Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday 25 May 2016

"In another country" by David Constantine (Comma, 2015)

The title story (alluding to "the past is another country"?) is about an old, childless couple whose life is disrupted by a discovery caused by melting snow far away. The author doesn't skimp on the symbolism - the old man reads that in Switzerland they fear that global warming will cause all the melted water to "come down at once one day" just like the disruption in the relationship. We're told (as well as shown) that "His unease was palpable". It's a moving story. It's unclear how confused the man is before the disruption.

"The Mermaid" features another old (childless?) husband, and again depicts the mixture of dependence and independence within a long-term relationship. As the backcover says, there's a "piece of driftwood a beachcomber chooses to carve into his idea of perfection"; a trope used elsewhere, generalised.

In "Trains", the 2 main characters both have a thing about trains. They live under a train track and can sense the vibrations of a train miles away. The man kills himself under a train. The woman marries a signalman. The characters are quirkily interesting, the setting atmospheric, and the narrational viewpoint's unusual.

"The necessary strength", like "In another country" has a husband who escapes in the loft. Like "The mermaid", it has a husband with an artistic hobby that requires isolation from his somewhat unsupportive wife. She plans to leave him. As in earlier stories, the odd non-Realism line sticks out - "His face was alert and lit with the idea of loneliness and productive suffering". A horse often comes close to their house, pressing its head against their window. What does it represent for each of them? He's an artist - he once found the skull of a horse and drew it. As for her, "Admiration, her instant first feeling, ran over rapidly into terror of his mastery and power, as he came down the slope and between her and the fence ... He was the bodily apparition of every dread: the dread of utter weakness, of total disability, or the shame and helplessness of being lame, the dread of dependence". And yet, the horse saves her in the end.

"The Loss" has a man who thinks he's lost his soul but hasn't died. He recognises others who are like him. I wasn't keen on it.

In "Memorial" some ex-students of a gay don meet after his funeral, comparing notes. Lots of monologuing. Not for me.

In "The Cave" 2 middle-aged people cautiously forge a relationship. Here, as in other stories, quote-marks aren't used in dialogue. It can be a little confusing -

Owen gave her some wine. We don't know much, do we? About one another, I mean. We don't ask, said Lou. I would always tell you if you asked. But saying that she thought, I'm an entrance into nothingness so put your questions softly or the earth will open up. But you, she said, I always supposed you must be very deep and now you tell me there's a grown-up daughter in you, so I was right. Owen shrugged. Except she's not, he said. Her absence is. I like you in that dress.

Here's an example of the narrator/symbolism intervention -

In the way that human beings are bound to, Lou was thinking, What is this like? And ideas came to mind, rough gestures towards the thing itself: like a heart and a pulse, though not of any beast she knew; like an engine, the thrumming of a steady - but varied - working; like an oven, a furnace, if you could think of its cold as heat. But it was easier to compare this thing whose utterance was close and that was really of the earth, to phenomena she would never be anywhere near and was at liberty merely to imagine. The background noise of space, for example, the aural context of all the galactic debris still dispersing. So Lou spun ideas, as any human would, to try to say what the sound of the cave was like; but in the midst of her ideas, despite their interference, she knew with a thrill of horror, that what she was listening to, though nameless, was familiar. So reading a poem, often what dawns on you is a thing you knew already but had forgotten or didn't know well enough and now the lines with a vengeance will remind you and make you know it this time close and true.

At times in this and other stories there's a rough, almost unfinished feel to the writing, the symbolism raw. Here's the ending

I was going to say, said Owen, that we can walk across to the gritstone from here, if you like, all the way back to my house, if you would like. I looked at the map while you were seeing to yourself. That is exactly what I would like, she said. And will it be warm? I'd say so, he said. In an hour or so. Good, said Lou. I want some sun. I know I look funny at the moment, bundled up. But things will improve as we go along, you'll see.

