At a recent event at Home, the author David Constantine spoke about his work. The film 45 Years, which was based on a short story of his, was released recently to very positive reviews.

In the film, as Kate and Geoff are planning the celebrations for their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff receives a letter explaining that the body of his first love has been found perfectly preserved in the icy glaciers of the Alps. As the past threatens to drown the present, can their marriage survive?

There was a talk by the author followed by a screening of the film, and the event was a good example of what is new and exciting in Manchester’s cultural life. It was part of the Manchester Literature Festival and took place at Home, which itself is still settling into life as the city’s leading cultural hub of film, art and theatre.

The author, who has taught at Durham and Oxford Universities, is originally from Salford, so to celebrate the success of the film, Manchester’s Comma Press have released a new anthology of Constantine’s short stories. Ra Page from Comma Press described Constantine as “the best proponent of the form”. A host of awards back up that claim.

Having your work adapted for screen is a success in itself, but what is fascinating here is the development of the story. Constantine had been told an anecdote by a French author about a man found trapped in a glacier. He was a mountain guide and had died 60 years earlier. His son was taken to see his body, and had a breakdown seeing his father as a young man, whilst he had grown old. This led him to write a poem influenced by the anecdote, followed by a short story based on the poem, ‘In Another Country’, which was later the influence for 45 Years.

How does the original story survive through so many transitions? As far as the author is concerned, it doesn’t matter. “I was interviewed by The Telegraph, and they were obsessed with knowing if the (original) story was true or not,” he explained. “Why does it have to be completely true?”

He revealed at the talk that even his understanding of the original story wasn’t correct. “I was under the impression it was his son they had taken to see the frozen body, but it was in fact his grandson.”

But none of this matters. He hasn’t sought to recreate the story as accurately as possible, but instead has been influenced by it. The body of the man had only been discovered because the top snow had melted away.

By the time Constantine wrote ‘In Another Country’, the story had changed from being about a son being taken to see his father’s body to a couple having their long marriage rocked by the husband being given news that the body of his first lover had been found. This isn’t a representation of fact, but the basis for a fiction which has the problems of our reality at its heart, namely global warming. There is more water frozen in glaciers, held back by dams, than has fallen from the sky. If, because of rising temperatures, the dams were to break, that would spell disaster.

The link in both ‘In Another Country’ and 45 Years is between the natural disaster pending and the presence of the ‘ghost’ of a former lover hanging over a marriage. The threat is the rush of the past into the present where people cannot deal with it. As with the glaciers, the disaster cannot be avoided.

His work is political, though not overtly. Constantine is a master in communicating how his characters are truly feeling, usually by going far beyond what is actually said. His dedication in deciding that all characters deserve to be heard is a political one in his mind, often providing a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.

In addition to this is his need to highlight the concerns raised by global warming. He believes that the forms chosen for writing can also be political. Published poetry does not raise significant revenues, but it is published anyway. People chose to write it for the pleasure of it, not because they are responding to market forces.

In 45 Years, what goes unsaid in the story can be more openly expressed by the characters, which is a key difference. But the feelings of absence and a struggle to deal with the past are still very much present. If anything, with its dialogue the film allows Constantine’s story to develop further, exploring the ideas at its heart.

This event was a great opportunity to connect various strands of Manchester’s cultural life, bringing together a local author, a local publishing house, Home and Manchester Literature Festival.

It was a pleasure to follow the strand that connects an anecdote about a fascinating real-life event and its eventual influence on a piece of cinema. This isn’t about the recreation of a true story, but about having an insight into the creative process of one of our leading writers.

 

manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk
homemcr.org

CHRIS TAVNER