by David Plante
NYRB Classics, 182 pages
reviewed by Susan Sheu
Acclaimed writer David Plante’s book, published originally in 1983, is an account of his friendships with three women central to the artistic and intellectual world of the 1970s. It is a rare act of memoir writing to describe oneself as the shadowy sidekick to other, presumably greater and more interesting characters. In nonfiction writing classes, this point of view would be discouraged. The first question this memoir might have earned in a contemporary writers’ workshop is where are you in all of this? Describing the suns around which a protagonist orbits is more commonly found in fiction. Think of Humbert Humbert describing Lolita in more vivid detail than he narrates himself, as a way of defining himself through his obsession.
Perhaps one way to view Difficult Women, a controversial book that cost Plante, now retired from the creative writing faculty of Columbia University, many of his literary friends, is as an inversion of Lolita. Rather than a leering middle-aged man with a little girl, Plante the protagonist is younger and more of an artistic ingénue than two of his three female subjects (and the same age as the third), but he observes and devours them in a similar way. In his first sketch of his friendships, with Jean Rhys, he presents the central tension within himself and all three women and the trust he earns and arguably abuses:
I said, “For some mad reason, I love you.”
“You’re not pretending that?
“I said it was mad. Could madness be a pretense?”
“No, it couldn’t. I do trust you.”
I thought: But why do I love her?
All three women are connected through the literary European world they inhabit. Yet the three of them are only in the same place once in Plante’s narrative, when the third, Germaine Greer, is at one of Sonia Orwell’s parties where Jean Rhys is also a guest. Like Humbert Humbert’s desire for prepubescent girls, Plante is obsessed with these three difficult women for reasons he does not understand. And like Truman Capote and other writers whose unsparing, perhaps unkind portraits of friends ended those friendships, Plante’s book appears to have ended his relationship with Greer, the one still-surviving subject. The central question for the reader becomes one of literary ethics. What does the nonfiction writer have the right to publish, and what is the artistic value of a warts-and-all book about people who helped and cared for the writer?
It is a rare act of memoir writing to describe oneself as the shadowy sidekick to other, presumably greater and more interesting characters.
Reading Difficult Women thirty-five years after its initial publication in the era of #metoo takes on new meaning. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, when much of the press coverage and political criticism of the major female candidate seemed to boil down to branding a qualified, brilliant woman unlikable, the book can serve as depressing reminder of how little the world has changed in the last thirty-five years in its view of what constitutes appropriate behavior for a woman. In 2018, readers might view the book as a meditation on how much space in society women, particularly aging women, are allowed to take up and on the friendships between heterosexual women and their homosexual male friends (Plante hints at his homosexuality in Difficult Women). It could also be read as a primer on female rage, depression, and disappointment.
When Plante first meets Rhys he is a newcomer from the United States to England. Rhys is an elderly fiction writer most known for her book The Wide Sargasso Sea. They drink excessively during their afternoons together discussing Rhys’s life and writing and both usually become drunk. Drinking and talk about writing are the forces that animate the elderly, alcoholic Rhys, whose literary fame is behind her by the time Plante meets her in England. Rhys seems to view Plante’s role in spending time with her as akin to James Boswell chronicling the life of Samuel Johnson—they spend many afternoons drunkenly bickering as she dictates her autobiography—or as a kind of platonic and secular confessor for her last rites.
But Plante’s own reasons are harder to discern. While Plante does not divulge what his intentions were in first seeking a meeting with Rhys, he reveals that he is comfortable in the company of women who speak more than they listen. Rhys reminds Plante of his mother, a fact that enrages her. But this clue poses the question of whether Plante was seeking literary inspiration and patronage or an actual literary family. The question is important. If Plante was seeking a network and writing material, then his frank descriptions of the women and his reactions to them are a betrayal from the start. If he seeks the company of mentors and like-minded souls and then chronicles them including all of their drunken, neurotic, vulgar life force, his work becomes more complicated to judge. Through this lens, the women are like mothers to him, and he is like a son who has no choice but to describe them as he experienced them.
Were Plante’s reasons for writing and his true feelings for his once-beloved mentors and friends in violation of unwritten rules, or was Difficult Women the only book he could have written after spending his youth in pursuit of the eponymous women?
With Rhys, Plante grapples with why he spends time with her, whether he loves or hates her, and what value he can glean from her self-centered, boozy ramblings. Every time he seems on the verge of giving up on her because of her narrow, ill-educated views, she draws him in again by invoking the fire that drives them both: writing. Talk of writing brings out the best in Rhys, transforming her back into a lively artist who believes that the tradition of writing is greater than any one writer. Rhys rages and is often melancholy, and Plante observes that melancholy is Rhys’s default emotion, which is actually a perverse form of happiness:
One of the signs of Jean’s happiness, I came to realize, was her sadness: happy, she allowed herself to be, at least a little, sad. When she was really unhappy, she was angry.
