Plante, David 1940–
Plante, David 1940–
(David Robert Plante)
PERSONAL: Born March 4, 1940, in Providence, RI; became a British citizen, c. 1967; son of Anaclet Joseph Adolph and Albina (Bison) Plante. Education: Attended University of Louvain, Belgium, 1959–60; Boston College, B.A., 1961.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.
CAREER: Writer. English School, Rome, Italy, teacher, 1961–62; Hart's Guide to New York, New York, NY, researcher, 1962–64; Boston School of Modern Languages, Boston, MA, teacher, 1964–65; teacher at St. John's Preparatory School, 1965–66. Writer in residence, University of East Anglia, 1976–77, University of Tulsa, 1980–83, King's College, 1985–86, Adelphi University, 1989, L'Universite; du Quebec a Montreal, spring, 1990, Gorki Institute of Literature, fall, 1990, and Columbia University, fall, 1997; Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, visiting fellow, 1984–85; Columbia University, New York, NY, professor.
AWARDS, HONORS: Henfield Fellow, University of East Anglia, 1975; British Arts Council Bursary, 1977; National Book Award nomination, 1979, for The Family; Guggenheim fellow, 1982; Prize for Artistic Merit, American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, 1984.
The Ghost of Henry James, Gambit (London, England), 1970.
Slides, Gambit (London, England), 1971.
Relatives, J. Cape (London, England), 1972, Avon (New York, NY), 1974.
The Darkness of the Body, J. Cape (London, England), 1974.
Figures in Bright Air, Gollancz (London, England), 1976.
The Family (also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1978.
The Country (also see below), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1981, reprinted, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2004.
The Woods (also see below), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
The Francoeur Novels: The Family, The Country, The Woods, Dutton (New York, NY), 1983.
The Foreigner, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.
The Catholic, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1986.
The Native, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1988.
The Accident, Ticknor & Fields (Boston, MA), 1991.
Annunciation, Ticknor & Fields (Boston, MA), 1994.
The Age of Terror, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (nonfiction), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1983.
Keith Milow: New Work, Nohra Haime Gallery Editions, 2000.
American Ghosts: A Memoir, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2005.
Work represented in anthologies, including Penguin Modern Stories 1, Penguin, 1969, and Prize Stories 1983: The O. Henry Awards, edited by William Abrahams, Doubleday, 1983. Contributor to periodicals, including the New Yorker, Paris Review, Modern Occasions, Transatlantic Review, Tri Quarterly, and the New York Times Book Review.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel, Eternity.
SIDELIGHTS: David Plante's early writings experimented with naturalism, most notably with the trilogy that consists of The Family, The Country, and The Woods. Plante's subsequent novels, including The Foreigner, The Catholic, and The Native, continue the saga of the Francoeur family, the subject of his earlier trilogy, by focusing on the offspring as they attempt to come to terms with their heritage. Raised in a religious Catholic family, the author has embraced this inheritance in his writings, and his characters often express a longing for happiness through God. Plante himself, however, is an avowed atheist, as well as a homosexual, both traits with which he has become comfortable. As he told Aaron Hamburger in a Lambda Book Report interview: "I am an atheist and have no interest in justifying myself to any religion that condemns homosexual practice as a sin—no interest at all."
In early experimental novels, like The Darkness of the Body, Plante leaves the details of character and setting deliberately vague in order for the reader to focus upon the inner emotional life of his protagonists. He also frequently disregards conventional narrative. In his first novel, The Ghost of Henry James, for example, "Plante has applied the Jamesian mood to a contemporary situation," according to Jonathan Yardley in the New York Times Book Review.
Such experimentation is characteristic of Plante's early fiction. New York Times Book Review critic Jonathan Strong indicated that the title of Plante's Slides refers to "the sixty-seven vignettes in which the story is told. They are slides (rather than home movies) because they each focus on one moment of tension that breaks off unresolved, leaving it for us to imagine what happens next." Mary Sullivan maintained in the Listener that "Slides induces a series of satisfactions all the deeper for being not quite graspable." By his fifth novel, Figures in Bright Air, Plante had abandoned narrative completely. Writing about this work in the Times Literary Supplement, a reviewer commented that, in his earlier works, the novelist "gives the impression of a talented writer somehow trapped by the elaborateness of his own ingenuities."
