David Plante Essay - Plante, David (Vol. 7)

Plante, David (Vol. 7)

Plante, David 1940–

Plante is an American novelist living in England. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40.)

David Plante is, of course, a dedicated and original writer whose ambition extends well beyond making a simple representation of life. He attempts in [The Darkness of the Body] to take to pieces, reassemble and set working for his reader's understanding a particular group of human emotions. Everything that his characters are, everything they do, every place they are in, follow in the wake of this passionate love of one person for another. The first half of the book, the working-up, seems over-refined, rather vague and becalmed in effect, but the last part achieves a fine and direct intensity, as though the ghost of Racine had at last laid that of Henry James. (p. 159)

John Spurling, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 1, 1974.

Near the end of David Plante's novel [The Darkness of the Body], the heroine finds herself at the edge of a "large, swelling field". For some indiscernible reason she climbs a wall to get into it. "It was" (we are told) "used for grazing, but there were no animals in it, as there was nothing for the animals to feed on." Taken as an image, rather than as a remarkably silly piece of writing, this sentence is representative of the whole novel in which a staggering banality is wrapped up in laboured inscrutability….

There is some evidence of talent and style in certain phrases, occasional descriptions and in one sustained scene where the two main characters are briefly sympathetic in the context of some alien fiesta. For the most part, however, the behaviour of the characters is childishly perverse and many of the metaphysical passages of reflective description seem hopelessly inflated.

The narrative switches focus from one character to another as and when convenient yet all the characters seem to view people, events, objects with much the same obsessed, humourless vapidity. A bar of soap or a sock will take on absurd significance for them; they are forever "pulling" or being "pulled"; they "show", they "stare", they "want" and they "cannot bear" moments that are thoroughly commonplace. The transition between one scene and the next is invariably abrupt, often jarring.

Mr Plante obviously intended to present characters whose background, nationality, age, appearance, occupation and movements are deliberately obscured. He has succeeded. They exist in their own selfish, self-hypnotized, sterile atmosphere which is much too thin for those of us who do not, as the blurb tells us Mr Plante does, inhabit some "strange realm between the worlds of the intellect and the emotions". (p. 97)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 1, 1974.

The Darkness of the Body is sexy enough—indeed it's one of the sexiest novels I've read for ages—and, in its long and detailed couplings, few jots miss being jotted, or tittles escape being touched in. But we're convinced enough by the burgeoning love of Valerian and Marion, for their sex, when we get to it, not to seem simply gratuitous. And the novel is generally so calmly managed that it leads us to believe it could actually eschew the hectic if it chose. Admittedly, the author's constantly deadpan tone and his persistent vagueness about people and places—the refusal to specify which cities or countries are being lived and loved in, on the grounds that it's inner topography that matters most—suggest the choreographer never letting his dancers try for spontaneity. But the cool unspecificity is in fact played so successfully against the bouts of explicitness as to justify and enhance both these extremes of pitch and tone. (p. 184)

Valentine Cunningham, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Valentine Cunningham), February 7, 1974.

David Plante's "Relatives," with its radical foreshortening of realistic context, concentrated play of fantasy and image, and suggestion of perversity and muffled terror, seems a derivative of John Hawkes's intensely reduced worlds….

The novel proceeds through a chronological series of brief tableaux in which little happens but much is suggested by the hushed, almost soap-opera tone Plante falls into. The characters talk and talk and talk "to extend themselves until they reached the edges of a sustaining context," but the context achieved at the end of the novel has no more significance to the reader than a fence around a dreary house of mirrors….

Some may call "Relatives" a sensitive book because of its fragility, but I think the fineness of perception Plante attempts occurs only occasionally. His people aren't capable of a revealing experience or language because they're empty, not the echoing emptiness of Beckett's speakers or the vacancy of relativity that Plante implies, but that squeezed-out quality that results when a writer presses too hard and too often for Meaning. Plante's intricate patterns of refraction and metamorphosis and his knowledge of violated and violating intimacy just can't save "Relatives" from this emptiness. (p. 40)

Thomas LeClair, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1974.

