Never underestimate how confining and suffocating a credo, an ethnic tradition or a mere social milieu can be. And never underestimate the...
Never underestimate how confining and suffocating a credo, an ethnic tradition or a mere social milieu can be. And never underestimate the power of that credo/tradition/milieu to reinflict its constrictions, years later, on even its most willful escapee.
In “American Ghosts: A Memoir” (Beacon Press, 288 pp., $24), novelist David Plante’s stark, strange, powerful memoir about trying to break free of his French-Canadian Catholic background, family ethno-religious heritage amounts to a morbid psychological prison from which no escape is ever complete.
“American Ghosts,” along with telling Plante’s life story, pushes the reader into near-mystical territory, skirting the edge of sense, taking ordinary words and images and imbuing them with meanings that make them seem more than themselves. With extraordinary immediacy, the book immerses you in Plante’s turbulent spiritual and psycho-sexual progress. It also offers a fascinating look at how the sentence-shaping, image-forming components of a writer’s mind operate.
David Plante will read from “American Ghosts” at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, Schafer Auditorium in the Lemieux Library, Seattle University, Seattle, free (206-296-5420), and at 7 p.m. next Friday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle, free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com). Plante will also take part in a salon event with poet Madeline DeFrees, limited to 30 people, at 7 p.m. Thursday, sponsored by Counterbalance at the Petersen Room, Allen Library, University of Washington, Seattle, $20 in advance, $25 at the door (206-282-2677).
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But first some facts — the main one being that Plante, technically speaking, wasn’t French Canadian at all. He was born in 1940 in a neighborhood of Providence, R.I., that he calls a “French fortress surrounded by Yankee territory.” There, Catholic Mass, school and most household conversations were conducted in French.
“We lived in what we called LePetit Canada,” he says, “where we preserved the beliefs of Le Grand Canada.” (In a footnote that speaks volumes, Plante recalls that when he applied for his first American passport, he put his nationality down as “French” — he assumed it was only “Yankees” who qualified as American.)
His community’s “Grand Canada” beliefs were permeated with a readiness for martyrdom and a hunger for death. Plante’s feverishly devout Aunt Cora, for instance, put up with an abusive, adulterous, alcoholic husband for years because “I knew I was earning my eternity.” Plante’s grandmother was remembered as saying she wouldn’t want her husband back from the dead because “we work too hard to die.”
Plante’s mother, by contrast, found these sentiments “terrible … I don’t live to die. I live to live.” She did what she could to encourage her son’s escape.
As for Plante’s father, he was one-quarter Blackfoot Indian, he scarcely spoke and, as Plante tells it, he may have been haunted by ghosts far harsher than any Catholic deity.
Plante, who later drew on this background in his fiction, did make an escape, spending decades away from the U.S. (mostly in England) and yielding to his sexual desires (he met his life partner Nikos Stangos, a Greek exile, poet and celebrated art-book editor, in London in 1966). In place of his Catholic “God of death,” he aspired to encompass “everything” in his writing — an ambition resulting in a diary millions of words long. His published fiction, he says, was merely “incidental” to this exhaustive task.
When, in the 1970s, Plante’s struggles pushed him toward complete nervous collapse, a concerned Stangos encouraged a budding friendship between Plante and American writer Mary Gordon “because she accepted, in her highly personal but principled terms, Catholicism.” Nevertheless, Plante resisted Gordon’s urgings to “give in” to the possibility of faith: “I expected to be made to believe not by giving in to my feelings but by being taken out of my feelings into something entirely other than my feelings.”
It’s here that Plante’s idiosyncratic semi-mysticism kicks in as an answer to the Catholicism that shaped him. In each uncannily bright image he evokes — something as simple as, say, a glass of water — he finds a springboard into undefined, nameless realities that loom within the mind without ever becoming manifest. While the ideas here can be paradoxical and intricate, the rendering of them is as transparent as Plante’s pristine prose can make it.
With startling candor, “American Ghosts” also deals with American class consciousness, ethnic shame, the limitations of conservative Catholicism and the tentative “pretension” to worldly experience that was Plante’s only ploy for escaping those limitations (“pretension,” he says more than once, was “the condition that most allowed me to live”).
The book’s last passages suggest that it was Stangos who made Plante’s quest and very survival possible. It comes as a shock, then, to learn from the British newspaper, The Guardian, that Stangos died of cancer last April — a loss to which Plante doesn’t allude anywhere in “American Ghosts.”
Here’s a book that baffles you, entangles you, lures you into perilous vantage points with a tenacity that is at once off-putting and riveting. This is a book that you live while you read it, in all its alien and jagged swirls of feeling.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com