on 19 March 2014
David Plante took the brave decision to include only one date, the starting date in 1966, in this diary and to include no separate biographical notes on the many people who appear in its pages. So, there are some people now lost to fame; but the upside is that the diary is a compelling, vivid and original narrative. The golden thread throughout is that it is a touching love story of Plante's life with his lover and partner, Nikos. This really is the portrait of a marriage, tender, quirky, profoundly intimate. It is also a portrait of London seen by a young American who makes no secret of his fascination with the brilliantly talented (but frequently personally flawed) people with whom he associated: Auden, Isherwood, Francis Bacon, Harold Acton and, above all, Stephen Spender. David and Nikos's relationship with Spender and Spender's wife, Natasha, is another thread that runs through the book: complex, seductive and often slightly sad for Spender comes across as torn between his marriage and his sexuality, trying awkwardly to balance his commitment to his marriage to his love for David and Nikos. The portraits in this book bring to life both people and places. Plante sees London and the British through fresh eyes, affectionate and candid. He is a charming, as well as perceptive, observer and participant. So, the book is both a fine work of literature and of social history: as someone who was, at that time, young and gay and terrified of my own sexuality, I found it fascinating to read that there was a sphere of London society where two men could live openly as partners with apparent complete acceptance.
on 8 November 2013
A diary of chronic narcissism, penned by a shameless social-cultural climber - novelist David Plante ,who puts his Canadian past well behind him as he and his lover Nikos Stangos find themselves eased into the upper gay reaches of arty London in the later 1960s. No specific dates are given and there's just an intermittent sense of period, with not that much telling observation of manners and mores or illuminating wit. Plante is touchingly too star struck to be that much more than dazzled.
He's far too bright and intelligent to ape Jennifer's diary yet the book lacks a governing sense of purpose. It meanders aimlessly at huge length, stopping off as often as a London bus to attend cocktail parties, to have drinks or dine with the likes of Francis Bacon, Stephen Spender and Stephen Runciman. Plante also celebrates far too often his serene, loving partnership with publisher Nikos Stangos, for the art of navel-gazing can go too far and quickly.
There is a sort of narrative thread or rather subplot, almost in the style of Les Liasons Dangereuses, in which Plante and Stangos are caught up with the bisexual Spender who conceals from his uneasy, understandably watchful wife, Natasha, the details of his close, sexually sublimated association and evident fascination with the gay couple. Plante evidently worries a bit, but not that much, about what jealousies the knowing and also unknowing Natasha must feel about her husband devoting so much time away from the marital home. Just what sort of complex game were Sir Stephen and his wife playing with each other in terms of Spender playing away? Did Plante and Stangos consider breaking or loosening the link?Perhaps the diarist was too engrossed in the starriness to brood much about such things as they hurried off to the next set of cocktails.
Keeping a diary is a way of life for the novelist David Plante; he might take a whole day or more to work up an entry. During a writing life spanning more than fifty years, he's been keeping a diary many millions of words long. This book represents a fraction of that (it could not have been easy to make the selection, as he intimates in his brief introduction). He is, then, as much a diarist as a novelist. Though it is unfailingly entertaining, though it helps to recreate the literary and artistic landscape of London, Paris and Italy during 1966-86, though I felt privileged to be looking over his shoulder, as it were, while he wrote, I ended the book asking myself: How good is he at it? Is he up there with the great diarists of the twentieth century, eg Virginia Woolf, Frances Partridge, James Lees Milne, Christopher Isherwood? Or are these unfair comparisons?
Perhaps the answer lies in what I want from a diary of this kind. I'm looking for three main elements.
Firstly, a sense of the diarist as a writer constantly wrestling with his or her art, a sense of the art emerging from the daily struggle, and then how the work is received by the world. I want an insight into the genesis of the work and what it means, at a deep level, to the writer. On this count, Plante fails. If he has kept an account of his writing life, it is not included here. I get no sense of him creating and crafting his novels and stories. For a writer, this is rather a surprising gap.
