Francine du Plessix Gray 1930–
French-born American novelist and social critic.
In Divine Disobedience, Gray combines a crisp journalistic style of writing with an eloquent liberalism to explore contemporary Catholic radical ideas. Her two novels, Lovers and Tyrants and World without End, have been praised for their striking characterization and melodic prose.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)
[Francine du Plessix Gray, the author of "Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism," is herself] a romantic, and there is not much doubt where her wide-eyed sympathies lay. The Berrigans are "political prisoners," convicted not for destroying Government property, but because of their ideas….
The rhetoric of her account of the Catonsville trial surpasses all the other recent trial accounts in its sympathy for the defendants. She is particularly skillful at using analogies from food to describe the members of the "silent majority" who constitute the juries. Their faces look alternately like "unbaked loaves" and "unrisen dough"; while the defendants are "gentle," "genuine," "affable," "impeccably groomed," "short and dainty." (p. 2)
Is it not at least arguable that the … Catholic radicals described in "Divine Disobedience" have become so self-righteous that their power to affect social change in the church has been all but destroyed? To ask these questions is not necessarily to imply an answer either way: rather, it is to suggest that there are complex issues at stake in Catholic radicalism of whose existence Mrs. Gray is as innocent as her heroes are innocent of self-doubt. (pp. 2, 13)
Or, to put the matter less indirectly, I think that the heroes of "Divine Disobedience" are likely to contribute very little to the reform either of the Catholic Church in the United States or of American society…. [The] profiles of such marginal romantics are not to be taken seriously as descriptions of either the problems or the possibilities of the Catholic Church in the United States. (p. 13)
Andrew M. Greeley, "'Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1970, pp. 2, 13.
[Divine Disobedience is] a remarkable book, a book that achieves the near-impossible by being passionate, compassionate, and dispassionate….
It is, to be sure, a book of profiles of Catholic radicals who, in the spirit of Saint Paul, have been sent to prison often, menaced by their "so-called brothers." (p. 32)
The lives and thoughts of these men and women, their militant, nonviolent activism …, is presented in a marvelously colorful tapestry of profiles, a modern Passion Play re-enacting the lives of the early Christians. In her deft, rapid, paradoxically rich but austere prose, Francine Gray reveals herself as a fresh, important new talent in American letters.
But there is much more to Francine Gray and to her book than talent and the esthetic joy of reading so thrilling a romance and so controversial an account of conflict waged by a legion of Biblical characters in turtlenecks and peace insignia. Francine Gray is herself a militant, radical lay Catholic, active in the fight against war, poverty, racism, and repression. Like Bernanos she believes the real problem of our day is not the increase of rebels but of docile, self-repressed citizens.
Never intruding herself into her story, with a quick pen and unfailing ear—a reporter with perfect pitch for dialogue—she reproduces the words and thoughts of her characters, whose cool, hip language makes the most abstruse theological and philosophical analysis light, lucid, and meaningful. This is a book of and for times of crisis, yet a book for all seasons; it is not only a book for Catholics, but for all who seek...
(This entire section contains 380 words.)
to reconcile faith and reason, God and Caesar, for believers and nonbelievers. (pp. 32-3)
Francine Gray carries forward the thinking of Voltaire, who wrote that "Revolutions are caused by those who try to stop them." As a writer, she is in the best tradition of Rebecca West, Rachel Carson, and Janet Flanner. It will be interesting to see what this bright new talent will do when she writes on subjects not so close to her own heart, although I suspect there are no such subjects for a Francine Gray. (p. 41)
David Schoenbrun, "Book Forum: 'Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIII, No. 24, June 13, 1970, pp. 32-3, 41.
Nowhere is there surprise [in "Lovers and Tyrants"]. And that is why [the novel], for all the wit and thrust of its prose, is finally so exasperating. The drone of its intelligence ultimately bores.
This is not so at the beginning. The novel starts off with a lively portrait of Stephanie's childhood oppression by a lonely White Russian governess…. And when Stephanie, in forgiving retrospect, recognizes the simultaneous yearning and selfishness behind that governess's love, it looks to the reader as if Mrs. Gray will ring infinite changes on the subtle ambiguities of love and tyranny.
And in four of the five chapters that follow, she seems to succeed….
What's more, Mrs. Gray almost always writes with fierce intelligence and perspicacity. She has a deadly ear for a certain kind of dialogue….
