin and Eric represent an exquisitely painful parallax, permanently apart in their viewpoints. The narrative dissolves cleverly in these passages: where Daniel begins his recollections, it’s unclear who continues them, with implausibly detailed memories hinting at a fantasy authored by someone else, from which Katrin awakens in a state of “rapt enjoyment”.
Katrin — like Constantine himself — is an author dealing in the unreal and real at the same time. But like Katrin, this humane and challenging writer is most interested in the lives of others.
The Life-Writer, by David Constantine, Comma Press, RRP£9.99, 224 pages
In Another Country: Selected Stories, by David Constantine, Comma Press, RRP£9.99, 224 pages