The beginning was glorious. When Aislinn Hunter began writing the book that would become The Certainties, she was returning to an idea she had while doing her PhD in English Literature, sparked by reading the work of philosopher Walter Benjamin. It was something she wanted to tackle as a novelist, not an academic. She was happily married. All was well.
By the time Hunter, now 50, finished the novel three years later, it was most certainly not. While she was working on the book, Glenn, her husband of 25 years, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She kept writing, but with long pauses to focus on him and the disease. In the end, she brought a little writing desk into his room at the hospice, so she could always be there when he woke, and continue with the novel he so believed in – and helped craft in many ways – while he slept. Hunter finished The Certainties at the Banff Centre, two months after he died.
In that final stretch she was often crying, she recalled in an interview this week. “Hurling myself across the room screaming, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you here for me?’ I threw myself against furniture. I was in ... despair. But what I had was that book and that ability to bear witness to Glenn, bear witness to Walter Benjamin, bear witness to people who are forced out of their homes. So it kept me going. To be able to stitch that stuff in there.”
The Certainties imagines the final days of Benjamin, a prominent Marxist cultural critic born into a Jewish family in 1892 Berlin. Benjamin left Nazi Germany and wound up in Paris, but after Germany invaded France he escaped on foot through the Pyrenees into Spain. He died in the coastal border town of Portbou in 1940, likely by suicide.
Hunter’s protagonist, who is not named, has escaped France with two friends: Bernard, an artist, and Suzanne, the wife of Bernard’s art dealer. They have identification papers, visas, letters of recommendation and a plan to immigrate to the United States. But there is peril in Portbou, leaving the Benjamin-inspired character to contemplate the inevitable: death.
The book hinges on a chance encounter: The protagonist, having a glass of wine on a patio, encounters a girl, maybe five years old, and her mother. That girl, Pia, becomes the centre of the other part of the story, which takes place in the 1980s on an unnamed remote British island.
Or does it take place at all? (On a second reading of the book, I found clues to suggest that Pia’s life may have been imagined by the other main character.)
The Certainties is in no way about Glenn Hunter, but the book is infused with his presence and absence: in the morphine hallucinations, in the lush descriptions of wine (he was a wine scholar) and in the detailed portrayals of the novel’s two main locations.
In 2017, the Hunters travelled to Portbou on a research trip. Glenn, who had been through radiation and chemotherapy at that point, was using a wheelchair. He continued to be essential to the process – identifying building materials, plants, trees. They would pass a vineyard and he would know what kind of grapes were growing. Later, he remembered details that she did not.
“Miraculously he was giving me notes on the book two days before he went into his coma and died,” Hunter says.
But mostly, he is present in the novel’s searing insights into love and death.
“I have sensed my own death so palpably, felt it walk with me,” the Benjamin-esque protagonist thinks as he and Bernard discuss what they would miss most about life. “... Yet now I feel that all the answers I could construct, all the memories that grounded me, are insubstantial – like bridges one can no longer cross.”
In the novel’s opening chapter, the protagonist observes a couple swimming: They swim individually, come together, connect, swim apart, keeping an eye on each other. The couple was inspired by Aislinn and Glenn Hunter. “So even in the good times there were already memories stitched into the book,” she says.
The 1980s segment features a shipwreck in stormy seas, bodies washing up in the hours after a lively wedding at the hotel where Pia works.
It was inspired by a trip to Islay, Scotland, where Hunter was shown a remarkable document at the local museum. In 1918, soldiers heading to war drowned after the loss of two troopships. Burial of the recovered bodies had to be done quickly, but the island’s police officer took time to write detailed notes about the corpses to help the families later identify them.
“He created this grief document,” Hunter says. “I think of that as an object of mourning. It has such a residue on it when you look at his notes. ... Through the act of his writing and looking at the book, you’re there with him taking this task upon himself. I was inspired by that act of witness.”
She imagined the officer turning over the bodies and tenderly documenting them. “I wanted to honour that idea of a different kind of doing. That’s the doing that a writer does. He wasn’t jumping in the water to save someone. He wasn’t the hero soldier. He was just a human being making notes and those notes made a huge difference in the peace and the comfort that a lot of those people who lost their loved ones on the boat felt.”
Hunter was born in Belleville, Ont., and now lives in North Vancouver. She received her BFA from the University of Victoria, her MFA from the University of British Columbia and her MSc in Writing and Cultural Politics from the University of Edinburgh, where she also did her PhD.
She has previously published collections of poetry, essays and short stories, and two novels: Stay, which was made into a feature film, and The World Before Us, which won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2015.
She met Glenn when she was working at a used record shop in Windsor, Ont. He came in looking for a song he was trying to learn to play on guitar, Bourgeois Tagg’s I Don’t Mind At All. They married in 1993, on the Isle of Arran in Scotland.
He was diagnosed in March, 2017, after which he signed up for a stand-up comedy class and later held a gathering for friends so he could teach them as much as he knew about pinot. His motto – even before he was sick – was “drink the good wine now.” He died in his wife’s arms in October, 2018.
Grief – any sorrow or difficulty – can be an island. And Hunter says that needs to change.
“In moving through a crowd of people, [if a] person looks uncomfortable or they look upset ... I think our task is to slow down and see ... and then to engage.”
This is part of the book’s call to readers, she says.
“Because I’ve been ignored. I’ve been crying in my local grocery store, in the condiment aisle, into my hands and sobbing, literally. And people are reaching around you for the relish.”
That actually happened. Hunter felt bereft at the thought of having to feed herself with her husband – the excellent cook – gone, and nobody asked whether she was okay.
“I think we just need to attend [to one another] and the culture isn’t set up for that, unfortunately.”
And now we have the pandemic, and the heightened isolation it brings for someone in mourning. When I ask Hunter how she’s been doing, she replies: “Not great.
“I miss Glenn. He would have been great at this. He was such a competent person. He would have organized so much of our lives and been smart about what was safe and what wasn’t safe and he would have been a great companion.”
She is working on a book-length poem about grief and mourning. As she launched her novel this week, she was missing her husband – as a partner in life, but also in her creative pursuits. “Glenn was the guy who named ... stuff for me,” she said. Were the streets of Portbou, for instance, constructed of cobblestone or flagstone?
“So that was a gift. I don’t know what I’m going to do for my next novel. It will obviously be a romantic comedy set in North Vancouver,” she jokes. “So that I don’t have to name anything.”
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