But everything goes wrong with "Lovers and Tyrants" when Stephanie marries her puritanical New England husband ("Marriage and Madness") and then runs off in that final chapter ("Stephanie") to her rendezvous with androgyny. Perhaps it is that Stephanie is better at fondling the past than at scrapping with the present. Perhaps it is that Mrs. Gray began writing by writing a series of memoirs … and then failed in her attempt to project them into a novel about the untrammeling of women. In any case, when Stephanie in that final chapter writes in her journal, "I think I might have a novel right here in these very themes: One: woman's life as a series of exorcisms from the spells of different oppressors. Two: We must name the identities of each jailer before we can claw our way toward the next stage of freedom …," a reader is forced to reflect that while she may well have a novel "in these very themes," she has not yet succeeded in writing it.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of the Times: 'Lovers and Tyrants'," in The New York Times (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 8, 1976, p. C25.
A few years ago, Francine du Plessix Gray's "Divine Disobedience" surveyed radical and libertarian stirrings in the Catholic Church subsequent to Vatican II. Ivan Illich, the Bishop of Cuernavaca, and the Berrigan brothers were among the clerical freedom fighters profiled in this highly intelligent work of personal and investigative reportage. Herself committed to the goal of liberation, Mrs. Gray remained ironically aware of elements of the quixotic and contradictory in the various attempts her book depicted to "make it new" within the confines of one of the most hidebound institutions on earth….
["Lovers and Tyrants,"] a first novel, is also taken up with the tension or dialectic between liberation and confinement, between breaking free from history and discovering where and how one fits into history; but the ground has shifted from the ecclesiastical to the erotic and marital, and much of Mrs. Gray's irony, operating as a sense of rational limits, has either gotten lost or gone so deadpan as to be unnoticeable. This last comment is directed particularly at the final two sections of the novel, "Marriage and Madness" [and "Stephanie"]…. In the first of these we see her heroine Stephanie, a highly educated French-American upper-middle-class woman in her late thirties, blessed with a tender, compliant husband, fine children, satisfying professional work as a writer and college teacher, with practically unlimited access to extra-marital sexual adventures, psychiatric and spiritual counseling, the pleasures of travel and the whole armarium of fashionable psychedelic drugs, slip into madness out of a conviction that her freedom is obstructed….
In the second of these sections we meet Stephanie again, now into her forties, having left home and "gone West" in more senses than one….
There is material here for excellent satire of a type that Aldous Huxley in his heyday could have handled well. But is Francine Gray satirical? Stephanie goes to a show bar in Las Vegas, that ultimate banal trap of American experience, and there is vouchsafed a vision of the androgynous future in the form of a "he/she" with shoulder-length hair and hairy legs wearing a pink tutu and balancing on a high wire. Here the book ends, and it would seem a telling reductio ad absurdum of the exigent heroine's demands for a freedom that becomes ever more meaningless as its scope approaches the limitless. But was it meant to be absurd, or is this Mrs. Gray's vision of the unbridled—and ungroomed—future as well?
The earlier sections where Stephanie is the subject of an absorbing, often brilliantly narrated fictional memoir work much better than the later ones….
In her early thirties Stephanie,… married to her college suitor, makes two trips to France…. The sections dealing with these events are crammed with unforgettably drawn characters, rich emotion and complex social portraiture. In counterpoint they bring out contrasted aspects of French life that are both immemorial and contemporary, and that perhaps only a cultural "amphibian" like Mrs. du Plessix Gray would clearly see. How the same writer who wrote "Tribe" (about the poignant journey to Saint-Seran) could write "Stephanie" dumbfounds my mind. The first is true art written from a depth of lived experience that is virtually unique for any American writer one can name. The second is full of extravagant posturing but is essentially empty as its desert setting.
Julian Moynahan, "Adventures of Stephanie," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 17, 1976, p. 7.
What Ms Gray sets her heroine, Stephanie, to do [in Lovers and Tyrants] is to explore and witness to the solitariness of a "body-crazed society", the restlessness in face of commitment, and the temptations to non-commitment, which are our latest truisms….
Stephanie marries an irreproachable American…. With so much perfection, it is from the first "an aging marriage"; Stephanie, though her career blossoms, she says, into college lecturing and protest-leading, feels restless and confined. Eventually she undergoes a matronly freak-out in Colorado, with a lapsed-Jesuit guru who teaches her to meditate on Nothing, and an ineffably beautiful young homosexual called Elijah, who rips things off (a high term for shoplifting) as he is an anarchist, but "asks her serious questions, what's life, what's death, what's hope."… It is tempting to see this last section of the book as parody—Ms Gray can certainly be very funny. On the other hand, she has always seemed so appreciatively close to Stephanie that it would be hard to believe that she is only pointing out the difficulties of the menopause (even with hints of cancer, after hysterectomy). Stephanie is tiny and blonde and beautiful, as well as having French blood; all of which, one learns from the dustjacket alone, she shares with her creator. One has to banish such thoughts; otherwise both of them come to seem uncomfortably narcissistic, and the book a long essay in display and preening. There are some good jokes along the way and patches of good writing; and ultimately it is an engagingly pretentious muddle.
