David (Robert) Plante Biography
David Plante comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Providence, Rhode Island, 1940. Education: Boston College, 1957-59, 1960-61, B.A. in French 1961; University of Louvain, Belgium, 1959-60. Career: Teacher, English School, Rome, 1961-62; guidebook writer, New York, 1962-64; teacher, Boston School of Modern Languages, 1964-65, and St. John's Preparatory School, Massachusetts, 1965-66; moved to England in 1966. Henfield Writing Fellow, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1977; writer-in-residence, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1979-82, Adelphi University, New York, 1989, and University of Quebec, Montreal, 1990; Visiting Fellow, Cambridge University, 1984-85; lecturer, Gorky Institute of Literature, Moscow, Autumn 1990. Lives in London. Awards: Arts Council bursary, 1977; American Academy award, 1983; Guggenheim grant, 1983.
The Ghost of Henry James. London, Macdonald, and Boston, Gambit, 1970.
Slides. London, Macdonald, and Boston, Gambit, 1971.
Relatives. London, Cape, 1972; New York, Avon, 1974.
The Darkness of the Body. London, Cape, 1974.
Figures in Bright Air. London, Gollancz, 1976.
The Family. London, Gollancz, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1978.
The Country. London, Gollancz, and New York, Atheneum, 1981.
The Woods. London, Gollancz, and New York, Atheneum, 1982.
The Francoeur Family. London, Chatto and Windus, 1984.
The Foreigner. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Atheneum, 1984.
The Catholic. London, Chatto and Windus, 1985; New York, Atheneum, 1986.
The Native. London, Chatto and Windus, 1987; New York, Atheneum, 1988.
The Accident. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1991.
Annunciation. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1994.
The Age of Terror. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Penguin Modern Stories 1, with others. London, Penguin, 1969.
My Mother's Pearl Necklace. New York, Albondocani Press, 1987.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Buried City," in Transatlantic Review (London), Spring 1967.
"The Tangled Centre," in Modern Occasions (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Spring 1971.
"Mr. Bonito," in New Yorker, 7 July 1980.
"The Student," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1982.
"Work," in Prize Stories 1983: The O. Henry Awards, edited by William Abrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1983.
"Paris, 1959," in New Yorker, 4 June 1984.
"The Crack," in First Love / Last Love, edited by Michael Denneny, Charles Ortleb, and Thomas Steele. New York, Putnam, 1985.
"A House of Women," in New Yorker, 28 April 1986.
Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three. London, Gollancz, and NewYork, Atheneum, 1983.
Keith Milow: New Work. New York, Nohra Haime Gallery editions, 2000.
In American Book Collector (New York), November-December 1984.
University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
One of course always writes with an intention in mind, but it is what one cannot intend that is my fascination in writing. I know, all the while I am choosing my words, making as vivid as possible my descriptions, that there is something floating beneath my words and descriptions which has a will of its own, which sometimes rises up to meet my words and most often sinks away, and one can no more intend it than one can (to borrow an image from William James) turn up a bright light to see the darkness. The best one can do is allow it to well up, to give it space.
One is or isn't in touch with this sense, and one knows one is or isn't as matter of factly, as unmysteriously, as one knows one is happy or depressed. In touch with it, one writes "Mr. Stein woke to a room of shadows," and the sentence comes to life, evokes a deep world of associations, while out of touch with it the same sentence, "Mr. Stein woke to a room of shadows," is banal, dull, dead. The difference between good and bad writing is quite as simple as that.
How does one know one is in touch or not? One knows the signs, particular enough to be recognizable. For example, walking down a street most often I am unaware of the litter that's around me, or I am aware of it only to wish it weren't there. This past afternoon, however, walking along a sidewalk, I found myself studying, on the cement, a small printed target with three or four bullet holes blown through it, a match book printed with three spades, a page torn from a magazine, a parking lot ticket, an addressed envelope, and it seemed to me that everything I saw was indicative of much more than what it was—after all, just litter—was, because of its rich suggestiveness, beyond my imaginative grasp. I wanted to write about that target, match book, page, ticket, letter, and I wanted to with the similarly recognizable, similarly matter of fact urge one has when one wants to sneeze, I was in touch with something.
One is, at various times, aware that one has to sneeze, one is aware that one is sexually attracted to someone, one is aware that one must work and eat and sleep, and one is aware that there is a sense, informing things yet capable of being abstracted from them, which one hopes to be the essence of one's writing, which one hopes will bring one's words and one's world to life.
