David Plante, Becoming a Londoner: A Diary (New York: Bloomsbury, September 2013)
David Plante, The Francoeur Novels: The Family, The Woods, The Country (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1983)
The experience of reading literary diaries and letters can feel like an act of voyeurism. For the reader, the first few pages of revelations are guiltily tantalizing, as the inner life of a literary figure comes into focus and trips are made behind closed doors. Then a sense of familiarity with the diarist becomes part of the reading experience, and one feels less like a voyeur and more like a welcome companion.
On first reading David Plante’s Becoming a Londoner: A Diary, I felt as if I was peeking through the windows of the writer’s private life, an unwelcome guest at the cocktail parties he attended with Stephen and Natasha Spender, Sonia Orwell, David Hockney, and Philip Roth, to name only a few of the boldface names mentioned. There is a great deal of literary gossip—Plante’s partner Nikos Stangos had once been Stephen Spender’s lover—yet the coils that connect much of the social intrigue in Plante’s diaries are not what drew me in. What held my interest in Becoming a Londoner, and made me feel a connection with the diarist, was seeing how Plante’s diaries informed the fiction he created, in particular his trilogy of novels featuring the Francoeur family: The Family (1978), The Woods (1980), and The Country (1982). In one chapter, Plante reveals how his worlds of fiction and reality were blurred, particularly this entry made by the author after visiting his family in Providence, Rhode Island, in the 1970s:
While they are asleep, I look through the living room, through the piegeonholes where papers are kept, among them envelopes with clippings from the first haircuts of all of my parents’ seven sons, each envelope with the names of my brothers and me written on it by my mother in pencil….This most struck me:
The realm of silence is large enough beyond the grave.
The winter afternoon is waning.
Upon reading that diary entry, I remembered a similar scene in The Family, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1979. The novel’s protagonist, Daniel, is alone and awake in a house where his parents are asleep. His mother has recently undergone electroconvulsive therapy, and Daniel is struggling to find something, anything, to feel a connection to his family during a period when he feels his relationships are falling apart.
He pulled out a small stack of old envelopes bound by elastic and removed the elastic to separate the seven envelopes. Each one was inscribed in the mother’s writing, with the name of a son, Richard A., Albert B., Edmond R., Philip P., Andre J., Daniel R., Julien E., and inside was a clipping of hair from the first haircut the father had given the son. He lifted the hair out of each envelope and slipped it back; fine blond hair, massy curly hair, straight dark hair. Daniel’s sight blurred a little. He replaced the envelopes and reinserted the stack in the pigeonhole.
The publication of Becoming a Londoner will attract readers because of the window it gives to literary society in 1960s and 1970s London, particularly how two gay men navigated that world in an England where homosexuality was still illegal. Yet what I hope the publication of Plante’s diaries will do is bring readers back to his Francoeur novels, The Family, The Woods, and The Country. After reading the diaries, Plante’s occasional musings about his writing (in between longer accounts of the interconnected social world of writers and artists in London) led me to pull my dog-eared thirty-year-old paperback copy of The Francoeur Novels from my bookshelf. Returning to the dark and lyrical fictional world Plante created in those novels, particularly The Family, made parts of the diaries come alive, since there is much of Plante’s real world that crept into the fictional world he created. Recognizing the connection between fiction and reality, one begins to see how a diary can serve as a creative roadmap for a novel.
Familial love and guilt are at the center of all of the Francoeur novels, particularly The Family. The narrative of each revolves around the complex relationships between the seven Francoeur sons, their parents, and their Roman Catholic faith. It is this tension between faith and family that sustains the three novels along with their beautifully descriptive prose. Particularly in The Family, Plante creates a strong sense of what his characters are thinking and feeling, as well as how they are navigating their way around their small French-Canadian working-class world. Plante continues this tension in The Woods and The Country, but the reader begins to see how the members of the Francoeur family are seeking to leave the world and habits of their childhood behind as the tightly conscribed social boundaries of the 1950s begin to fade away.
Each of the novels takes the reader through a different stage in the life of Daniel Francoeur. The Family begins during Daniel’s eight-grade year and ends during his first year at a Catholic college in Boston, which bears some resemblance to Plante’s own alma mater Boston College. Next The Woods focuses on Daniel’s college years and his struggles with his sexuality—he is obsessed with his body and his sexuality throughout the book—in a way that is poetic rather than titillating. When the final novel The Country begins, Daniel is returning to Providence from London—where he is a writer—to come home to be at the bedside of his dying father.
I read The Family for the first time when it was released in 1978 and my second reading of it made me realize why it is a personal favorite. The writing is simply beautiful, with parts of the novel that read like an elegiac prose poem. Plante’s portrait of the Providence of his childhood is vivid and imagistic and draws in the reader. Perhaps that is why over the years I have sometimes looked for evidence of the world of the Francoeurs when I have visited that small New England town.
The Woods–the slimmest of the trilogy–is my least favorite upon my second reading. Daniel Francoeur’s self-absorption throughout the novel resonates less with me in middle age than when I read the book in my early twenties. But Plante makes up for the navel-gazing in The Woods by showing how much Daniel has grown up in the pages of The Country. Daniel Francoeur is much more emotionally self-assured in this novel, much as Plante himself felt at the time the novel was published in 1982.
Plante takes his readers deep into the repressive world of 1950s Roman Catholicism, which may be off-putting to some readers. But that is the part of the Francoeur novels that will also resonate with some readers, particularly now that Pope Francis has begun to move the Church away from its contemporary rigorists, who have their origins in the 1950s world of “pray, pay, and obey” Catholicism that Plante makes so vividly real. “The residue of my religion,” Plante writes, is “a constant awareness of a way of thinking and feeling.” Though no longer a believer, as Plante makes clear in his diaries, Catholicism informs how and what he writes.
After the publication of The Family, Plante wrote in his diary “The awareness I retain most of my family is the love and the longing that surrounded us all—the love and the longing inculcated in all of us, mother and father and seven sons, by the enclosing religion of a small, working-class, French-speaking parish in Yankee New England.” That world is worthy of a second glimpse, which is why readers should return to Plante’s Francoeur novels. What Plante recounts in the pages of Becoming a Londoner—complex relationships and encounters, struggles with faith and sexuality—echoes even stronger in his Francoeur novels, making them deserving of a second look.
The Francoeur Novels: The Family, The Woods, The Country (Dutton, 1983) is currently out of print but can be found through online retailers.