David Plante Plante, David (Vol. 23) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Plante 1940–

American novelist and short story writer.

Plante's early novels are purposely derivative in technique and influenced by the work of other writers. For example, some critics see The Ghost of Henry James, with its elegant prose and psychological subtleties, as Plante's interpretation of what James would have written as a contemporary author. Nathaniel Hawthorne's work inspired Slides. And the turgid, convoluted prose of Plante's next three novels, Relatives, The Darkness of the Body, and Figures in Bright Air, shows the influence of Gertrude Stein's writings.

Plante finds his own voice in the low-key and largely autobiographical saga of a Catholic French-Canadian family in New England. This loosely connected trilogy begins with The Family and continues in The Country and The Woods. Most critics praise the emergence of Plante's own distinct style: a dense, humourless prose in which he examines the tangle of family relationships.

(See also CLC, Vol. 7 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Ghost of Henry James is] a "functional analysis" of the work of Henry James. The criticism is presented in the form of an interesting novel about imagined modern people, a family of four brothers and one sister, articulate but guarded young people who talk to each other in hints, moving their antennae in England, America and Italy. One of the brothers is called Henry and, when he dies, his memory haunts his siblings, leading them into dangerous adventures.

It is an ingenious analogy to suggest that the oblique, hinting dialogue of James resembles that between brothers and sisters when they talk, as coolly as they can, about their relationships outside the family—all the friends and lovers who must be made to seem important but not fully revealed or betrayed….

[Plante suggests] that some people really do talk in the manner invented by James, as if they were keeping back something large and meaningful. The question is: does that something exist, or is the whole fiction merely a description of the way some people talk?…

David Plante demonstrates that it is possible to be far more explicit than Henry James about sexual feeling and action, while still retaining the tone of tensely controlled reticence. But the novel is more than a pastiche or modernization or critique of James, since it may be recognized as a good novel even by those who have never read any of James's work, the ghost in this ingenious machine.

"Ingenious Analogy," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3551, March 19, 1970, p. 297.

Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is not clear what the ghost of Henry James is doing in The Ghost of Henry James…. Mr. Plante calls James to cast a spell upon the proceedings, but I think he has not been prudent. Presumably the point is to write the kind of story that James might write if he had the luck to live in 1970, free of social restraint. He might write of a family, four brothers and one sister, Julian, Charlotte, Charles, Claud, and Henry. He would dispose of the common problem, money, and urge his presences to live, playing Strether to their Bilham. Perhaps he would devise tortuous relationships; Henry and Baretti, Claud and Frances, Charlotte and Louis, Charles and Colin, the names do not matter. Add a bit of travel, London, a mansion in Italy. Make the sex diversely heterosexual, homosexual, and on one occasion incestuous. Put in a theme or two, such as the ghost-liness of the family….

Given such ingredients, the concoction might turn out well or ill; in the event, Mr. Plante produces nothing more edifying than a limp pastiche of Henry James. He starts off badly, referring to "a fine translucent membranous tissue" when he means cellophane. Then he goes from pastiche to pastiche, his relation to James that of mimic to genius. Parts of the book would make an amusing venture as a graduate seminar exercise….

The elegance is self-regarding, parasitic, like style in drag. The prime effect of Mr. Plante's novel is that we recall Henry James's novels, and deplore the fact that at this moment we are not reading them…. Genius apart, what [Mr. Plante's] book fatally lacks is perception, the passion of perception; if James's criteria are invoked, Mr. Plante has only himself to blame.

Denis Donoghue, "Ghosts and Others," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1970 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XV, No. 8, November 5, 1970, p. 24.∗

Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

This first novel by a young American, published originally in London (where he now lives), is in many respects a remarkable piece of work. David Plante has applied the Jamesian mood to a contemporary situation, and his success is sufficient to make "The Ghost of Henry James" a genuine tour de force—a novel of coherent and subtly developed point of view. That the novel is marred by bloodless characterizations and a certain laziness in description strikes me—in this case—as merely unfortunate, scarcely fatal.

