Writers & Company

David Constantine on the immense power of memory

In his 70s, author David Constantine has finally been "discovered" thanks to the award-winning movie 45 Years.
The title story from David Constantine's latest short story collection inspired the award-winning film 45 Years. (Biblioasis)

David Constantine started writing as a teenager, but his first collection of poetry wasn't published until he was in his 30s, and he was 50 when his first book of short stories came out. Today, the 72-year-old author has 10 books of poetry and four collections of short stories to his name. He's won the BBC National Short Story Award and the world's richest prize for short fiction, the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. 

Constantine's story "In Another Country" was first published in 2001, and it's included in the 2015 collection of the same name. The story is about a married couple, just a few days shy of their 45th anniversary, who face unexpected challenges when the body of the husband's first love is discovered in a glacier. The 2015 film adaptation, 45 Years, stars film legends Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Rampling, 69, received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to David Constantine from the BBC's Oxford studio.​

On the inspiration behind "In Another Country"

About 20 years ago, a French friend, who had been to the ski resorts in Chamonix, came back with this story of the ice withdrawing off the crevasses. A body had been seen deep down within a crevasse: the body of a young man in the costume of the guides from the late 1920s, immaculately preserved. His being preserved and then revealed is a mark of global warming. This young man, before he was killed, had fathered a son. That son was still alive, was an old man, and they brought the son to see the body of his very young father. It's a confrontation with the past, which is really not bearable. That was the essence of the image for me. 

On the (sometimes dangerous) power of writing

It's the old paradox of art — the better you do it, the less bearable it is.The more vividly and truthfully [a character in Constantine's novel The Life-Writer] summons up the past, the more annihilating that past becomes. My oldest friend from grammar school died, and my wife and I had to cajole his widow, who was a good deal younger than him, out of the view that his past existence mattered more than his present one with her. It was part of her grieving to go deep into it and then finally rescue herself out of it. What intrigued me as a writer was the power of imagination, and the power of fiction. That you can actually write in such a way that the force of the truth of it might make you incapable of living. People say the truth will set you free, and I believe that to be the case, but there's a risk in it.   

Why you don't need closure

The past is never finished with, ever. I have a horror of the modish psychotherapy notion of closure. I don't believe that closure is a fact or even a desirable aim in human life. I can see why people want to get over things and to get on, but that's not actually how life works — you're never actually done with anything, good or ill. And you're lucky if it's the good that you're not done with.

​David Constantine's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the show: "Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op 9, No 1," composed by Alexander Scriabin, performed by Leon Fleisher, from the album Piano Works for the Left Hand.