Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535
David Plante was born to a French-speaking family rooted in French culture, and he has never been able to escape his French-speaking heritage. In one novel, The Foreigner, the main character pretends to be of French origin, though he is an American. Plante attended Boston College from 1957 to 1959 and from 1960 to 1961, with the intervening academic year at the University of Louvain in Belgium. After graduating, Plante taught for several years, first in Rome from 1961 to 1962, and then, in succession, at the Boston School of Modern Languages and St. John’s Preparatory School.
In 1966 Plante moved to England to make his home there. He has received numerous grants and stipends, and in 1983 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In the same year he won the Prize for Artistic Merit from the American Academy and Institute of the Arts and Letters. His novels, the literary form to which Plante has chiefly devoted himself, are usually short, almost novella-length. Each is written with a supreme care for frank, refined English. Many are told in an emotionless, almost documentary tone, even when the narration is in the first person. Plante’s first novel, The Ghost of Henry James, borrows the theme of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) in telling the story of a gothic family nightmare: The unpleasant entanglements of a New England family lead the main character to madness, and finally death. The horror of madness and death, however, is related in Plante’s characteristically detached style.
Plante’s most acclaimed work is the Francoeur trilogy, comprising The Family, The Country, and The Woods. Emotionally these novels get as close to their characters as Plante ever comes, chiefly because the subject is autobiographical. The narrator tells of his French-speaking family and his relations to it; he has a troubled family life, and subtle and destructive currents flow under the surface of the external world, a major theme in Plante’s novels. As he has written, “there is something floating beneath my words and descriptions which has a will of its own.” In a later novel, The Foreigner, Plante tells the story of an American who is withdrawn and dissatisfied with his life. When he travels to Europe, he pretends to be French Canadian, chiefly because he cannot fool Europeans into believing him to be French. This novel too is told in a straightforward style, almost childish in its simplicity, but again strange things occur beneath the surface of the narration that are left to the reader to puzzle out. In this regard Plante’s style resembles that of James Purdy.
In many of Plante’s novels there is a genuine loathing or fear of sex; it is clearly a destructive element in Plante’s scheme of things. The binding of eros with death is also a strong theme. This comes out most clearly in The Age of Terror, in which an American becomes involved in the sex trade in the final days of Communist Russia. Above all, Plante shows a strong aversion to what are normally thought of as American characteristics—heartiness, cynicism, and social consciousness. He is as different an American writer as it is possible to be without losing entirely his American identity.
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