Her rages are part of the inchoate intuition that governs her life and writing. She is a woman who has grown old and dependent on others, living an unexamined life. Sometimes Plante observes this fundamental narcissism about Rhys:
People have always been shadows to me, and are so more and more. I’m not curious about other people—not about what they do, a little about what they think—and the more dependent I become on people, as I must, the more I shy away from them.
At other times, he notes that her fictional characters share this quality, and he seems to conclude that he is spending his time with an incurious old bigot:
She never asked why her main female characters acted as they did: they just did, as she did. There is about them a great dark space in which they do not ask themselves, removing themselves from themselves to see themselves in the world in which they live: Why do I suffer? When Jean said she delved and delved into herself, I didn’t understand: it was certainly not to question her happiness, or, more, unhappiness, in terms of the world she lived in, and certainly not her prejudices. These prejudices were many, and sometimes odd: Protestants, Elizabethans.
When Plante visits Rhys near the end of her life, he questions his entire relationship with the elderly writer and does not conclude that his interests were pure:
I knew that in my outer bright believing heart I had been false to Jean, because in my inner dark unbelieving heart I had loved her as a writer. I thought, But she might forgive me my cheap literary curiosity, she might even condone it; she might, perhaps, tell me that my literary interest, not only in her but in the world, was the deepest possible interest. And then it came to me that Jean was dead, because she was dead as a writer.
Her physical death occurs not long afterwards. But Plante is still connected to the woman who introduced them, his next difficult woman subject: Sonia Orwell. Orwell was the widow of George Orwell, although according to Plante’s description less the keeper of his literary legacy than the bearer of his name. Sonia Orwell was a fiction editor, translator, and artistic socialite, but not a writer herself.
Plante’s friendship with Orwell in particular seemed to reflect what standup comedians of the era called “recognition humor,” minus the humor. This approach assumed that most people are unsympathetic and unkind to one another and change little as a result of their everyday experiences. Throughout the sections of Plante’s book on Rhys and Orwell, Plante appears to be learning this unglamorous truth. While Plante tries to draw Orwell into the kind of friendship he craves—one where each person deeply understands the other—Orwell is prickly and duty-bound, seeing friendship as taking care of the other’s quotidian needs:
We made a date for me to come to fix the falling shelf to the bathroom wall, and then I thought we’d get down to talking about what, to me, would give the luncheon its importance: I would tell Sonia a little about my inner world, and she would tell me a little about hers. But she went on talking about what else was needed for the shelf, and when we parted she said, “That was lovely,” and I wondered why she thought it was lovely when nothing we’d talked about, it seemed to me, had been what I considered important.
Orwell and Rhys had been bound by Orwell’s dedication to making sure that Rhys had stimulating visitors, a decent place to live, and clean clothing. Orwell grows fonder of Plante after he installs the shelf in her home. Later, when Orwell visits him in Italy, she is only an agreeable guest when she imagines helping him with his domestic and homeowner chores. Plante realizes that sometimes it is not shared secrets but helping with needs and comforts that cemented adult friendships:
But the only world that mattered, I saw now, was the world outside one’s thoughts and feelings, and friends communicated with one another in terms of that world—not talking to one another about thoughts and feelings, but helping one another to put their houses in order.
Orwell frustrates Plante less than Rhys does and draws him into a more stimulating, and probably career-enhancing, circle. However, Plante also questions his attachment to Orwell. He observes that she takes no pleasure in her many London parties and the tireless wheel of social obligations she shackles herself to. She can be unkind to him and a bore, and her perfectionism and depressed irritability are a strain. But in the end, he pierces the veil that she holds over her public persona, and understanding her depression and anger is a form of intimacy:
I saw Sonia as an unspeakably unhappy woman. I was in love with the unhappiness in her, and yet reassured that, no matter what I did, what I felt it my duty to do, to lessen that unhappiness, I couldn’t: Sonia wouldn’t allow me to. Sonia reassured me in her frightening unhappiness. It was her secret.
After Orwell stays with him in Italy, she confronts Plante with her suspicions and her disappointment in him:
I’m not as frivolous as you think. You think I’m frivolous. I’m not. And I’ll tell you this about yourself, though you may not want to hear it: you are. And I’ll tell you the difference. I think. What you don’t do is think.
In one of Plante’s last accounts of Orwell, she reveals that she is difficult because she believes she has wasted her life and holds onto her deceased husband’s name as a talisman against mediocrity and an inconsequential life:
“Why? Why am I so filled with anger?”
I said nothing.
She said, “I’ve fucked up my life. I’m angry because I’ve fucked up my life.”
Plante notes conversations with another unnamed friend, who opines that Orwell became bitter when she realized that she had no talent. He passes little judgment other than to guess that she had killed her own creativity even as she nurtured it in others. When he visits her during an illness near the end of her life, he notes, “She suddenly looked very beautiful.” She smiles as though she is being relieved of a burden. He moves on, having collected her secrets like a lepidopterist pinning a rare specimen.
