Saturday, March 06, 2010

Love At Love's Brightest

Jason Roush reviews David Plante’s The Pure Lover,
a “cumulative portrait of a long-term gay relationship
that’s as valid a marriage as any other.”

In the latest issue of the always worthwhile Gay and Lesbian Review, Jason Roush reviews David Plante’s The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief, which Publisher’s Weekly describes as “a series of disjointed memories” about Plante’s partner of 40 years, the poet Nikos Stangos, who died in 2004.

Does it sound like a downer? Well, not according to Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, who writes:

Grief memoirs have become all too common, largely because of the widespread devastation caused by cancer and complications of AIDS, and further encouraged by our relentlessly confessional culture. But, despite the subtitle . . . The Pure Lover leaves one exalted rather than depressed.

. . . Throughout Stangos’ poetry and Plante’s memoir, the word “pure” gradually comes to designate a fundamental quality of life and of their relationship. What do they mean by it? “You used the word ‘purity,’ but would you have tried to define the idea of purity? No, and certainly not as dogma, which you saw as tyrannical. You used the word this way: he is pure, animals are pure, the scent of lemon blossoms is pure, the taste of lemon is pure, the sunlight is pure, music is pure, and kisses, too, are pure. And this, the most undefined proposition: love at love’s brightest is pure.” It would be going too far to call this evocation of a beloved companion now lost a pure pleasure to read. But out of the fragments, Proustian moments and sharply felt memories of a happy and painful past, David Plante has made a lovely book, joyful, plangent and true.

David Plante (pictured at right) is a renowned author whose novels often examine homosexuality in a variety of contexts, most notably in the milieu of large, working-class, Catholic families of French Canadian background.

Writing in the Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, Thomas Dukes notes:

Plante is most noted for The Family (1978), The Country (1981), and The Woods (1982), his highly acclaimed Francoeur “trilogy.” (The Foreigner and The Catholic have rather specific links to the trilogy but are set “away” from the family of the novels.) While these novels vary in their presentation of overtly gay characters or sex scenes, they do suggest other coming-of-age works by gay writers such as Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote. However, Plante’s novels lack the gothic extravagances often associated with those other writers.

Plante’s low-key approach allows the other family members and characters to emerge as clearly as his narrator, Daniel, who seems sexually ambiguous in the trilogy. Such ambiguity as found in life is a hallmark of Plante’s writing, sexuality included.

. . . Plante focuses not only on the varieties of love and sexuality but on the different expressions love and sexuality may take. For example, some characters engage enthusiastically in a variety of sexual practices, some seem to be bisexual or inclined that way, and some appear to be determining their sexuality or sexualities. Thus, his novels . . . may be said to examine a variety of homosexualities as well as heterosexual ones.


I actually picked up a used copy of The Catholic some time ago, started reading it, but lost interest. Perhaps I should revisit it.

Anyway, the point is I was somewhat familiar with Plante when I spied Roush’s review in the GLR, and so was eager to read it. Plante’s memoir, The Pure Lover, sounds utterly compelling, and Roush’s review is a beautiful piece of writing in and of itself – informative and engaging. It’s reprinted in its entirety below, with added pictures and links.

But first, here is how the Calamus Bookstore Newsletter describes The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief.

David Plante met Nikos Stangos in London in 1965. Plante was a young American, an aspiring writer, half in love with the fantasy of Greece, Greeks and their culture. Nikos was Greek, a poet, an aesthete and an intellectual. He was also a leftist, a survivor of the Nazi occupation of his homeland and a man of few pretensions. David and Nikos spent over forty years together. A few years ago, Nikos died of brain cancer. Plante’s The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief is a book of fragments, a mosaic of memories of their lives together. It is also a meditation on the nature of grief, how grief has its own passion, its vanity, its willfulness and can be an overwhelming force.


