Lovers and Tyrants

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

First novels are supposed to be set apart, judged somehow by different standards from those used for established writers. Lovers and Tyrants, a first novel, may in fact need the protection of that special status. But Francine du Plessix Gray is hardly an untried writer; a freelance journalist of note, she writes often for The New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Her book, Divine Disobedience (1970), surveys the contemporary radical Catholic movement, creating memorable portraits of such figures as the Berrigans, Ivan Illich, and the priests at Emmaus House in East Harlem.

In her novel, Gray creates a character, Stephanie, with a background similar to her own, and proceeds to exploit the possibilities of that intrinsically limited genre, autobiographical fiction. Lovers and Tyrants has its roots in other traditions as well, and it is in the brilliance with which these several strains are fused that the novel succeeds. The Bildüngsroman heritage is the most obvious of those strains: Lovers and Tyrants stands in that noble line of novels which delineate the moral and physical education of their protagonists—Emma, Great Expectations, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Sons and Lovers, and Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest novels. Gray has the greatest affinity with the early Joyce; her opening sections, emphasizing the sensory detail to which the young Stephanie responds, are wonderfully rich with imagery. The narrator, who reminds one here of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, begins:My childhood lies behind me muted, opaque and drab, the color of gruel and of woolen gaiters, its noises muted and monotonous as a sleeper’s pulse. My childhood memories are smothered in sterile, unjoyful smells, in odors of eucalyptus and of mustard plasters, of ether and of belladonna, of camphor and of musty textbooks.

The novel also recalls picaresque works which record “the progress” of a joyous rogue making his way through life, adventuring in various locales and classes of society. In this tradition the narrator often makes fun of the protagonist, or, in the case of a first-person novel, the protagonist uses a self-deprecating tone of self-conscious irony. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar are such antiheroes. Stephanie too is able to laugh at herself and her earlier selves, and she can perfectly capture by word or phrase a particularly satiric figure: “Coasters, lace mats, and crewel doilies were distributed throughout her rooms so as not to stain the polished genuine mahogany surface of her life.”

Perhaps most interesting of the traditions within which Gray works is the epistemological, which explores novelistically the philosophical implications of creative writing; the protagonist is usually a novelist in the process of writing a novel. Stephanie is a would-be writer, and the work is full of her jottings, journal entries, conversations about writing, pieces from friends’ writing, and actual literary quotations (Kierkegaard, Kafka, Scott Fitzgerald). The structure of such works is usually experimental as the narrator will play with mirror-images, stories-within-stories, shifting points of view, and the like. Important examples of this genre are Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, Moravia’s The Lie, Gide’s The Counterfeiters.

The structure of Lovers and Tyrants shows just how much Gray has refused to be limited by the strictly autobiographical tradition. Although a cursory glance will tell the reader that the novel is structured chronologically in eight sections (each titled and dated), within each section the narrator goes forward and backward in time at will, briefly introducing themes that are to reappear fully in later sections, prematurely alluding to events of her later life, and throughout making commentary about the process of writing. Then, in the last section, entitled “Stephanie” and dated in the future, “197-” the narrator shifts point of view to third person and writes a kind of script or scenario, complete with description of character and setting, before the scene begins. The whole section, some seventy-five pages in length, is written in the narrative present tense. The difficulty with the technique as used by Gray is that after the...

(The entire section is 1822 words.)