"Wishing Well" continues the theme, adding a remote chapel, a cemetery, a secret tunnel and an ending which goes "There's a lot you down know about me. Come back with me now quickly. There are things I can't say in the daylight, but I will say them in the dark when we have slept together".

After 2 stories where couples venture to an isolated symbolic location, "The Shieling" features a couple who imagine a solitary place where they go alone (leaving each other notes) or together. I like it

"Charlis" was a strange mix of religion and suicide, with "Is there an internet in Heaven?".

A couple (he's married, she isn't?) who having an affair are bickering in "Tea in the Midland", alluding to Odysseus and whether an artist's morality should affect one's opinion of their work, but actually, we assume, criticising each other. Beyond the window there are kiteboarders, which the 2 people have differing opinions about. We're given an analysis of the debate -

He heard this as recrimination. She had left the particular argument and moved aside to his more general capacity for disappointing her. He, however, clung to the argument, but she knew, even if he didn't know or wouldn't admit it, that all he wanted was something which the antagonisms that swarmed in him could batten on for a while.

This story won the BBC short story award. I wasn't convinced.

In "Strong Enough to Help" a poetry-obsessed loner is questioned for a survey. I didn't get the point.

In "Goat" - a voluntary female social worker and a Canon on the brink of resigning visit a squatter suffering from priapism. She takes off her top, plays a reed pipe, and things get weird - "Her playing attuned him immediately to all the hidden ways and energies of water. He felt those biding their time in the frozen pipework of the abandoned school, felt them keenly, from the deep municipal mains up to the stray ends in Goat's own privy, all of them waiting for warmth so that they could whisper, murmer, chuckle and exult in anarchy once more. That intricate life in waiting was made palpable to him as Fay played". The Canon removes his dog-collar and throws it like a hoop over the squatter's protruding problem. She leaves Goat a notebook so he can write it up, but he has an accident and dies. An interesting piece.

"An Island" is much the longest piece - a sequence of letters to an unknown addressee, or at least diary entries. They show the island as a microcosm - people blown off course like birds - and as a source of parables - the arch builder ("stone-rainbow on its own two heavy feet, because the halves of its bodily curve had met and all desire to fall became the will to last miraculously for ever"), the family-tree maker, etc. It turns out that the narrator used to be a monk. The ending's unsatisfying, though I liked much of the story.

In "Mr Carlton", a recent widower gets stuck in a jam. He gets out of the car and finds himself with a newly pregnant woman and a man whose wife and kids have left him. They spend perhaps hours watching an old, contented couple in a road-side house. "The light coming over out of the west was golden now and almost level. All visible things partook of it and became truly themselves". The old couple are seen in their bedroom, which makes the widower sad.

"Under the Dam" - again people live close to a train track. Again the man's an artist. The couple are happy - "Palpable happiness, real as the heavy earth". Then there are coy hints of a menage a trois. When they move to the country "the onus on her felt as vast as the opening hills". Will things turn out ok? "She knew that much, but it appeared impenetrable and induced in her passivity and a fatalism, under which, like a spring making for daylight, ran the irrepressible force of self-asserting life". The river "recovered and rattled along with the dam behind it like a fading nightmare". But Seth kills himself anyway.

In "Asylum" the therapist, a recent widower, interviews a girl in an asylum. She's encouraged to write a story - about refugees and asylums. Doesn't work for me.

Overall? There are no family units. The stories are person/couple-centred, the city/landscape a source of symbolism; plot a sad necessity. (Several of the male characters in the book could have been lapsed monks, happy to live in bedsits, seeking the spiritual in the everyday - light, or water. Similar to the way that full-rhyme is sometimes considered too obvious nowadays, being replaced by half-rhyme, so it's common in stories to submerge the symbolism, disguising it beyond recognition. Certainly you wouldn't want characters drawing attention to it, or worse, the narrator waxing lyrically about it. Like the distant trains in these stories, or impending storms, one can sense from afar the arrival of long, gushy flurries of long sentences, the underlying apotheosis. As reviewers have said, he's "always attuned to the interplay between the tangible and the invisible" (Wall Street Journal) and his "writing is rare today, unafraid to be rich and allusive and unashamedly moving" (The Independent). It takes some getting used to. The re-used symbols don't worry me, nor the re-used themes. The repeated combinations of these are more problematic.