Plante firmly established his literary reputation with his trilogy of novels that relates the story of the Francoeurs, a large, working-class, Roman Catholic family with a French-Canadian and partially Native American heritage. Told from the viewpoint of the young writer/son, Daniel, the novels describe the young man's passage to adulthood and his family's disintegration: his mother suffers a breakdown and becomes senile while his father grows bitter and senile with old age and finally dies. Plante's trilogy may represent a return to traditional narrative, but as Plante sees it, the books are not a repudiation of the experimental work. Instead, he feels they are a logical progression from it.
The Family describes the emotional breakdown of Reena Francoeur, Daniel's mother, but the story is really about the father, Jim Francoeur, the tool-shop worker whose personality dominates the family. His hard work over forty years seems to pay off when it looks like he will become a foreman and his campaign as a Republican candidate seems promising, too. However, when his ambitions collapse, he falls into unemployment, debt, and depression, bringing the family down with him. Plante uses "only the simple vocabulary of his working-class characters [to plunge] us into a hermetic, devout, French Catholic world," observed Elizabeth Peer in Newsweek. This family situation is particularly "claustrophobic," maintained Anne Stevenson in the Times Literary Supplement, "contained as it is within a Catholic French-speaking parish in a Protestant New England city at a time (the late 1950s) when the old-fashioned life of the parish is under threat from the mass-making (or in this case, possibly, Mass-breaking) forces of American society."
"Plante is very good at creating this world," confirmed Susan Wood in the Washington Post Book World, "the weight of its oppression, as he describes the ugliness of the factories, the churches, the schools, the houses. One flinches at the conversations of Matante Oenone, Jim's sister, which tend toward lurid descriptions of poverty and death, or at the nuns' equally lurid descriptions of the sufferings of the saints and martyrs, and the passion of Christ. Also depressing are the long and detailed conversations within the family, those double binds in which conflicting messages of love and hate are so often sent." "Through the eyes of adolescent Daniel, the sixth son," stated Peer, "we experience the unpredictable shifts of family chemistry."
Although the perspective in The Family is Daniel's, the story is told in the third person. In The Country, the Francoeur children are grown, and the elderly Fran-coeurs' retreat into senility and the father's death are related in the first person by Daniel, who lives in London, returning only to visit. The book's subject, according to A. Alvarez in the New York Review of Books, "is the numbing grief grown children feel as they watch their parents descend into helplessness and death." Yardley stated in the Washington Post Book World: "The novel, like its subject, is neither glamorous nor sexy. Plante's prose is spare, measured, quietly insistent; though the novel is brief, it conveys the labored pace of a long dying. It also conveys both the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of dying, its universality and its uniqueness." The work was described by Mary Gordon in the New York Times Book Review as "a haunting lament, a controlled cry of loss and knowledge won through language, sorrow, memory, impossible and comprehending love."
Despite its subject matter, "self-control dominates The Country," observed Time reviewer Paul Gray. "Plante is a minimalist with language; his prose reduces events to small, discrete moments. He uses words less to evoke a scene than to catalogue it." "This flat style may look easy," the critic wrote, "but what Plante accomplishes with it is not." Nation reviewer Brina Caplan pointed out that Plante's "narrator follows action and speech with the watchful precision of an Indian ancestor tracking game through the woods. No word is wasted, and every word reports something seen, heard or touched. As a result, The Country is written in spare prose that isolates the external facts of ordinary life, reminding us of their inherent order and gravity."
Calling Plante a "highly visual writer," Newsweek reviewer Jean Strouse indicated that he "gives the physical feeling of this world … along with the bleak, claustrophobic atmosphere of the senior Francoeurs' lives." New Republic critic Jack Beatty added: "It is Plante's grip on the objective method of narration, his commitment to what Henry James called scenic rendering, that allows him, in the long flashback at the country house, to turn from brother to brother and from mother to father in quick defining strokes of description and dialogue." "The novel," Strouse further noted, "moves through small emblematic, almost ceremonial moments—as if you were watching a film in freeze frame with the sound off." Alvarez commented: "It is like watching a whole movie in slow motion: discreet movements, each frozen and complete in itself, and a slightly distorted soundtrack, full of Chekhovian gaps and silences, through which the characters mutely hint at feelings they do not otherwise care to articulate."