Now That You’ve Gone

A Review of David Plante’s
The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief

By Jason Roush

The Gay and Lesbian Review

March-April 2010

Author David Plante has made a career out of writing critically praised novels that center on family dramas and sexually ambiguous main characters. His latest book, an innovative and incantatory memoir about the family that he formed with his partner of forty years, the poet and publisher Nikos Stangos [pictured at right], couldn’t be any less ambiguous in its portrayal of the couple’s life together, and in its bracingly poignant meditations on Stangos’ death from brain cancer in 2004. In an era when the debate over same-sex marriage seems to be at the very heart of our public discourse, this book offers a cumulative portrait, taken in snapshots, of a long-term gay relationship that’s as valid a marriage as any other.

The most striking and significant aspect of Plante’s memoir is its form. Composed solely of a series of fragments, each no longer than a paragraph, The Pure Lover takes on a pensive and elliptical tone that works well with Plante’s themes and content on several levels. First and foremost, the fragments convey the random spontaneity of memory itself, as Plante sifts through four decades of remembrances from his relationship, and even further back in the book’s earliest fragments, which reconstruct Stangos’ boyhood years in German-occupied Athens, Greece, during the height of World War II. These evocative fragments are similar in effect to those collected in Joe Brainard’s I Remember (1975). Each entry possesses a luminous, self-contained quality of its own, yet as much as these moments stand separately from one another in time, they also combine to create a cohesive and seamless whole.

Also present in the format of Plante’s book is the ancient Greek lesbian poet Sappho, whose works were gradually excavated as incomplete fragments on broken reeds of papyrus. This allusion is no coincidence; in a memory from the early days of his relationship with Stangoes, Plante writes, “The first Greek poem you taught me was one of Sappho’s, in which she sleeps alone.” Many bits of Greek language punctuate the memoir and inform the book’s overarching structure, arranged sequentially in chapters by the letters of the Greek alphabet. While describing the subject of Stangos’ master’s thesis in philosophy, Plante also captures the reiterative, prayer-like, and continually evolving structure of his own book: “Nietzsche’s ‘form’ was cyclical, was repetition revolving on repetition, each repetition an elaboration.”

Throughout the book’s first half, Plante delicately renders the love story that’s at the core of his memoir. From the couple’s initial meeting as twenty-somethings in 1965 in London, where, thereafter, they permanently resided, their relationship has all the alluring, almost legendary qualities of high romance: “Our Saturday afternoon naps, all chores, including shopping, done, we shut off the telephone, closed the curtains of our room, undressed, and got into bed, our arms held out to each other.” And years later: “The time we climbed up to the Acropolis, visitors were allowed to walk among the pillars of the Parthenon in moonlight . . . and there you kissed me, as if all your life in Athens you had wanted to do that.”

But Plante is honest about the realities of longtime companionship as well, chronicling the disagreements, youthful infidelities, and occasional rages that any such relationship must eventually endure. Of the orderly domestic life that the couple shared, Plante recalls, “I tried to be amused by your fastidiousness, but, complaining against your complaints, shouted that I would not have our lives reduced to minutia. You shouted back, ‘I will not live in bedlam.’” This straightforward style becomes most effective in the book’s final chapters, as Plante unflinchingly documents his partner’s last months. Plante’s spare yet moving descriptions of that time are reminiscent of Don Bachardy’s powerful deathbed sketches and line drawings of his lover Christopher Isherwood, who also died of complications from cancer.

In the prologue to his book, Plante mentions how the memories that make up The Pure Lover originally came back to him with no sense of order or chronology, and that much effort went into sequencing the fragments to give the memoir its structural integrity and narrative continuity. The result, as Plante hopes, is something like a Greek amphora, a vessel to contain the memory of his lover and put it on display for posterity.

Jason Roush, author of After Hours, Breezeway, and Crosstown, teaches at Emerson College.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Don Gorton on the Significance of Maurice
At Swim, Two Boys - A Beautiful Novel
Conversing and Arguing with the Theology of Philip Pullman
My Travels with Doris
Doris Lessing Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature
Song of Songs: The Bible’s Gay Love Song

Opening Image: Hiroko Sakai.

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