"The Ghost of Henry James" is about a family of four brothers and a sister, not long past college age, of sufficient means to keep themselves afloat in the Jamesian "international" setting of Boston-Cambridge, New York, London and Italy….

Mr. Plante portrays the family devastatingly. We see it as a tomb, redolent of "the smell, the heavy air, and rot" of death. Like Jamesian characters in their brittle 19th-century drawing rooms, its members live through talk rather than action, smothering life in their "vast communal bath of talk." (p. 4)

Mr. Plante's remarkable skill at evoking a Jamesian mood is matched by his use of psychological devices crucial to James's fiction. He employs reticence, for example, on both levels: the reticence of characters to betray their true emotions, and the conscious reticence of the writer himself to reveal every detail, every "vague horror" (as Isabel Archer...

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Anthony Bailey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[David Plante's novel, Slides], uses The Marble Faun as a touchstone, detected as if with radar through the gloom, echoing sometimes firm and sometimes weak responses. One measure of Slides' success is that the words a reader feels bound to use in describing it are those of either Mr Plante or Hawthorne. Sixty-seven brief chapters flash before us a series of 'restless impressions' of five young Americans. None of this little tangled group of adolescents' … is able to stand alone. They survive on each other's doubts and enthusiasms…. A sequence of shots shows them at Walden Pond, in Boston museums, on the Connecticut Turnpike, in bed, in kitchens, in toilets, on boats, in Rome, in restaurants and ruins, talking and listening to talk about themselves. It is a book with very few hard facts about the characters—no surnames, incomes, ambitions, shapes or sizes. But out of 'an atmosphere of refracting, darting, crisscossing influences', Mr Plante conjures a very vivid reality. His three young men and two young women are immensely vulnerable, and as the slides flicker on, and the crisp New England air gives way to the rich gloom of Italy, they seem to consume one another…. They seem to gnaw at each other with their enigmatic, parasitic dissatisfaction, and their final consummation is just….

Yet Mr Plante's 'elaboration obliqueness' is by no means fanciful. In a time when many books seem full of vicarious lechery, his descriptions of sexual activity possess an honest and moving precision. Slides has the further effect of sending one to The Marble Faun with a new set of demands—makes it possible, in fact, to reread it. I would conclude that, having made such mysterious and skilful use of Henry James in his first book, and of Hawthorne in this, Mr Plante seems fully equipped to achieve great magic with Mr Plante.

Anthony Bailey, "Shades," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 81, No. 2086, March 12, 1971, p. 351.∗

Jonathan Strong

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Plante's second novel ["Slides"] … is full of ghosts from Hawthorne. Elements of "The House of Seven Gables," "The Blithedale Romance," and "The Marble Faun" come in and out of focus throughout the book. For scholars, it could be fascinating (and, perhaps, illuminating) to discover familiar motifs embedded in a romance of the present decade. When the literary detective work is over, "Slides" must be judged for itself, not in the glow of Hawthorne.

The slides of the title may be taken to be the 67 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….

Such a technique toys with a reader's expectations—but I was intrigued enough to go along with it for a time. However, by the second half of the book I had learned not to expect any deeper insight from each new slide. It was like looking at the vacation pictures of people I did not know.

Plante never lets us understand why his five characters are so obsessed with and disturbed by their emotional relations, and therefore it is also a disappointing book….

The talk in "Slides" seldom goes [very deep]…. The narrative voice that fills in with abstract psychologizing doesn't really tell much either.

All five characters see themselves as sensitive and a bit decadent. They wander about, hoping some blue glow will mysteriously illuminate their lives. But while expecting us to be interested in the psychology of the group, Plante has chosen a style that keeps us at a severe distance. Perhaps he feels he is reproducing a quality of his model….

Jonathan Strong, "Hawthorne-Haunted Vignettes," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 22, 1971, p. 28.

