David Constantine Interview: Invasions of the Past

His short story made it to the big screen recently as 45 Years, bringing criminally undervalued author David Constantine to wider attention. He talks to us here about new novel The Life-Writer and his republished collection of short form masterpieces

Feature by Galen O'Hanlon | 08 Oct 2015

David Constantine is a master of the short form. His stories are full of the quiet horror of everyday lives: his characters on the edge, moments from either being engulfed or breaking free. The past is always overtaking the present, threatening the stability of things. And, for a writer so concerned with how the past comes to get you, a story he wrote 15 years ago has come to get him. Andrew Haigh’s acclaimed film, 45 Years, is based on Constantine’s short story In Another Country, which has brought a wave of fresh interest to the author's work.

He himself has built up a lot of it. He began with poems, then remarkably powerful short stories, one of which grew into a novella. His second novel, The Life-Writer, was published in September and its existential structure is remarkably similar to In Another Country and 45 Years.

In the short story, Mr Mercer’s lost lover is found perfectly preserved inside a melting glacier, and the memory of her haunts his marriage, nearing its 60th anniversary. Mr and Mrs Mercer are trapped by their inability to articulate how they feel: there is only the cold draught circulating above their heads, pouring from the open attic where all the memories are kept.

In his new novel, The Life-Writer, a woman discovers her dead husband’s early romances, along with his capacity for a depth and intensity of emotion that she never felt. She is devastated, and driven to delve ever deeper into his past. Both the novel and the short story carry the same emotional premise: the idea that the past is welling up, silent until a trigger leads to an eruption and threat of being engulfed.

Constantine's Use of Images

There are moments in his work where the similarity runs right through to the imagery he uses – creating an effect, one could say, of fragments of past stories bursting into present ones. "The images obsess me," Constantine tells us. "There is a striking coincidence between the film, In Another Country, and The Life-Writer. When I was writing the novel I hadn’t read the story since it had been published. Then when I saw the film, it fully dawned on me that the existential structure of the story and the novel are together."

Although he is pleased with the film – "the best thing is how beautiful Rampling is" – there are some important differences. Mr and Mrs Mercer in the film have moved up a social class, a point that is crucial to the intensity and outlook of the narrative. In the short story, The Mercers are completely unable to express themselves. They are older than in the film, and they have no hope of dealing with the situation. "The story is bleaker than the film," says Constantine, "they are about to be overwhelmed, by accident, by an invasion of the past. And they don’t have the words or the developed consciousness to deal with it."

On the page, the story is transfixing. There are no speech marks, a technique that Constantine had only recently honed when he wrote the story. It means, he says, that there is no way of clearly knowing whether the characters have spoken, or whether the narrative voice is helping them along. A lot goes unsaid:

Was she a blonde? Mrs Mercer asked. No, said Mr Mercer, her hair was black. I thought she’d be blonde, said Mrs Mercer, being German. No, said Mr Mercer, I told you when I told you the whole story, her hair was like yours, black. Like mine, said Mrs Mercer.

Getting rid of the speech marks removes the boundaries of headspace. In this example, there is a whole recoil of emotions held in Mrs Mercer’s last words – ‘Like mine’ – but there is no explanation of it, no separate space or paragraph where Mrs Mercer’s emotional response might be recorded. These moments of compact emotional charge are everywhere in this story, and part of Rampling’s brilliance in the film is her skill in translating these moments into fine-tuned facial expression.

"The effect of a story or a poem is in the present. It is a living truth" – David Constantine

As with every good collection of short stories, there are themes that string them all together. Lots of those included in In Another Country (the collection naming itself after the story) share the lack of speech marks, and the struggle for space that it creates. It is an extension of Constantine’s treatment of domestic spaces, and how they might come to govern the characters' relationships.

In Mermaid, a man retreats from his aggressive wife to his shed, to carve a mermaid from a block of fragrant cherry wood. In The Necessary Strength, a woman with crippled hips is left on the ground floor while her husband retreats to his studio above the living room. In each case, the spaces manifest the degrees of separation in the relationships of their inhabitants.

"These are sort of self-defensive spaces," says Constantine. "The woman in Mermaid is much less kind than any of the others" – she puts the mermaid in the fire when her friends come round – "and the man in Necessary Strength has retreated to his own world of dead things, bits of bone and death, not life. All of this goes back to D.H. Lawrence, and the struggle of people in love, and people in marriage."

Past Versus Present

Almost all of Constantine’s stories, and his novel, are deeply concerned with where the past lies, and what’s in it. There might be a danger of nostalgia but he is keen to cut away from the clichés and pitfalls of thinking it was all so much better back then: "I don’t at all think it’s all down hill. There is only a present tense in poetry and fiction. The effect of a story or a poem is in the present. It is a living truth.

"When Mr Mercer looks back on his life he does have a nostalgia for it, but then it is a kind of fairyland in the Alps between Mussolini and Hitler. I’m not supposing that back then was better than now. Katrin [in The Life-Writer] is drawn to that feeling, and it is wrong. Grief flattens you like that. It’s very very difficult to find ways out. That’s the whole search of the writing [of her husband’s biography], it’s about how you get through grief, how you get back to being alive."

Articulation is a coping mechanism, then? Well it is – and it isn’t. "I wanted to show," says Constantine, "the curious paradox of writing, because it’s a way of getting rid of things, of writing them out, but the better you get at it the more you have to do it. So Katrin begins with her husband’s letters, then starts to imagine his feelings, then she starts to write a story, and slowly she is engulfed by the task."

Being engulfed is a familiar feeling when reading Constantine’s short stories; his characters and landscapes live inside the head for days. They are all curiously visual, so it’s no surprise that one of them made it through the long process of being made into a film. The stories of the In Another Country collection are powerful things. "In every short story, there should be something at stake," Constantine finishes. "Start at the crux, end at the crisis."

In Another Country: Selected Stories and The Life-Writer are out now, published by Comma Press, each with the RRP of £9.99