Anne Duchêne, "Rebirth Traumas," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3923, May 20, 1977, p. 605.
Good news for Mary McCarthy: The novel of ideas isn't dead. Francine du Plessix Gray's [World Without End] is full of ideas. The bad news is that the wit, elegance, and occasional brilliance that informed her first novel, Lovers and Tyrants, are only a shadow of their former selves. The author's intelligence, spirit, and seriousness of purpose are unmistakable, but what they add up to is less a novel than a morality play.
Three middle-aged friends, bound by ties of the flesh and the spirit, make a trip to the Soviet Union to "recreate … that ethereal summit of candor which only friendship can offer," to "take the risk of total truth-telling in order to make the last third or fourth of our existence bearable."
Edmund is an art historian and painter, Sophie a television news reporter, and Claire an ascetic WASP…. Although these main characters occasionally come alive, they too often sound exactly alike. Their lives are perfect reflections of the cultural changes that have swept America since the Fifties. In fact, between the three of them, Edmund, Sophie, and Claire have hit every trendy road stop on the zeitgeist.
Like Lovers and Tyrants, this is an ambitious novel about love and friendship, faith and doubt, liberty and license. But these unruly concepts demand more stylistic discipline than Gray has chosen to impose. The result is a disappointing case of metaphysical sprawl. (pp. 69, 71)
Judith Gies, "Fiction Briefs: 'World without End'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 5, May, 1981. pp. 69, 71.
"World Without End" is a very good novel, and a fine surprise. I was not an admirer of Francine du Plessix Gray's first novel, although her nonfiction books on "Divine Disobedience" and "Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress" were graceful and intelligent and quirky. That first novel, "Lovers and Tyrants," suffered from a sort of vegetable rot of lyricism, especially when she wrote about sex, which she wrote about as clumsily as D. H. Lawrence. "Honeyed Interstices," indeed.
There is sex in "World Without End," but not much flora and fauna in the description of it. There is lyric excess, in conversation, in letters and in thought … but, obviously, it is ironic. Mrs. Gray has chosen to satirize the art, the religion and the politics of the last 35 years. She has also chosen to forgive the creatures of her satire; they are more disappointed in themselves than readers will be in them as characters….
For most of the time of the novel, we are in the Soviet Union in 1975. Edmund, Claire and Sophie are trying to come to terms with their long friendship. Most of the time we are also in Edmund's head. He loved Claire and settled for Sophie and spent some dreary years … living with his own conservatism … and that sense of melancholy, boredom and the void that he abhors in modern art….
In Russia on vacation, after three decades of their obsessive triad, Edmund, Claire and Sophie sort themselves out and lurch again. The conservative Edmund realizes that the new art is even worse than "the Pollack primal energy" he despised years ago. There is an attempted suicide. There is an Intourist guide whose hair is "bluntly cut as a sheaf of wheat," and who wins our affection. There is a dissident, abandoned unconscionably by the author. There are too many adjectives that turn out to be "luminous" and too many adverbs that abuse the meaning of "presently."
But the reader chooses sides. In this novel about Renaissance art and Puritanism, about Anglican convents and academic departments of art, about friendship and that televised soap opera "General Hospital," about lust and literature and missing fathers and saints full of greed and pride and envy—in this popcorn-popper of ideas, in which Edmund is the tourist of art, Claire the tourist of suffering and Sophie the tourist of everything, we are blessed with real people in the middle of an important argument about art and religion and sexuality. We are persuaded.
John Leonard, "Books of the Times: 'World without End'," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 19, 1981, p. 17.
If one were given to reviewing by bestowing genre-labels one might call Francine Gray's [World Without End] … a prime entry in the novel of intelligence. It is just that: the lives she tells about ring with authenticity for their times and their place. The three who are her heroes love each other and are held together by their participation in all the artistic, intellectual, religious, and psycho-sexual movements of the American twentieth-century. They move across continents and hemispheres of class, national origins, poverty, success, dissatisfaction, and rebellion against the present and the inherited past, thus involving a complete contemporary culture in their lives. (p. 306)
[The] bond among the three heroes, from their adolescence on Nantucket to their tour of the Soviet Union in June 1975 and into the present, is unbreakable. (p. 308)
While the three travel together in the Soviet Union, Edmund reflects "on the dilemma facing three persons in middle age who've had a lifelong obsession for each other."