In spite of boiling-oil reviews that have repulsed his previous assaults upon the stronghold of Castle Naturalism, David Plante continues resolutely with his siege, a literary Gawain bent on rescuing the English novel from durance vile. And an appallingly lonely and dangerous business it must be: there are few enough in England willing to allow justice to his cause, let alone to encourage him in it. Its sponsors, living and dead, are all abroad, where they harbour the strangest notions about what the novel, given its liberty, will do for us all.

Mr Plante has invoked the pioneer obscurities of Gertrude Stein before [Figures in Bright Air], and the epigraph, from What is English Literature?, is clearly a claim to her posthumous support—although the echoes in Figures in Bright Air seem to come not so much from the op. cit. as from How to Write, in which an obsession (Mr Plante's mirrors Miss Stein's) with the 'diagramatic' properties of language and with the paragraph is given an incantatory airing. Then again, textual evidence suggests that the living king in whose service Mr Plante rides is Roland Barthes, whose favour falls only on scriptible (translated: 'writerly') texts and whose terrifying intellectual weaponry is wielded upon the lisible ('readerly'), to its destruction or structural conversion.

Mr Plante's attack on the naturalistic barriers said to lie between the writer's intention and the reader's perception is mounted as the story of a homosexual relationship, ultimately tragic, between the narrator and another, Ewan, and of each's relations with his parents. (It is hard to be sure about any of this.)…

The text—texte?—is harsh, reiterative, bare of sensual decoration, at its best achieving a certain hierophantic intensity (as of Miss Stein reading aloud), at its more frequent worst assuming the banal obscurity of the Pythagoras theorem. (p. 421)

Mr Plante has been treated unjustly by reviewers who have put him down as a pretentious oddity:… he is, indeed, a harbinger of important change in English writing; and it sickens and frightens me. Barthes himself has warned that 'There may be nothing to say about writerly texts'; but, imprisoned in my readerliness, seeing my duty as reviewer primarily to the readerly, I have to say that this—as I believe—important text is pretty near unreadable: writing degree zero. (p. 422)

Neil Hepburn, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), April 1, 1976.

David Plante is a thoughtful writer, capable of producing fine flashes of prose. His latest novel [Figures in Bright Air] abandons even the intermittent verisimilitude of his previous books: it describes in long and excited swirls of prose the kind of fictions people use to describe themselves and their relations with others—and the implications of writing fiction. Plot is nugatory: the tormented narrator stumbles from the 'country' of his parents into alien territory, where, alongside gaping crevasses, black ice and the occasional glowing ember, he finds, loses, pursues and attempts to define a lover-soulmate-alter-ego, and—careful to point out the pruning, honing and elaboration of perceptions which is taking place—examines and creates the 'aerial country made of my longing'.

The quality of the states through which the characters pass are clearly, often strikingly, embodied in a swarm of elemental imagery. Their significance is more obscure: peril and meaningfulness seem to crouch behind every boulder, and moments of insight pound close upon each other with a remorseless intensity of pitch which is almost self-cancelling. It's not easy to be totally concerned about a novel which is concerned only with its own unwinding. Despite the power which glimmers through his landscapes, David Plante is in danger of working himself into a literary alcove. (p. 442)

Susannah Clapp, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 2, 1976.

Despite what anyone thinks, Figures in Bright Air is a novel of passion and immense tension with the weird, self-generating power of a vortex. [Plante] is trying to bring the emotional territory of Jean Genet inside the disciplines of Robbe-Grillet's technique and if he fails it is because the geometry which governs the emotions is by and large a secret for us. The result abounds with celestial paradoxes and paralogisms. The most extraordinary paradox of all is that a book which should have come across as inhuman and abstract does, in fact, come to resemble Henry Miller with the narrative bits subtracted.

If compared to the wisecracking polychromatics of very modern writing Plante's avant-gardisme seems passé, pre-Beckett even, a feeling of affectation because the unfamiliarity of the content is not confirmed by an equivalently original attitude to language, it is because David Plante is not a major writer. But he is much more interesting than many of those claimed as 'major', since he brings the good news that the novel is still alive and edging forward here and there along a broad front to prove that 'entertainment', 'good yarn' and 'diversion' are ultimately get-out clauses from the energetic responsibilities of creating. (pp. 20-1)

Duncan Fallowell, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 10, 1976.