David Constantine’s ‘The Loss’ is in one way a story “where nothing happens”. There is no real plot. The premise is (turn away now, all those who have not read this marvellous piece): a man loses his soul, and nobody notices. Nobody notices, nobody cares. His own wife, who does not lose her soul, who’s soul remains tied to her body and to her worries, does not notice. As a premise it seems a tad melodramatic, perhaps. No soul. Poor me.
His prose possesses a quality I can only describe as radiant. I’ve felt the same about his prose I did when reading Pale Fire, Pnin, and Lolita. More than a ‘command’ of language, Constantine’s prose exhibits language – sentences, paragraphs, phrases – so deftly controlled it seems more like a sea. I don’t want to have to use figurative speech here, but I admit that only figurative speech will do. Take this image:
That was the last pure astonishment in Mr Silverman’s remaining years. A sparrow against the glass ceiling on the way to Baggage Reclaim! It was also, he acknowledged later, the last occasion on which he might have wept. Yes, he said, had I stepped aside and gone down on my knees on that thick carpet and bowed my head into my hands, knowing the bird against the ceiling high above me, then, God be my witness, I could have wept, the tears would have burst through my fingers, I might have cupped my hands and raised them up like a bowl, brimful with an offering of final tears. Mysterious, the afterlife, lingering a while between New York and Singapore, between landing and Baggage Reclaim, an afterlife in which he might have wept. (Constantine, David, ‘The Loss’ in Under the Dam, p. 4)
What moves me is the repetition of ‘wept’, the way it gets picked up by his fantasy, then the repetition, the insertion of an idiomatic phrase like ‘God be my witness’, the strange leap in place from Baggage Reclaim to the afterlife (which reintroduces the idea his soul has gone to the 9th circle of hell) to the fact he is unable to weep. Then again, perhaps it is actually the urgency of the wording that moves me. Or perhaps it is the combined effect of the paragraph’s rhythms. Perhaps it is the symbolic weight the bird holds/is made to bear. Perhaps…
Actually, I don’t think it’s any one thing. My critical faculties basically fall apart in front of a paragraph like this. I am moved, affected, but I don’t know why – when I read it, my chest tells me I am experiencing a piece of beautiful prose but I can’t tell you exactly, with any certainty, where the beauty lies. A sign of my own limitations: definitely. A combination of things at work: perhaps.
Constantine’s prose challenges me. It exceeds me and what I know how to do. It moves me but I don’t know why. I do know that the quality of his writing – the skill – makes what is a nothing-plot, a non-event (even for the narrator) into something sublime. Perhaps that sounds like an exaggeration. Honestly. I could read pages of his nothing, his non-events, without ever caring that nothing, or pretty much nothing, has happened.