Secondly, I'm looking for literary value: a quality of language, emerging from a finely-tuned sensibility and acute intelligence, which rises above the general level. Plante's a good writer, but his use of language, though clear, readable, descriptive, engaging and attractive, is not exceptional, it doesn't hold with rapt attention or move you poetically. And it tends to get rather blurred when he attempts philosophical speculations, which, as he admits himself, is not his forte.
Thirdly, one reads such diaries for insight into literary worlds, for insider gossip, for personal encounters with the legendary, and in this respect Plante excels; it is the diary's raison d'tre. Nikos Stangos, his lifelong partner, as a commissioning editor at both Penguin (poetry) and Thames and Hudson (art books), introduced Plante to many writers and artists in his circle. Plante, being highly sociable, took full advantage of this and made many friends among them. Chief of these were the Spenders (some comic turns here), Francis Bacon, Sonia Orwell, and the historian Steven Runciman. Others passing through these pages include Auden, Isherwood, John Lehmann, Maggie Hambling, Harold Acton, Forster, Hockney, Patrick Proctor, Germane Greer, to name but a few. His method is to describe through incident and appearance and manners; he's affectionate, seldom critical or speculative. He presents his characters not so much in the I-am-a-camera style of Isherwood but in the context of admiration, respect and love, which makes it warm and intimate. Plante wants to be liked and this shapes his approach. In at least one other book he has, apparently, shown his claws when describing his contemporaries, but here the claws are sheathed; he purrs.
He has two recurring metaphors: 'worlds within worlds', a concept suggested by the title of Spender's autobiography - he, the bon vivant and diarist, the French-Canadian outsider looking in, constantly alighting in these separate, but sometimes overlapping worlds; and his sense of making connections between them, in the Forsterian sense of 'only connect', as well as the tracing of connections between people at a more coincidental level. These two concepts fascinate him and act as unifying motifs throughout the book.
Reading more than 550 pages was no effort and gave me great pleasure, but it left me satisfied only in terms of my third category. (And even there, entries could be tantalisingly sketchy, eg he mentions having dinner with the Australian writer Patrick White and his partner but nothing about the encounter). I wanted insight into the writing life. I wanted language with bite, depth and beauty. I wanted passages of analysis and speculation. I didn't get much of these. But what I did get I was grateful for. I look forward to the next volume - and that, surely, is endorsement enough.
on 12 October 2013
Review of David Plante's Becoming a Londoner, A Diary
By Robert Waldron
With the publication of Becoming a Londoner, A Diary (Bloomsbury, 532 pages), critically acclaimed novelist David Plante joins the pantheon of gifted modern diarists, one that includes Virginia Woolfe, Julian Green, Andre Gide, and James Lees-Milne, with a diary chronicling candidly and eloquently his first fifteen years of living in London, from the mid 60s to the early 80s.
Emulating his hero Henry James, Plante decides to abandon America where as a gay man he is not allowed to be himself in public; he also renounces his Catholic religion, one that dogmatically condemns homosexuality. He had inherited his faith from his Franco-Catholic family that had left Canada to settle in Rhode Island. Thus raised as a devout Catholic, he, of course, chose to attend Boston College where he was educated by Jesuits.
London, particularly in the 1960s and the 1970s was a cultural center whose influence spread throughout the world. The city allowed the young Plante to spread his wings. A fortunate man, he met the love of his life almost upon arrival, a beautiful young man two years older than Plante (then twenty-six) named Nikos Stangos. They both instantly fell in love with each other. The only problem was that Nikos was the lover of poet Stephen Spender, who was wisely understanding and generous when informed that Nikos had a new lover. Spender became very fond of Plante, and many years after their first meeting he said that he came to view both Plante and Stangos as his sons, a comment that very much pleased Plante.
Through Spender, both Plante and Stangos are introduce to the Who's Who of London's artistic society: artists like David Hockney, Ben Nicolson, Howard Hodgkin, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud. He also meets writers like Christopher Isherwood, E.M. Forster, Edna O'Brien, and W.H. Auden. He even meets the residue of the Bloomsbury group, for instance the gay painter Duncan Grant, who fathered with Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolfe's sister, a daughter Angelica whom Plante befriends.