Yet Yardley maintained in the Washington Post Book World that "The Country has one unfortunate weakness. Its intensity occasionally lapses into humorlessness; when seriousness becomes solemnity, as Plante is inclined to let it do, what we get is huffing and puffing." A.N. Wilson, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, preferred some of Plante's experimental fiction to The Country, which he felt is overly realistic and subjective: "I do not know whether The Country is an insufficiently transformed piece of autobiography, or whether the failure is owing to the possibly delicate nature of his material." The novel, in his opinion, "lacks the crisp detachment and originality of mind displayed in David Plante's earlier novels Relatives and The Ghost of Henry James."
Some reviewers, however, considered The Country a remarkable achievement. Beatty, for instance, concluded that "throughout the novel there are even hints that the world is lit by a mystery beyond death. This is suggested in an insistent imagery of light breaking into darkened rooms and illuminating the tops of trees at dusk; and it is made explicit early in the novel when Daniel sees his father standing alone in the woods [surrounded by his ancestors]. This preserving place seems to be a fusion of the Catholic notion of the communion of saints with Daniel's projection of his primordial Indian descent, and it surrounds the action of the novel like a ring of light from a far country to which all the characters are going. It adds a note of the luminous to this lovely painful book."
The final novel of the trilogy, The Woods, was originally published last, but since it concerns Daniel's first two years of college and the intervening summers he spends at the lake where his family vacations, it falls second chronologically. A slim book, it is divided into three parts, "The Reflection," "The Woods," and "The War," which present three scenes from the young writer's life during a period when he fears being drafted into the army. In the novel, Daniel also comes to accept his homosexuality, but overall, according to Beatty in another New Republic review, the work "is about the adolescent dread of selfhood and its loneliness." Time critic R.Z. Sheppard wrote: "Few periods are as difficult to pin down as that brief limbo between the end of youth and the beginning of adulthood. The mysteries of the physical and the spiritual, the image and the imagination are fresh and beckoning."
Although The Woods is part of the trilogy, its concerns are dissimilar to those of The Family and The Country. Here, commented New York Times Book Review critic Edith Milton, "Plante is not interested in the sociology of Daniel's world or in the psychology of the people he shares it with; he explores instead the boundary between Daniel's ruthlessly insignificant everyday existence and the vast landscape of his inner apathy, examining through Daniel's eyes the proposition that matter and spirit are irreversibly divided from each other and that both are irrevocably alien to him." "Central to the novel is the philosophical notion of body as idea," observed Rosalind Belben in the Times Literary Supplement, "the body not confined to flesh and blood but a configuration projected by the mind into 'a space' outside." "The focus," wrote Beatty, "is on Daniel's consciousness, specifically on his preoccupation with 'the space, large and empty' which he sees behind people as a kind of enveloping presence. (It is a version of the existentialist notion of 'the encompassing,' and while Daniel is drawn toward it as to a great mystery, readers who think existentialism vaporous will not pass page two.)"
"Young Daniel Francoeur, Plante's protagonist, feels what seems a uniquely Roman Catholic variety of metaphysical lust," maintained Newsweek critic Gene Lyons. "He craves not so much to make love as to uncover spiritual mysteries." New York Review of Books critic Robert Towers pointed out that "Plante manages to surround almost every object and every inconsequential event with a kind of luminescent space, like a halo. By following Daniel's attention as it moves very slowly from one thing to the next, he produces an effect of hallucinatory realism, in which each detail seems to exist in its own right, to have a quasimystical 'thingness' about it, quite apart from whatever significance it may or may not have in the larger picture." The result is a paucity of active narrative. According to Milton, "leitmotifs create the real fictional texture of the novel, which has a surface almost without incident, indeed almost without narrative." In the Washington Post Book World, Yardley considered that "texture" overly cerebral. In The Woods, Yardley wrote, "Plante has made the mistake of intellectualizing what is not, in point of fact, an intellectual or rational process: an adolescent's struggle to come to terms with a world considerably more ambiguous than he is capable, at this point, of understanding. Not merely does Daniel Francoeur spend too much time feeling sorry for himself, but he does so in thoughts and language that are quite implausible for one of his inexperience and immaturity." Milton similarly felt that The Woods is not without fault, but argued that "it is also a brilliantly original work, intense, illuminating and compelling. Eccentric enough to be beyond the pale of most critical judgement, its virtues certainly are worth considerably more than its faults." As Le Anne Schreiber explained in the New York Times, Plante attempts to describe "states of mind so elusive that they can only be intimated; his is a world of vague apprehensions and diffuse longings, and to enter it is to feel perpetually suspended on the verge of something. Revelation seems imminent until one realizes that for David Plante the sense of imminent revelation is a permanent condition."