Other reviews

  • Ed Cripps (Huffington Post) (My only criticism of these stories, especially if you (as I did) romp through them in one go, is their repetition: there are a few too many lonely old men, widowed, childless or abandoned men more articulate on paper than in person. ... The most potent stories - 'In Another Country', 'The Necessary Strength', 'Strong Enough To Help', 'Mr Carlton' - have to operate in this familiar territory. The stranger ones - 'Trains', 'Goat', 'Asylum' - feel like experimental genre curios, welcome because they're different, but novelties.)
  • Natalie Whittle (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. ... like many of the couples in Constantine’s work, Katrin and Eric represent an exquisitely painful parallax, permanently apart in their viewpoints)
  • 'The most striking stories tend to share motifs while circling secret and unresolved situations: "The Necessary Strength" with its broken family in an idyllic setting; "Wishing Well" with the incoming tide as an imaginary threat; and "Tea at the Midland", a concise meditation on art's independence from morality' - Michael Caines, Times Literary Supplement
  • goodreads
  • James Grainger (The title story (and first in the collection) sets the bar very high. ... In a lesser author’s hand, the symbolic linking of memory to a body preserved in perpetual youth by a glacier would read as heavy-handed, an insistent contrast between the elderly protagonist’s fading life energies and his romantic youth. But through the medium of his remarkable ear for both poetic and common prose, Constantine skilfully works this symbol into the story with barely a shift in tone ... the work is not only unabashedly literary — in the way the stories eschew conventional storytelling methods and challenge the reader to pay attention to nuances of technique and character — it is hard to categorize, even within the short fiction category.)
  • Brooke Allen (New York Times) (Constantine’s territory is the north of England, Wales, the Welsh borders. When he strays off his native turf, he is uncertain (as when he mentions “the ancient redwoods of New England”!). He apparently hates and fears America and everything it symbolizes, and the couple of times he ventures there (“The Loss,”  “Charis”) are the only moments in this collection that descend to caricature. Twenty-first-­century technology is conspicuous by its absence)
  • Nick Healy (Star Tribune) (The frustrations with Constantine's prose can result from its form and style. Dialogue, presented without quotation marks, gets buried deep within paragraphs that can become oppressive in their length, for example. Even careful readers will have to reread sections to sort out their meaning ... Those emotions — sadness and pity — infuse much of this book, but the stories never suffer from a sense of sameness. That's because Constantine begins and ends stories in places few writers would imagine, and in between he shifts direction in ways few readers will expect.)
  • Frank Lawton (Sabotage reviews) (This is a world of strange, abandoned or forgotten places: lone houses lost under motorways or dwarfed by dams, metaphysical shielings, spartan chapels hidden by the road and cradled by the sea, cursing wells and abandoned. This is a world of the margins. ... The emphasis upon frozen relationships is mirrored by characters who freeze ... It is no surprise that light plays such an insistent role in Constantine’s setting of atmosphere and descriptions of nature: like water, it is a flexible building material, both a presence and a physical absence, both revelatory and blinding. However, Constantine’s deployment of it sometimes lacks a light touch, with an increasingly predictable tendency to constellate descriptions of water and light, so that towards the end of the collection when a description of water appears you can be sure that a sentence on the play of the light will follow fast on its heels (I counted this phenomenon in 13 of the 17 stories). Nevertheless, this criticism is slight when held up against the many triumphs of this volume, central among them being the two stand-out stories ‘Tea at the Midland’ and ‘The Shieling’. )

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