Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three
New York Review of Books Classics, 2017, £10.99
Worlds Apart: A Memoir
Bloomsbury, 2016, £10.99
Becoming a Londoner: A Diary
Bloomsbury, 2014, £9.99
The novelist David Plante has been keeping a diary of his life since 1959. Now running to many millions of words, it covers several decades of literary and artistic life in London and Europe, and is archived every few years in the New York Public Library. His first foray into its publication came early, too early, with Difficult Women in 1983. Now, following closely after Becoming a Londoner and Worlds Apart, two substantial volumes covering the 70s and 80s, Difficult Women has been republished as a New York Review of Books Classic.
Difficult Women relates, elegantly, wittily, and without mercy, Plante’s relationship with a near-senile Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, the entertaining and depressed widow of George (and inspiration for Julia, the protagonist of 1984), and the young Germaine Greer in her prime: articulate, ineducable, and irresistible.
If it were a film, Difficult Women would be made up solely of tracking shots and close-ups, two gestures of observation that the French film maker Jean-Luc Godard described as ‘questions of morality’. Plante is the unblinking camera, faithfully recording every intimate detail of these three important, famous women (more important and famous than him): their drunkenness, crudeness, sexual proclivities, hostility. In 1983 it was an act of literary betrayal, Plante putting a match to petrol. But 35 years later, after a decade in which social-media confessionals and the normalization of the celebrity scandal has cemented the merger of public and private, the book is a fast-paced haze of vignettes ordinary and extraordinary, presented in an exceptional if sometimes uneven experiment in form.
Removing all other names (so that Francis Bacon becomes ‘an artist friend’ and Stephen Spender ‘a poet’ and so on), the three women are relentlessly tracked in high-definition, with no supporting players, trapped out of time in a non-chronological stasis, with Plante himself as the deferential blank canvas on which the women express, well, mostly their irritation with him.
Germaine Greer is the most fascinating figure, and the most uncomfortable to read. She is a titan intellectually and explosive sexually, puckering her lips and grabbing her breasts while discussing shock absorbers in the Tuscan dialect with grease-stained Italian mechanics. She flashes passers-by in the cafe where she regularly meets her Italian gentiluomo. She sees a black man on campus in an American University: ‘Look at that black, walking in an electric-blue aura of sex. That’s what I want’, she says ‘big black n***er cock.’ Far from being a female eunuch, she is in the possession of a terrific phallus herself, ‘in total fucking command’ at all times. She complains that Plante calls her a ‘castrating women’ – then chops up a testicle she has in the fridge and feeds it to her cats.
Unsurprisingly, Greer was furious with the book. She embedded a coruscating attack on Plante in an article deriding Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, wrapped in a devastating analysis of novelists in general. On his treatment of Sonia Orwell, Greer wrote, ‘Her only mistake was to be generous with time and support to that most self-serving of creatures, a writer.’ As for herself, she describes ‘how disturbing it is to have gobbets of your life sampled, digested and dished back up to you in unrecognisable form.’ On top, she ‘despised’ him for offering her to revise any parts she didn’t like. ‘You’ll see,’ she told him when they were still friends, ‘it’ll happen to you more and more. You’ll become famous, and it will be a disaster to you in all ways. Like me, you’ll end up with no friends.’
She sympathised with Plante’s new unpopularity, for a moment, on publication, and offered him (as he told the story to me in an exchange of emails) ‘comforting spaghetti’. She had not yet read the book. Two days later he called her to invite her for dinner: ‘I’m thinking of how I can destroy you’, was her response. ‘He had no idea how deeply I would resent being made to utter namby-pamby Plante-speak like a dummy on his knee’. While there’s no doubt that Plante’s clear, spacious prose cannot capture Greer’s dense, vertiginous articulacy, it’s also true that no one likes the sound of their own voice.
Greer doesn’t need critical or public protection from other people’s gossip; she can look after herself – it is her obligation to do so as a self-selected public intellectual – and she has the privilege of commanding a much greater audience than Plante or any critic; after all Celebrity Big Brother still has her number. As Plante wrote of her: ‘even in private, she’s public.’
Not everyone let themselves get so close to the diarist. His friend the historian Steven Runciman was able to discriminate on the grounds of unreliability, once sending him a limerick (in Becoming a Londoner) which could have served as a warning to others:
The stories I tell David Plante
Soon acquire a curious slant.
His fertile invention
Twists all that I mention.
I could tell him more,
But I shan’t.
Sonia Orwell was right when she told him, ‘no one thinks you are as nice as you try to be’. The unoffending Valerie Eliot, TS’s widow, an acquaintance and supporter of Plante’s writing, is described in Becoming a Londoner as having ‘all the gusto of a young working-class man in drag’. Plante, the safe gay friend for women (or ‘a cunt tease’ as an unnamed woman writer calls him), in recording their quotidian faults, is an anti-Boswell.
In the end being difficult is not the quality that links Greer, Orwell and Rhys: the title was the publisher Francis Wyndham’s, not Plante’s. Rather, they illuminate the page with their experience, wisdom, with complexity, bravery and ruggedness. Rhys is presented as an Ozymandian ruin, a scatter-brained little girl who loves pretty dresses, locked in the attic room of a depressed, weeping, persecuted, vermouth-soaked old harridan. In the compelling opening scene, Plante, on their first meeting, accidentally drops her, while she’s drunk on vermouth and with her knickers round her knees, into the lavatory. Plante writes with an ingénue’s integrity, committed to the idea that ‘truth is beauty’ is the only moral justification, and finds our sympathy by holding on through Rhys’s mental collapse. Rather than being a hatchet job, it is a true tragedy pitted with love. She has the diary’s most searing vision: that ‘all of literature is a great lake, fed by vast rivers like Tolstoy, and little streams like Jean Rhys; all that matters is to feed the lake’.
Sonia Orwell evolves from a hectoring socialite – the snob to end all snobs (one dinner guest, a memoirist, was only ‘at a very minor concentration camp’) – to an unhappy but loyal-as-steel survivor whose own difficultness was matched by her generosity towards even more difficult and more hopeless people than she. Germaine Greer, in spite of the occasional grubbiness of Plante’s detailed observations, comes off as an exceptional human being of stupefying talent and force – GG-force – who would save the world or die trying. Perhaps as a little indicator of the dividends paid by the feminist movement, these grand women, when allowed to stand with warts and all, now seem grander, more spectacular, more beautiful than ever. What is so shocking about three difficult women when the history of the world is a history of difficult men?
Plante took a terrible hit for this faux-innocent, treacherous, but deeply loving (and fun) book, and among the four of them, his self-doubting narrator and indiscreet confidante comes off worst. But he has, in making himself their betrayer, memorialized these women’s greatness, with only himself as collateral damage. To defend the protagonists belittles them; to accept is to praise.
In 1983 the contents of this book was still a memory, too recent to have become a history, and its publication was tactless and indiscreet. The first publication, lacking the objectivity granted by time, was felt to have a narcissistic eye. That history has now arrived, and the women have not shrunk but been magnified by Plante’s refusal to blink. He described Difficult Women as ‘a private revelation about love’, and the love, alongside the booze and the bitching and the dinner parties, is what remains.