Anne Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Family] is a novel (or so it seems to this reader) that had to be written to get a part of his past off the writer's chest.

If the emotional urgency of The Family should turn out not to be true in a more than literary sense, then David Plante is a very good pretender. For in this extended portrait of a working-class French Canadian family living in Rhode Island, Daniel, the next-to-last of seven sons, is the only character with whom we empathize as well as sympathize. Daniel's mind is, we suppose, the author's; and it is Daniel's adolescent sensitivity we follow as it widens into an understanding of the complicated yet narrowly innocent relationship between his mother, Reena, and his father, Jim Francoeur—as, in turn, their relationship is strained by the difficult love and need for independence of their sons….

The sons, each one a distinctive character, struggle to keep the family together but they also have to fight to find themselves places in the world ouside it. As they become at once the sorrowful protectors and the violent accusers of their parents (and themselves) the novel takes on the dimensions of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.

Indeed, The Family belongs to an established tradition of American writing which includes Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River, James Agee's A Death in the Family, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird and most of the novels of Carson McCullers. David Plante, however, triumphs over the genre in being neither melodramatic nor sentimental.

Anne Stevenson, "A Perishing Parish," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3969, April 28, 1978, p. 464.

Ann Birstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Suddenly God seems to be in style these days. Everybody is out looking for Him, as if He had not been absent for some time. The latest in the list of what one might call suppliants is David Plante, author of [The Family,] a new rather dreary book about a large French Catholic family…. Although this is a sixth novel, it has many of the earmarks of a first, particularly in its awkward exposition….

Part of the problem is that Mr. Plante has given himself an awful lot to explain. There is the father, a foreman at a file shop, a difficult and demanding man who fancies himself a big shot; a menopausal mother always on the verge of a breakdown; a great aunt, a grandmother and seven sons…. There are endless soliloquies, confrontations, arrivals and departures. But the real problem is that with all this detail, so difficult in itself to grasp, the novel also functions on a highly metaphoric level. Soliloquies, especially the mother's, take on the tone of confessions, the family becomes the Holy Family, the seven joys and seven sorrows of Mary.

It's a serious try, though, possibly too serious.

Ann Birstein, "Metaphors, Metaphors," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 2, 1978, p. 12.∗

Susan Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Family in David Plante's sixth novel is not a group of Mafiosi, as those familiar with Don Corleone's clan might think, but a French-Canadian family living in Providence R.I. in the 1950s. Nevertheless, this tale of the Francoeurs … is as frightening a saga of tyranny as any created by Mario Puzo.

The tyranny in this case results from the narrow world in which the Francoeurs live…. It is a world dominated by the Catholic Church in its most oppressive, superstitious and guilt-ridden incarnation. This patriarchal society dictates that the word of the husband or father is law and that a woman's only options are to become either a nun or a mother, a situation which subtly oppresses both...

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John Calvin Batchelor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Plante's first novel, The Ghost of Henry James (1970), was most tellingly described as sophisticated Daphne Du Maurier. It is a mannered melodrama concerning four brothers and a sister in their twenties whose worldliness is not as legitimate to them as their unrequited self-love. Its humorlessness is partially offset by Plante's informed use of Henry James's work (obscurely, The Wings of the Dove); it is built upon the literary theories of the James brothers, Henry and William, and their eccentric disciple, Gertrude Stein. What most irks is the huge contrast between the earnest philosophical and psychological theorizing, and the contrived, languidly ironical manner with which Plante pushes his cast from...

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N. E. Condini

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Religion or, better still, grace is the pervading force in [The Family], framing a story direct and simple in its outward manifestations. But the simplicity and apparent plainness contain a power that finally erupts—converging into that imponderable force which keeps men together in spite of their own likes and dislikes, which accounts for the inexplicable suffering they undergo in this world, and which transmits the messages of the dead to the living. Grace, expressed in humble prayer, imparts an unusual glow to the author's style and heightens the chronicle of a small Canadian town to a cogent, delicate pitch.

