The Life-Writer by David Constantine is a story within a story. It is the story of Katrin as she mourns the death of her husband, Eric, and it is the story of Eric as a young man, as he falls in love with a French woman named Monique.
The novel opens with Eric on his deathbed. Then, a memorial service. Katrin is a broken woman, a woman who does not know if she will survive her grief. She is a biographer of minor figures of European Romanticism—and this is interesting: they are "the lives of men and women who have the allure, the passion, the structures of imagination, the longings, the disappointments, the hectic ambition, the devotion, the folly, the grief of their great contemporaries, but not their talent... they lived their lives without the thing they needed an could not acquire: the gift ... Therein ... lay their poignancy"—but following Eric's death the only person she wants to write about is him.
So she does. She attempts to write about his life before they met and married. Eric is much older than Katrin and was married once before. But it's not this previous marriage that interests Katrin. It is a storied love affair that came before that—what might be the love of his life (in modern parlance, "the one who got away"). Through interviews with Eric's brother Michael and best friend Daniel, as well as love letters exchanged between Eric and Monique, Katrin pieces together a tumultuous love affair, scene by scene. She is captivated by the affair, and yet undoubtedly this history is painful to explore. After all, she is not a neutral party. She cannot help but compare the loves of Eric's life, and sometimes his love for her seems undermined by the passions that preceded it.
I was entranced by this book at the start. Its paratactic style—a kind of lyrical breathlessness—is jarring at first, but is ultimately evocative and poetic once you are absorbed in its rhythms. The style accurately reflects the frenzy of grief (David Constantine is also a poet, FYI). The continuous stream of consciousness and intense feeling submerged me into the mind—and also the grief—of Katrin (She is drowning and you feel like you are too and every period at the end of a sentence is like a moment when you finally came up for some air).
The bouts of anxiety, of helplessness, of sadness that terrorize Katrin are familiar—anyone who has mourned anything would be able to relate to the torrents of all-consuming emotion that can paralyze a person completely. I will admit, however, that sometimes reading the book felt like I was cutting myself—a form of catharsis predicated on the infliction of harm and injury upon oneself. And I suppose that accurately describes Katrin too: addicted at once to the pain and catharsis of immersing herself in her deceased husband's love affairs.
In the wake of any kind of separation between loved ones, whether by death or by other circumstances, there can emerge a desperation—one that is visceral and extreme—that spurs a person to find intimacy and closeness in any form, no matter how small a thing. Whether an object as a remembrance or the compulsive reading of messages and letters (or these days, stalking social media accounts), a person finds any way she can to bridge the gap. Anything will do. It is the only way to quell a lingering desire. But not only that—it inflames the desire, keeps it alive. Katrin realizes this as she decides to write about Eric's past: "She did not want to live a life without desire."
Emotional melodrama—whether depicted onscreen or in literature—often frightens me. Perhaps it is too earnest, discomfiting. Sometimes it feels manipulative, as if it is feeding off of my need to feel something, anything, as a distraction from (or transference-channel for) all that I do not want to feel. Yet this book felt so precise and specific in its depiction of Katrin's emotional turmoil and the contours of her grief that it felt more like an honest confrontation than escape. I could absorb and justify Katrin's loneliness and sorrow; I could sense those things in myself, and viewing those things through someone else's life was comforting (being able to articulate a feeling makes the feeling far less daunting and powerful). There is something calming about watching someone go through emotions you do not let yourself experience in their fullest expression; it gives you some distance from your own and makes you feel a little less insane because of it. Most of all I could identify with Katrin's need to find a story: any story, even a painful one, would be better than darkness, emptiness, uncertainty.
I think I read this book at the right time. Sometimes books feel like that—a gift (I don't even know how I first heard of this book!). The best ones make you feel a little less lonely. This one certainly did for me.
"North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces."
-"Araby," James Joyce
(Three perfect sentences... a perfect opening to a nearly flawless short story.)
-"Possums," Sheila Black
A kind of thrill—to lie on a road
and flatten yourself,
white fur like a ball of winter,
like the March blossoms on the fruit trees,
each one folded in like
the fledgling that never made it
from the nest.
They do this when they feel threatened,
even when curious people come prod
them with sticks,
stiffening their pearly claws as a tree stiffens
its twigs for winter. What is it to be dead?
The possums know—that eternal watchfulness
by which the dead in their stately wisdom
who keep moving.
"This breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly, and he felt like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream. He was disappointed and mystified. It was common enough to go away for the summer but no one ever drained his pool. The Welchers had definitely gone away. The pool furniture was folded, stacked, and covered with a tarpaulin. The bathhouse was locked. All the windows of the house were shut, and when he went around to the driveway in front he saw a FOR SALE sign nailed to a tree. When had he last heard from the Welchers — when, that is, had he and Lucinda last regretted an invitation to dine with them? It seemed only a week or so ago. Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of truth? Then in the distance he heard the sound of a tennis game. This cheered him, cleared away all his apprehensions and let him regard the overcast sky and the cold air with indifference. This was the day that Neddy Merrill swam across the county. That was the day! He started off then for his most difficult portage."
-John Cheever, "The Swimmer"
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
-Abraham Lincoln, first inaugural address.