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     Volume 4 Issue 52 | June 24, 2005 |

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Book Review

On the Cusp

AS Byatt

A young woman, lost when Hitler was in power, is rediscovered, visible deep in ice, revealed by the Earth's warming. A woman with bone disease is afraid of a pale horse in a wild landscape. Another woman, in a wild state of mind, wanders wilfully in an estuary with a tide pulling. A businessman notices the moment when his soul leaves him, during a presentation. A young family make a home under the wall of a huge dam, having lived under the roar of a viaduct. These tales are all descriptions of whole lives, at the moment before the dam breaks, or the ice melts. One character, an inquisitive writer, says: "I'm interested to see how people manage in the time allowed." People do manage, are resourceful, but whatever will get them is piling up behind the dam.

Under the Dam
David Constantine

The power of the stories is to do with the solidity of things in them. They all turn on concrete - precisely described - things, which are also metaphors for the whole world of the stories, but are not there primarily as symbols, but as reality, which shapes facts. One example is in "A Paris Story" whose heroine, researching the "real" sites of fictive encounters sees a brutally suppressed demonstration. The television shows "in particular, a severed hand. The hand lay on the pavement in a chalk circle. It was a dark-skinned hand, a man's but delicate, palm upward, the fingers open, severed bloodily at the wrist, but otherwise without blemish, almost peaceful." The story introduces a series of other hands - hands that touch in dark cinemas, or engage very precisely in gentle sexual discoveries. People wear T-shirts showing a severed hand, in protest. The hand is an "icon" and also the point of human contact.

"Mouse and Bear" is the story of the ferocious survival of Mouse, the widow of Bear who has lived for years paralysed and speechless in a wheelchair. The "things" of this story are the chairlift and the wheelchairs which prolong "the time allowed" with increasing struggle. They are also the preserved relics of Bear's failed suicide, and the dark red damson jam he used to make. Mouse is a moral tyrant, who appears to be a saint, and the things are her instruments. This is a Catholic story, both in its moral form and in its symbolic things.

Landscape too is what it is, and is also a metaphor. Most perfect of all perhaps is the estuary in the story with that title. Frances, the central person, is somewhere "at the ends of the earth" having gone away from her husband who is "honourable". Relationships are briefly made solid.

"She looked at him as though they were just married and she had already disappointed him and believed she always would. And she saw his desperate pity, as though the time were running out in which he might have reassured her. Time and the resources, time and his own will. She felt his pity for the two of them, the man and the wife."

This is both plain and mysterious. The description of the estuary where she runs deliberately into danger is one of the best descriptions of the surface of the Earth I have ever read, and far too long to quote. It is the ancient metaphor of the river of life running away into the ocean, with the flakes of foam and the blowing grains of sand, and the ghostly multiple snaking of the wind, and the water coming and going. There is a broken branch of ash in bud (the buds are black) and it is first a real tree, and then the World-Ash, torn from its trunk. The more exactly Constantine describes the phantasmagorical confuson of solids and liquids, the stronger the sense we have that his prose mysteriously shows us the relation between presence and absence, life and death. And this makes it exciting because words are wonderful things, words too are a part of our world, full of their own energy, like the flying sand and tugging water.

The image of ice and glass persists into "In Another Country" where Mr Mercer receives the letter about the discovery of dead Katya under the ice - the presence of the past, the awkward and terrible reawakening of his frozen self. In both stories - as in "The Estuary" and "The Necessary Strength", the tale of the pale horse - the characters live in frozen marriages, where sharpness and liveliness have somehow stiffened with time and turned into convention. The pale horse, which resembles the terrible lost creature of Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", turns out to be benign - and there is a benign ferryman called "Horse" in "The Estuary". The image of time as piled up behind a dam recurs outside the title story.

David Constantine is a very good poet and a distinguished translator from the German. To say that his writing is "poetic" gives the wrong idea - it is weighted, gritty, it understands the nature of English, as good poetry must. Some of the force of the stories comes from an awareness of German literature, too. Hoffmann's "The Mines at Falun" combines with the recent uncovering of Ötzi the iceman to make the central vision of "In Another Country" - which has its title from Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta". But these are not "literary" stories either. Other writing is simply part of their complicated, clear strength.


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