David Constantine is one of Britain's most underrated writers. A winner of the BBC National Short Story Award and the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, his balance of the lyrical and the sparse echoes John Williams, James Salter and John McGahern. His story 'In Another Country' has just been made into 45 Years, already a modern classic of British cinema and garlanded at Berlin, but on the strength of a new edition of Selected Stories, Constantine deserves at least a portion of that attention.
It takes a while to acclimatise to his tempos. While John McGahern tends to obey a more traditional time signature, rigorously cadenced and complete, Constantine uses commas as full-stops and doesn't always write in full sentences: some are only arrhythmic sketches, clouds of half-empty bewilderment, but insights pierce the fog. In 'Trains', a character's mouth "looked like something a surgeon had made for him". Another utters a scream "as though she were ripped".
These compressions of darkness accompany the expanse of small pleasures. This, from 'The Necessary Strength', is a typical escape into nature: "he crossed the thin pale road and entered the pathless wasteland of mauve rock, black peat, every shade of boggy green, and tumbling white water... Up there the roots of the old Caledonian pines shone in the golden bog-water like starfish." As is this, from 'The Cave': "Between the two simple planes of earth and sky she entered a happiness she imagined most people had enjoyed, and many could still go back to, in childhood. The ground delighted her, the rock so evident through its pelt of grass, the blood-red cranesbill, the tufts of thyme and many more such graces over the vast deposits of sea-lily stone."
These sense-shimmers aren't gratuitous flights of lyricism. They're rooted in mental landscapes and Constantine, like his most secretive characters, finds endless hiding places: attics, caves, wells, workshops to carve mermaids. Love, in one of the longer stories, is likened to the build-up of water in a dam (an interesting counterpoint to McGahern's umbrella, under which two lovers have clandestine sex). Hillsides, in another, tip down to the sea: "they would see the vines and that would be Italy."
Mostly, though, Constantine is an economist of sadness, a master of micro-nuance. In the "little church" in 'Memorial', there were "more empty spaces than people." In 'Strong Enough To Help', Arthur Barlow puts on his suit to write poetry he's never shown anyone. Or this from 'In Another Country' when Mr Mercer reveals that his old lover, "my Katya", was pregnant when she died: "More and more slowly Mrs Mercer went on with her toast and homemade damson jam." That 'homemade' is the heartbreaking detail, Flaubert-worthy. The saddest passage in the saddest story comes in 'The Necessary Strength', when the wife tells her husband she's leaving him, and makes you wonder how Constantine condenses so much into one paragraph:
When I thought it might be cancer and I drove ninety miles to have my tests you wouldn't come with me, you said you'd be too upset, you said you wouldn't be able to work. - I couldn't work. All the time you were away I sat up there crying and couldn't do a thing. - You like that kind of pain. I don't like any kind. It hurt me to press the pedals in the car. The girls were sick - not once, half a dozen times - I had to keep stopping, getting out, cleaning them out.
If this sounds too relentlessly grim, it is, to a point. 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. Like Milan Kundera's blithe claim that any of his novels could take the titles of any of his other novels, thoughts recur that could come from most Constantine protagonists. "You mustn't think I live too monkishly." "He saw, as something beautifully clean and purposeful, the reduction of his life to loneliness and work." "He would no longer be able to decide for himself how much of his future life he would deal with at any one time." These come from different characters from three different stories, but they could all come from any of them.
However, the cyclical rhythms to which the protagonists cling (like Arthur Barlow's early bedtime so he can crack on with his poems the next day) fit the author's style. The narrator of 'An Island', who sends unanswered letters to his ex-wife, extols the "bleak satisfaction of making clear sentences". This, one realises, is the quintessence of why Constantine writes and why he should be read. 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', 'Asylym' - feel like experimental genre curios, welcome because they're different, but novelties.
Repetition blends comfort with existential horror (Richard Yates, perhaps the clearest American writer of the twentieth century, basically rewrote the same book his entire career) and certain writers use certain words again and again. If Ted Hughes teems with slums, spines, sperm and soot, Constantine is a shapely mass of screams and appraisals, carvings and stamps, copper and thistles, bones and train-rumbles, stagnant water and family trees, the rise and fall of contours. I had to look up "desquamated" (the shedding of an outer skin, like a fish's), but it's a perfect Constantinian motif. There's an overarching desire in these stories to shake off what one character calls "the shadow of me, of my seriousness, the stain, the leaden atmosphere of me". But that seriousness, that lonely intelligence, the pestering tension between the banal and the poetic, is exactly why David Constantine - like his characters - should be far more widely appreciated than he is.Suggest a correction