Since that lifelong obsession is the subject-matter of the book, one does not expect much "to happen," and of course it does not. There are changes in their lives, but their natures remain very much the same. At forty-five they are still looking for themselves, or "finding themselves" in the odious phrase of the sixties, learning that what they were is what they are and will be…. (pp. 308-09)
Despite the impressive and always accurate documentation of place … and character, social movements, parental backgrounds, lovers, husbands, visits with each other, letters and postcards they exchange for all those years, do we ever feel close to these people? Curiously, not really. They are so detailed and so cerebral, their talk is so elevated and informed, we know so many facts about their milieus that, somehow, passion is smothered in them.
Francine Gray would be the first to admit that the novel is about the changelessness of personality, I am sure, and yet this keeps us from experiencing any surprises. Despite the spread of time in which they live and the amount of history in our time which surrounds them, they remain predictable, even stereotypic in their undeviating natures. (pp. 309-10)
World Without End is an engrossing but static book, violating the horizontal progress of most fiction by the dense, vertical views of the three friends. Gray has used them as catafalques on which to hang what has gone on in the United States in the middle decades of this century and, as a result, it seems to me, has lost the kind of intensity one looks for in the novel. It is a notable social history, to my mind, more than a compelling story. It is about three persons who are created at great length and depth—but do not live. (p. 310)
Doris Grumbach, "Three Insiders, One Outsider," in Commonweal (copyright © 1981 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVII, No. 10, May 22, 1981, pp. 306-10.∗
The preciousness of [the main characters' friendship in World Without End] is made much of; it is also precious in a less favorable sense. They address each other by such terms as "Clair de Lune," "Eddem," "Sofka." I would carefully avoid them at a cocktail party, but they are well-drawn, especially Edmund. The opening chapter sets them on their Russian holiday; then their interwoven histories are related through a series of lengthy flashbacks. This technique may have been unavoidable, but by removing the element of uncertainty and surprise—what will happen to them?—it weakens the narrative interest.
The book moves slowly, heavy with minute particulars. This in time exercises its own fascination; du Plessix Gray's strength lies in her exacting and acute attention to detail. One of the best passages describes the death of Edmund's cat, egregiously but convincingly named Vico: "In the last days Vico's eyes remain closed for long moments of time, he opened his eyes in a new way, not upon the call of a voice or the din of conversation which John brought with him but as though to simply look at the room for a moment before closing his eyes again; to remember the room better or simply to see that it was still there." This is tenderly and truthfully observed, and the straightforward style catches the truth. But why "moments of time"? Are there any others? And the split infinitive, "to simply look," irritates: a minor grammatical irritation which recurs throughout the book.
The author writes quite badly, in fact, much of the time. Edmund is not simply short, he is "short of stature"; Claire does not utter a terse phrase, it is both terse and pithy. More damaging is a novelettish self-indulgence: "She trembled with a soft undulating motion …" Every noun, it sometimes seems, must have its adjective; page one has, among many others, fleeting, luminous, romantic, scintillating, floating, nascent, tremulous and fiery. Though at times the characters are observed with irony, there is in general not enough distance between them and the author; their conversational style echoes du Plessix Gray's authorial style, even to the split infinitives.
Yet World Without End has an admirable "plenitude" (a favorite word), and is clearly the work of a richly talented writer. Her technique has some way to go before it catches up with her vision and her intelligence. The book is struggling with an important subject: the conflict within each of us between the psychological hungers symbolized by America and Russia—individualism and brotherhood, anarchy and order. It is no small achievement to have explored interestingly one of the most crucial dilemmas of our age. I am not sure what Edmund, Claire and Sophie find in Russia; nor, I think, are they…. They come home—as Catholic invalids often do from Lourdes—no better, but feeling that they are.
D. M. Thomas, "The Arts of Friendship," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), May 24, 1981, p. 5.
In "World Without End," Francine du Plessix Gray displays the one indispensable gift in a novelist—she generates slowly and authoritatively a mixed set of entirely credible human beings who shunt back and forth through credible time and are altered by the trip. Ample, generous and mature, the book is stocked with the goods a novel best provides. Among its provisions is a complicated and interesting plot.
On Nantucket in 1945, three 15-year-olds meet and cast their lot with one another: Edmund, Sophie, Claire. They are all ferociously bright and famished for life…. By 1975, the three are wrecked in lonely middle age. They have survived, with sporadic nursing; and they resolve to visit Russia in the hope of learning "how to live the last third of our lives." In unexpected ways, Russia grants the hope.
