THE LIFE-WRITER by David Constantine
I’ve just finished reading what I consider one of the best books I’ve ever read. Here’s why, with special emphasis on the theme of survive or thrive.
- The first chapter is a dialogue between Eric, a 60+ year old academic dying of cancer and his 40+ year old wife Katrin. She desperately wants/demands that he fight with every ounce of strength to survive; Eric by contrast wants/needs to accept his death as if it were “… an express locomotive, coming down a dead-straight track, very fast, but in slow motion.” Constantine brings these two people to the limits of empathy, to the point they fully understand each other but still cannot “feel into” the other’s universe. They do eventually find a place they can meet, though, in reading together.
- After Eric dies Katrin decides to write his life-story, focusing on his life before they met. She discovers he lived through a great love/passion with a bohemian French woman named Monique. This relationship truly threatened his sanity, future and even his life. But then he abruptly gave all that up and became a quiet, placid man with seemingly little spark. In terms of survive or thrive, he gives up all hope of thriving in order to live a satisfying but depleted survival life. He resides in an either/or world (either I survive or thrive) rather than finding a way to have a both/and life of surviving and thriving.
- Constantine is a master at creating and quickly developing minor characters in a way that gives them a clear personality while they play into the main theme. For example, a farmer who picks up Eric gives him a small gift that later gains in significance in the last chapter.
- This is a book that centers on grieving and the risk of getting caught up in it forever (what is sometimes called “complex grief”) vs. finding a way through it. Katrin sees herself obsessed with Eric and sometimes says the equivalent of “Oh, well, that’s OK” and sometimes the equivalent of “No, no, I have to find a way back to the rest of my life.” The tension between these two states of mind and soul energizes the book.
This is a beautifully written volume by an author who is both poet and lyricist. You’ll probably want to read it very slowly because almost every paragraph is filled with interesting images and metaphors.
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