Book Review: Michael Dirda Reviews David Plante's 'Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief'

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, September 10, 2009


A Memoir of Grief

By David Plante

Beacon. 114 pp. $23

In 2007 the English publisher Thames & Hudson brought out "Pure Reason: Poems by Nikos Stangos." The slender volume, as beautiful an example of book design as anyone could ask for, not only gathered 23 of Stangos's manuscript poems but also featured artwork by such friends as David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Jasper Johns and Howard Hodgkin. In essence, the book, edited by novelist David Plante, was a tribute to Stangos, who was born in 1936 in Athens, survived World War II and the other calamities visited upon modern-day Greece, and died in 2004 of cancer.

But just who was Nikos Stangos?

As a young man from a well-to-do Greek family -- his father attended MIT -- Stangos had been sent to the United States for much of his education, receiving a BA from Denison University, earning an MA from Wesleyan and doing graduate work in philosophy at Harvard. Nothing if not cosmopolitan, he finally settled in London, where he eventually became a poetry editor at Penguin and, later, a director for Thames & Hudson, with responsibility for many of that company's widely admired art books. In 1965 Stangos met the American-born writer David Plante, best known for such starkly titled novels as "The Family," "The Country" and "The Woods," as well as the memoir "Difficult Women," portraits of the dour novelist Jean Rhys, George Orwell's widow, Sonia, and feminist Germaine Greer. The two young men fell in love and remained partners for nearly 40 years. "The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief" is Plante's re-creation of their now-vanished life together.

The new book's pointillist structure -- seemingly random statements and anecdotes, in roughly chronological order -- may well have sprung from Plante's distinctly personal endnotes to the earlier volume of Stangos's poetry, e.g., "The two great historical influences on him were: the love of freedom of Classical Greece and the love of order of Byzantium." But in "The Pure Lover," he adopts an unexpected point of view: Plante addresses his various memories to Stangos himself, using the second person ("you") throughout. Thus, "You said to me about my writing, 'Don't disappoint me.' " Instead of the "I, I, I" of most memoirs, this one echoes with the besotted lover's cry of "You, you, you."

The book's first sections, titled "Alpha" and "Beta," largely tell us about Stangos's ancestry, childhood and youth. For instance, we learn about the family's communist cook, who committed suicide by drinking toilet cleaner. We are told that at school in Athens "students formed opposing armies to fight over you for your delicate beauty, and you, in a cubicle of the toilet, which was the only place you could be alone, wept."

In later sections, all titled after the letters in the Greek alphabet, Stangos enjoys a liaison with poet Stephen Spender, spends his first night with Plante talking rather than making love and almost precipitously invites the American writer to share his apartment. Over the subsequent years, the two men travel together, eventually buy vacation homes in Italy and Greece together and work hard to mesh two different lifestyles:

"Our rows! Almost all of them had to do with your need for order. Though I was orderly too . . . your need for order was far in excess of mine. You complained if, in the bathroom, I let soap in the soap dish become slimy, if in flossing my teeth I speckled the mirror, if I squeezed the toothpaste tube from the middle, if I did not lower the seat of the toilet bowl, if I did not hang the bath mat over the rim of the tub, if I did not turn on or off the light by the little wooden knob at the end of the cord but by the cord, if, if, if, oh, if I replaced the roll of toilet paper so that it rolled outwardly rather than inwardly against the wall. You would not listen when a friend told you that he had been in ducal houses, even princely houses, where the toilet paper was always rolled outwardly. I tried to be amused by your fastidiousness, but, complaining against your complaints, shouted that I would not have our lives reduced to minutia. You shouted back, 'I will not live in bedlam.' And you never, ever apologized, as if constitutionally opposed to apology."

Anyone who has lived intimately with another person will recognize this familiar litany of gripes and irritations. Some things never change, whether a couple is gay or straight.

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