Germaine Greer is a wholly other kind of difficult woman. Notably about the same age as Plante, she is a formidable feminist writer and scholar whose book The Female Eunuch and outspoken body of work has made her famous and rich. She is a large-bodied woman with a matching persona, at ease in her sexuality, her mixture of erudite and coarse language, and her frank opinions of the people she encounters and the social ills in the world. She is a crusader and an enigmatic polymath, as comfortable discussing the scourge of female circumcision in African tribes as she is cooking a gourmet meal. In cultivating her friendship, Plante discovers Greer’s way of being a difficult woman:
My thinking made of her as a large public woman obsessed with the world, the entire world: she was difficult towards people in the world because so few cared a fuck about it.
Plante is drawn to her because her expansive manner and intelligence, and her competence and confidence make him feel significant as an intimate acquaintance. But he soon realizes that when Greer speaks to him about intellectual matters, her bodily needs, or about the way to solve a mutual friend’s problems, she might as well be speaking to anyone. She is an open book, and when she shares her observations and erudition, she is speaking as a public figure. But she is cagey about her past:
Her only secret was this: she would not reveal how she had become Germaine Greer, how she had learned everything she had had to learn to become the person she was. She would reveal everything about the Germaine Greer who actually was, who was entirely public, and about whom she kept no secrets.
As Plante spends time with Greer, first in Italy, then on a car trip through Europe, and at last at a university in Oklahoma, he becomes enthralled with her in a way that appears more complete and worshipful than with either Rhys or Orwell. He studies her, noting that her polymath knowledge comes from an empathic connection to individuals she meets such as a drag queen in Tulsa, and from intuition and concern about global problems, like birth control and unwanted children. He imagines that her vast intelligence is female and valuable to him:
So, if I with some degree of logic believed Germaine understood me, it followed that I believed she understood me with a woman’s intelligence. I wanted to know what she understood. […] A relationship with a woman did this to me: it made me feel complicated.
Greer, like the previous two difficult women, has difficulty maintaining friendships with other women. In learning this, Plante finds her Achilles heel. Women friends, Greer tells him, inevitably tell her what they observed:
That she was self-involved, and if she considered other people at all it was only an audience to whom she gave lectures.
She put her fingers over her lips. “They think I can’t be hurt. I suppose they can’t imagine I don’t know the way I am, and they feel impelled, for some reason which they call friendship but which is their convoluted idea of friendship, to tell me. They don’t know at all the way I am.”
Greer makes Plante uncomfortable with her comfort in the earthiness and blood of the world. One of the first times he meets her she is speaking lovingly to her cats as she feeds them chopped cow testicles. Another time, she describes female circumcision so graphically that he instinctively shields his own genitals. As he grows closer to Greer, Plante reveals the nature of female vitality that he is drawn to:
I knew I felt guilt towards, not all women, but difficult women, and I felt guilt because, somewhere in my life which I could not recall, I had done something, perhaps simply said something, which was wrong, which had hurt them, and the only reaction possible for them to what I had done or said was to be difficult. I had made them difficult.
Yet they gave me something, these women, or at least promised me something, for which I wanted to be close to them. They could justify me in my body and soul.
The tension in Plante’s friendships with the three women reveals itself in the discomfort they evoke in him coexisting with the love he professes for each one.
The tension in Plante’s friendships with the three women reveals itself in the discomfort they evoke in him coexisting with the love he professes for each one. In the case of Greer, he finds that he loves her as he watches her give a public, televised lecture on abortion. Beneath her knowledge and opinions, he observes the performance and imagines the metanarrative of the private Germaine Greer, whose solitary life had regrets, untidiness, passion, and vitality. Throughout the book, Plante interrogates himself about his purposes in collecting these difficult women. In his friendship with Greer, he reveals that, while he might grow to love the women, his motives remain obscure:
“You smile, and I find I smile too. You’re going to get me into the awful American habit of smiling at people when they look at you. You’re going to make me as nice as you are.”
“I’m not nice,” I said.
“So you’ve told me.”
Were Plante’s reasons for writing and his true feelings for his once-beloved mentors and friends in violation of unwritten rules, or was Difficult Women the only book he could have written after spending his youth in pursuit of the eponymous women? It is tempting to indict him for outing his friends and their psychological secrets. It is also possible to believe that he was following their examples of candor—Greer as a woman in a profane, panoptic embrace of the world and the people in her care, Orwell as an obsessive, demanding collector of writers and artists, and Jean as a crotchety, drunken, end-stage diva. All three women followed their own rules of behavior because of their accomplishments or age, which is why their friends and followers considered them difficult. Plante, whatever his initial reasons were in befriending them, might have consumed and become one of them. In one of the last conversations he reports with Jean Rhys, he writes, revealing the imperative of his project:
“You know what you must do in your writing,” she said. I became reassured: she was going to say that I must in my writing save all of civilization. But she stared keenly at me, expecting me to reply to her repeated, “Don’t you know?” I smiled. She said, “You must tell the truth about them.” She slammed her hand on the arm of the chair. “You must tell the truth against their lies.” My anger gave way to sudden sadness.
Susan Sheu lives in Los Angeles and received the 2017 Bennington Prize in Nonfiction for her memoir-in-progress, The Rag and Bone Man.