Plante continued the Francoeur saga with The Foreigner, The Catholic, and The Native. The Foreigner is narrated by a nameless nineteen-year-old who may or may not be Daniel Francoeur. Setting off for a year of study in Paris determined to let go of his roots, he becomes involved with Angela, a black American woman, and her lover, Vincent. The narrator follows the couple to Spain, where they introduce him to the banality of the underworld. New Statesman contributor Harriett Gilbert called The Foreigner "a strange, uneven, unsettling book: initially, a superb account of late adolescent dislocation; progressively, something more disquieting and ruthless." In The Catholic, published in 1986, Daniel tells of his homosexual relationships with his college roommate and a man he meets in a Boston bar who eventually rejects him.
The Native focuses on Philip, one of the seven Francoeur sons, who, in his attempt to free himself from his parents' religion and culture, marries a Protestant woman. Philip soon realizes his wife is stupid and common and that his daughter yearns for the same spiritual grounding that he had spurned in his youth. "By mapping out the ways in which beliefs, resentments and hopes are handed down, generation to generation, the ways in which love can mutate into hatred, neediness into rebellion, [Plante] creates a portrait of family that is as uncompromising as it is moving," Michiko Kakutani averred in a New York Times Book Review critique of The Native. "Plante's understanding of the complicated, often perverse configurations that familial relationships can form remains unerring."
Like The Foreigner, which some critics viewed as its sequel, Plante's The Accident unfolds through the words of a narrator who could easily be confused with Daniel Francoeur. A lapsed Roman Catholic, a self-proclaimed atheist obsessed with both God and the Church, the nineteen-year-old protagonist of this 1991 novel embarks for a year at Louvain's Catholic University.
While in Belgium, he befriends Tom Donlon, an unsophisticated but altruistic fellow student with whom he develops an intellectual camaraderie. As the year progresses, the narrator intertwines tormented thoughts about God and religion with his growing jealousy over Tom's unshakable faith and other stresses and emotions of alienation and immaturity.
Calling Plante "the most fastidious of craftsmen," Paul Baumann praised the novel in Commonweal as "nearly flawless. We learn almost everything by indirection or association, the emotional colors of the story falling into place like a kaleidoscope's symmetrical mosaic." While commenting that Plante's minimalist approach causes some confusion, Washington Post Book World critic Bruce Bawer noted that The Accident "testifies to the mystery of human affection, the preciousness of friendship and even—thanks largely to Plante's own relentlessly skeptical and unsentimental approach to the theme—the tenacity of faith."
Characteristic of each of his novels, religion plays a central role in Plante's Annunciation. Published in 1994, the novel focuses on Claire O'Connel, a widowed art historian whose teenage daughter is dealing with rape and the pregnancy that has resulted from it. Concern over her daughter becomes enmeshed in Claire's obsessive search for a historic baroque painting of the Virgin Mary that depicts the very moment she discovers she will bear God's child. Mother and daughter travel to Lucca, the home of painter Pietro Testa, and then to Russia, their search for the work of art becoming instead a search for faith and understanding. Faulting the novel for its inscrutably dark tone, Kevin Allman, in his review for the Washington Post Book World, contended that "Plante overlays allegories and symbols like tissue paper. By the last quarter of the book, they're laid so thickly it's hard to see the characters beneath." While noting that the author's "dialogue occasionally succumbs to his pervasive high-mindedness," Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Scott Collins praised the novel, calling Annunciation "a meticulously crafted allegory of redemption,… a work of delicate plotting and beautiful complexity." "Plante manages to keep even a skeptical reader with him on the physical and spiritual quest for Testa's painting of the Annunciation, which comes to symbolize a sense of peace and total acceptance," noted Brigette Weeks in the New York Times Book Review. "His hold on us comes from the economy of his prose, sometimes described as lyrical, which is in fact plain, taut and uncompromising."