Of course, for a young man from a Rhode Island working class family, Plante is in awe of the people he meets, and he cannot dissemble in his diary, recording his delight in his introductions to them, so that after awhile,he himself notices that he seems to be name-dropping, but a man of utter honesty, he admits to enjoying his new found friends and is compelled to record his interactions, otherwise his diary would be rendered inauthentic. This kind of honesty ripples throughout the twenty-year diary, a most admirable virtue.
The back-cover of this hardback shows a photo of David Plante and Nikos. Stangos. They are beautiful young men in their prime. David is gazing at Nikos, and Nikos is gazing at the camera. For this reader, this photo most aptly describes the radiant center of David's diary: it is Nikos Stangos. In fact, after reading the diary, I felt as if I knew more about Nikos than David. Reason? Plante's love for Nikos is almost palpable; thus, Nikos is the constant referent. One feels that if there were no Nikos, Plante would not have had much to write about (he admits not to being an introspective writer but a descriptive one). Plante offers in detail Nikos' genealogy, including much information about his parents, his education, his reasons for being in London; we also learn about many of Nikos' friends, who become Plante's friends. We learn about Nikos' intellectual depth and breadth, one steeped in philosophy and poetry. In fact, Nikos, more educated and more worldly than Plante, "educates" the American from Rhode Island, although it becomes evident that they are certainly intellectual equals, although Plante always defers to his lover, a charming and poignant characteristic, underscoring his love which comes close to being an agapetic kind of love. In London, Nikos' gifts do not go unrecognized. He becomes a gifted and powerful editor for two major British publishing houses, Penguin Books and Thames & Hudson. The former took advantage of Nikos' widespread knowledge of poetry (he is a poet himself), advocating for poets such as the surreal poet David Gascoyne and the gay poet John Ashbury, the latter house, aware of his knowledge of art, offers him its directorship.
Shortly after moving in with Nikos, Plante suffers a nervous breakdown, which has nothing to do with his London life but much to do with his previous life in America. Nikos is there for and with him, every step of the way. Returning to health, Plante says to Nikos, "You cured me." And it was Nikos who always encouraged Plante to write. To what degree Nikos is responsible for Plante's becoming a novelist is uncertain, but he served as a gadfly, and Plante continued to maintain his diary which he had first begun in 1959, seven years before he arrived in London. Plante informs his readers that his diary is one of over a million words, but he has chosen only selections from his London diary, for as had Stephen Spender accomplished with his autobiographical World Within World, Plante also hopes to emulate: his new London world, one that opens him to other worlds, which his diary indeed accomplishes, i.e. the many worlds he meets, social, artistic, political, erotic and spiritual.
Although Nikos Stangos and Stephen Spender emerge as the most important personages in Plante's diary, the reader is ever aware of the diarist. In the beginning, he is young, somewhat immature and definitely insecure. By the end, Plante has come into his own. He has become a well-received novelist, he has happily lived with Nikos for twenty years (he writes honestly about the highs and lows that every married couple have), and he has made scores of friends. In short, the young man from Rhode Island via Boston College, an unhappy gay man, finds in London a world that accepts him for who he is. Thus, after over five hundred pages, we reluctantly leave a happy man who feels quite at home being a Londoner.
In the autumn of 2014, the second volume of Plante's diaries will be published, addressing the next twenty-five years of his London life. By my arithmetic, his diary will take us to 2006. Nikos died in 2004. Thus, we will have to face Plante's grief over the death of his beloved. One does not have to wait until the fall of 2014, for Plante has already published The Pure Lover, Memoir of Grief, about his losing Nikos to cancer. A heart-breaking book, whose radiant gist is the love of the man David for the man Nikos, a modern love story never to be forgotten.
I most highly recommend both Becoming a Londoner and The Pure Lover.