The Jamesian eye of The Family is Daniel, a child morbidly interested in...

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S. M. Mowbray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Country [Plante's] almost obsessive search for the truth of human events and emotions does not flinch before a painful but universal theme: death in the family [in this case, the father's]…. There is, indeed, a good deal of repetition and dullness in the narrator's own words as he tries to tease out the exact truth of each situation…. There is, too, another dimension to the book, which gives it its title. Daniel [the narrator] is haunted by his father's Indian blood. Behind him he sees the shadow of generations of strange Indian women with mysterious knowledge and customs; and this blood-link creates, in Daniel's mind, a mystical fusion with nature so that in an almost Wordsworthian sense he can...

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Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Family] was an underrated and grossly neglected masterwork: one of the most moving and altogether impressive family novels of its decade. So it will be ironic if [The Country, a] short, often affecting, but less fully satisfying sequel—which returns to the Francoeurs of Providence, R.I., some 20 years later and repeats many of the same themes—wins the wide acclaim which The Family deserved…. [Readers] unfamiliar with The Family may find this new book by itself oddly sketchy, with the feeling of a short story plumped out to short-novel length. Still, through almost all of this, Plante's narration is starkly, yet gently, pared-to-the-bone; and though the subject of aged parents may...

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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Country is a novel about an unfashionable subject: growing very old and dying of natural cause. Of course there is more to it than that, David Plante being a writer of quite considerable range. But the central concern of the novel is the simple, mundane act of dying, and the effect it has upon those members of a family who must witness it.

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 man who dies is Jim Francoeur…. He...

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Mary Gordon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The world of David Plante's Francoeur family is male and foreign. It is a world of silences, of baffled and balked love, of pain borne stoically, of Indian cruelties and natural ties, of French Catholic pieties and the bleak light of failed New England cities. David Plante began the story of the Francoeurs … in his brilliant novel "The Family."… He continues their history in his equally superb "The Country."…

The ghost of Stephen Dedalus, that professional writer-son, broods over "The Country," for the novel is, among other things, the portrait of the artist as a young man. Yet if Stephen Dedalus is here, he is a kinder Stephen, and more merciful. Regret for the gulf between son and father,...

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A. Alvarez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The greatest difficulty, says Daniel, the narrator of David Plante's new book, is "to write, not about what I feel and think, but what someone else does." The whole of The Country is an expression of that struggle with the silent undertow of other people's emotions. Inevitably perhaps, since its subject is the numbing grief grown children feel as they watch their parents descend into helplessness and death.

There is almost no plot. Daniel returns three times from his self-imposed exile in London to the family home in Providence, Rhode Island…. His last visit is to bury his father and console his mother, although she seems curiously revivified, freed at last from a difficult marriage. In...

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Rosalind Belben

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With the publication of The Family …, it was clear that David Plante had struck out on new ground and discovered that ground to be rich and fertile. But to some admirers of this gifted writer the narrative method and standpoint of The Family seemed a bit old-fashioned and less uncommon than that of his previous work. The publication of The Country …, and now of The Woods, both, like The Family, set in New England and concerned with the Francoeur family as revealed through the eyes and ears of Daniel—whose perception, whether in the first person or third, of his parents, his brothers and himself has a wonderful, painful accuracy—more than vindicates Plante's sense of...

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Caroline Moorehead

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[With The Woods] David Plante has done something, in a literary sense, odd. He has taken the cast of two earlier novels, The Country and The Family and put them back in time, to the days when Daniel Francoeur was still a boy….

From the earlier novels we know the Francoeurs as French Canadians, parents and sons struggling to hold together as a family while growing apart; we know the father, senile and dying; we know Daniel, adult, a writer. Here, in The Woods he is adolescent, a first year college boy, at that moment in time when every sensation prickles, when trees look greener and words seem more full of meaning. It is summer, at the lake, the first summer of...

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