The Age of Terror, according to a Publishers Weekly critic, "continues to explore themes of religious faith and the cruelties large and small possible in human relationships." Set in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the novel is about a young American who has traveled there to escape his past. He becomes involved in a slavery and prostitution ring in a story of moral and social collapse in a world of hopelessness, torment, and grief. A number of critics were impressed by Plante's ability to portray so much despair in his setting and among his characters while avoiding any scenes of overt violence. What carries the book along, observed Donna Seaman in a Booklist review, is the way it plays on the audience's "fascination with suffering." The Age of Terror "is all the more chilling for its skilled understatement," concluded the Publishers Weekly writer.
Although Plante is primarily a novelist, his Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three is a nonfiction portrait of three literary figures: novelist Jean Rhys, feminist writer Germaine Greer, and literary hostess Sonia Orwell, George Orwell's widow. In the book, Plante examines his friendships with the three, friendships motivated in part by his interest in the women's "difficult" dispositions, but also by their standing in the literary world. In Plante's opinion, Rhys in particular represented the intellectual cafe society that flourished in Paris during the 1920s. Vivian Gornick wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Plante describes "the spectacular exaggerations of will and character the three women embody." While noting that "he purports to have given them a sympathetic hearing," Patricia Blake further commented in Time that the author "seems curiously ambivalent, not only about this trio, but about the entire sex." However, in the opinion of Saturday Review critic Andrea Barnet, "Plante raises these psychological portraits to the narrative pitch of fiction. He brings each to life with a dramatic precision that is formidable." "It's as if Mr. Plante were staring out over a wild and rugged typography of femaleness and wondering how one lives in such a land," maintained Anatole Broyard in the New York Times.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 23, 1983, Volume 38, 1986.
Plante, David, American Ghosts: A Memoir, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2005.
Booklist, November 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of The Age of Terror, p. 566.
Book World, November 1, 1970, Richard Freedman, review of The Ghost of Henry James.
Commonweal, December 6, 1991, Paul Baumann, review of The Accident, p. 725.
Lambda Book Report, April-May, 2005, Aaron Hamburger, "Portrait of the Artist: Interview with David Plante," p. 6.
Listener, March 18, 1971, Mary Sullivan, review of Slides.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 7, 1994, Scott Collins, review of Annunciation, p. 15.
Nation, February 6, 1982, Brina Caplan, review of The Country.
New Republic, October 7, 1981, Jack Beatty, review of The Country; October 11, 1982, Jack Beatty, review of The Woods.
New Statesman, November 9, 1984, Harriett Gilbert, review of The Foreigner.
Newsweek, July 24, 1978, Elizabeth Peer, review of The Family; September 14, 1981, Jean Strouse, review of The Country; September 6, 1982, Gene Lyons, review of The Woods.
New York Review of Books, November 19, 1981, A. Alvarez, review of The Country; December 16, 1982, Robert Towers, review of The Woods.
New York Times, July 19, 1982, Le Anne Schreiber, review of The Woods; January 15, 1983, Anatole Broyard, review of Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three.
New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1970, Jonathan Yardley, review of The Ghost of Henry James; August 22, 1971, Jonathan Strong, review of Slides; October 4, 1981, Mary Gordon, review of the Country; August 15, 1982, Edith Milton, review of The Woods; January 16, 1983, Vivian Gornick, review of Difficult Women; August 7, 1988, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Native; May 15, 1994, Brigette Weeks, review of Annunciation, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, December 7, 1998, review of The Age of Terror, p. 52.
Saturday Review, March-April, 1983, Andrea Barnet, review of Difficult Women.
Time, October 12, 1981, Paul Gray, review of The Country; August 2, 1982, R.Z. Sheppard, review of The Woods; February 7, 1983, Patricia Blake, review of Difficult Women.
Times Literary Supplement, July 2, 1976, review of Figures in Bright Air; April 28, 1978, Anne Stevenson, review of The Family; March 13, 1981, A.N. Wilson, review of The Country; January 29, 1982, Rosalind Belben, review of The Woods.
Washington Post Book World, August 27, 1978, Susan Wood, review of The Family; September 27, 1981, Jonathan Yardley, review of The Country; August 8, 1982, Jonathan Yardley, review of The Woods; May 19, 1991, Bruce Bawer, review of The Accident, p. 4; May 22, 1994, Kevin Allman, review of Annunciation, p. 6.