Those are the bones of the story that Francine du Plessix Gray has scattered through her second novel. I say "scattered" because Mrs. Gray's method challenges the reader to build a whole skeleton: the novel begins in Leningrad in 1975, cuts to Nantucket in 1945, and thereafter moves in leisurely switchbacks between the present of the Russian tour and the evolving past as the three friend-lovers advance toward their crucial encounters in the warm proto-soup of Byzantine Russia, thinly varnished by a Communism only a little older than our trio.
That method of chronological disarrangement—while it's a familiar device in movies and Mrs. Gray employs it with courteous solicitude for our comfort—provides my only big reservation in the face of an intelligently full accomplishment. Since we are not permitted to experience the three decades as the trio did, in linear clock time (which is hopeful time); and since we are constantly invited to judge their past on the evidence of their foolish and quasi-bankrupt middle age, we are tempted to view them from the start with an easy but withering irony…. Mrs. Gray gives signs of respecting a persistent and individual dignity in her characters, despite their selfish follies; but her zigzag chronology does finally suspend them for me in intermittent moral uncertainty. Their present is always in danger of being humiliated by a revelation from their past, and vice versa. A certain queasiness results for which the novel, trailing off in the present, provides no antidote. Have we witnessed a trio of souls more foolish than ourselves? Are we expected to jeer, smile, applaud or all three?
I've mentioned Mrs. Gray's own apparent respect, even affection for her three characters; but there are other ways in which her narrative choices have complicated the reader's expectations (in a realistic fiction). Most of these choices affect Edmund, the only mind we consistently inhabit.
A good part of Edmund's dilemma involves his abandonment of painting; and of all the kinds of creators available to a novelist, painters are among the least demonstrable…. [Barring] at least a set of reproductions of Edmund's work, we are left only with Mrs. Gray's assertions that his careful landscapes and still lifes are reminiscent of Chardin…. In brief, is Edmund really good at his work? Is it worthy of his and the women's—and our—devotion? And what of his ability to love, his variety of love? In Russia Sophie justly accuses him of being "a graduate student of yourself," and years before she'd characterized him as homosexual. That definition is partially confirmed by two briefly described physical encounters with men; but though Edmund's sexual responses to Claire and Sophie are convincingly explored, his male encounters are bafflingly and damagingly closed to a parallel understanding.
So far as Edmund is the center of the story, then the center is enigmatic to the end. More problematic still, the few resolved aspects of his character tilt him often into chilly repellence—a not-unvenomous androgyne. If circumstances ultimately free him to express toward Claire the devotion he'd withdrawn from his mother, that circuit is repaired so late in the story as to leave us little time or evidence for trusting the permanence of the revived Edmund or indeed Claire, whose commitment to social engineering survives her commitment to Edmund.
But if I dislike the jellied narcissism, the tired camp of Edmund's service to Art, I'm nonetheless so familiar with his plentiful American avatars as to delight in forecasting his next tack in response to the Muse, his next discovery of the absolute necessity, my dears, of purity in all things. He's so gratifyingly predictable in his languid leaps that I can only hope his paintings are indeed profound meditations.
The really lovable character is fervent careerist Sophie—the kind of gallant loser-survivor who can serve as a powerful narrative magnet…. Of the three, it's Claire to whom I can't warm at all—the blank-eyed Medusa who'd save the world by petrifying it into likenesses of herself. But God knows she's convincing, and the fact that she finally flags in her quest—by accepting Edmund and becoming one of his frozen icons—provides a satisfying comic closure to the long pas de trois.
There are numerous other pleasures. Mrs. Gray's manner, both of mind and language, is an intensely personal combination of the lush and the sinewy—unashamed of rhapsodies to female beauty or of Wagnerian erotic climaxes and equally ready to rap out a burst of Morse Code wisdom: "Childhood is a prerogative of the rich," or "Lovers, children, heroes, none of them do we fantasize as extravagantly as we fantasize our parents." The language itself thus becomes a complex and visible participant in the story, capable of both an attractive tenderness and a salty irony toward the actors. There are unobtrusive side-orders of social criticism, esthetics, a virtual tourist's guide to contemporary Russia, and one of the most moving of all descriptions of the death of a domestic pet. The sizable reward for me, though, was the one I hope for in any prose fiction—the filling of long and peaceful hours with a rare consoling spectacle: three unquestionably live human beings of strong intelligence, swimming in time, with occasionally desperate, generally wasteful strokes and rhythm but with startling vigor, toward a worthy goal: adult love.
Reynolds Price, "In Search of Adult Love," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 24, 1981, p. 5.