Sneezing is important, and making love is important, and working and eating and sleeping are important, and something else is also important, something longed for, something which is the whole purpose of my work. William James said: "It is, the reader will see, the reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life which I am so anxious to press on the attention."
* * *
Separateness and tension distinguish the writing of David Plante, his novels containing within themselves a complex balance of ambiguities. Beneath its unremarkable surface, his fiction seethes with an inner life sensed rather than observed, the books seeming to vibrate with half-heard resonances. The outer skin of the novels, crowded as they are with a succession of apparently trivial incidents, serves merely to mask the hidden conflicts waiting to explode, whose pulses travel upward to meet the consciousness of the reader.
The Ghost of Henry James explores the group identity of a family in New England, following through a series of abrupt transitions the subtle alteration in attitudes, the shifts of understanding that bind the members one to another despite their differences, and the trauma that ensues when the central character tries to break free of the rest. Lost without the family, he finds only madness and death, but from it comes a transformation and a reordering of the other lives as his ghostly presence pervades the final scenes. Plante pays homage to the author of The Turn of the Screw, both in his evocation of sinister New England landscapes and in a style which distinguishes the text as a separate entity from what it describes. Slides pursues the same theme, the group this time consisting of adolescent friends, and the violent climax an attempted suicide. The shade of Hawthorne is summoned here, the Gothic aspect of his writings recreated as Plante hints subtly at the conflict between freedom and unity, the sexuality repressed beneath an innate puritanism, in a carefully weighted language that throbs behind the matter-of-fact conversations and weekend outings that make up the action of the book.
The Darkness of the Body and Figures in Bright Air reveal a deeper probing beneath the surface. In them, Plante undertakes a detailed portrayal of obsessive states of mind, presenting through the charged love-hate relationships of his characters the destructive force of physical love, the body's threat to the innerness of the beloved, the need for the personality to retain separateness and distance. Love-making is shown as a death-struggle, a falling into a black pit. The world itself is broken down to intensely potent fragments, individuals perceived as geometric shapes that clash against each other. Elements of air and stone are balanced in opposition, mirrors of the narrator's inward struggle where art, like life, is set the incompatible tasks of all-embracing vision and the reduction of everything to nothing. Plante's finely poised language, his matching of stillness with explosive action, invest the surface with its necessary undercurrents of tension and release. In these works in particular, he appears to be striving towards the ideal of Flaubert, and later of Robbe-Grillet, of the perfect irreductible text as a self-sufficient entity from which nothing can be removed.
In his trilogy on the Francoeur family—The Family, The Country, and The Woods—Plante's expression is less elusive than before, drawing directly from his personal experience. The Country especially veers close to documentary at times, representing the author's sense of himself as a native of two countries, his French-speaking birthplace in Rhode Island, and the rest of the United States. His central character, Daniel Francoeur, discovers through the contact of the last days with his dying father an affinity between them, and beyond it a kinship with the father's long-dead Indian ancestors: "My father was born, as I was, among the ghosts of a small community of people of strange blood. They were people who saw that they were born in darkness and would die in darkness, and who accepted that. They spoke, in their old French, in whispers, in the churchyard, among the gravestones, in the snow, and with them, silent, were squaws with papooses on their backs, and the woods began beyond the last row of gravestones. They were strange to me, and yet they were not strange."
Daniel's transformation, the slow change that takes place in him as he witnesses the death of his father and cares for his aging mother, is movingly and simply described. Plante builds up through meetings and casual conversation the relationship between parents and brothers, the feuds and differences that strain the underlying unity. The brooding presence of the forest permeates the novel, but The Country is among the clearest of its author's works. Daniel's mother above all, with her hatred of sex and childbirth, explains much of the meaning behind the "destructive love" theme in previous writings.
With The Woods Plante forsakes documentary techniques, returning to a third-person narrative that explores Daniel's inner world, culminating in his adolescent lovemaking, again visualized as a violation. This approach is continued with The Foreigner and The Catholic. More "fictionalized" than some of the Francoeur trilogy, these novels contain a greater degree of violence and erotic force which blasts more often to the surface. Here, as in earlier works, the core of the book lies almost out of sight beneath the text, a white-hot magma that simmers under the skin.