Saturday, August 29, 2009

Review: The Pure Lover

The Pure Lover
David Plante

Published by Beacon Press

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

In addition to many novels, David Plante has written compelling memoirs about his upbringing, development as a writer and his relationships with female friends. The Pure Lover is a very different kind of autobiographical piece which traces his longstanding relationship with the poet Nikos Stangos who died in 2004. He speaks directly to his lost lover addressing him as “you” throughout the book while recalling details of Stangos’ life to formulate an unsentimental portrait of the man he lost. Rather than presenting a straightforward narrative, details are presented in flashes with powerful short sections which simulate memories rushing forward. Something about this effect is so captivating and moving that I was enraptured from the beginning to the end of this short stunning book.

Plante’s moving tribute stands as a counterpoint to Andrew Holleran’s elegiac novel Grief which mourns for a generation of gay men, some of whom found their physical passion stymied by a fear of AIDS resulting in prolonged melancholy loneliness. The Pure Lover records a deep forty something year companionship between two men which weathered jealousy, depression, periods of separation through work and illness. The love, deep pleasure and joy in each other which Stangos and Plante shared withstood these trials just as any long term relationship, heterosexual or homosexual, must if it is to continue. However, we have precious few written tributes to lifelong homosexual relationships that were lived openly. This alone makes The Pure Lover a unique testament, but this deeply tender book also evokes feelings which are universal. Plante ponders the inevitable tragic consequence of two people who are so deeply romantically entwined – that ultimately they must be separated by death. And, though Stangos’ mental and physical deterioration put a considerable strain on both of them, the love they shared didn’t diminish. However, Plante stoically observes, “My love for you was not enough – you died.”

Plante exhumes memories of his lost lover by listing the details of his life in poignant lines and meditating on Stangos’ many accomplishments, particularly the striking and philosophically-engaged poetry he produced. (I previously reviewed Stangos’ posthumously published Pure Reason here) Details of Stangos childhood growing up in civil war-torn Greece are recalled chronologically leading up to their meeting. These succinct recollections painted with evocative details such as the family’s passionate communist maid and a visit to a brothel while Stangos was an adolescent expand voluminously to recreate a vanished era with magnificent force. Plante and Stangos’ relationship formed from a chance meeting and, like many encounters, could have easily never have happened. The details Plante divulges about their intimacy build to create a fully formed picture of a passionate, hard-won relationship. Through the supremely pared down style the author uses these specific details are elevated into something grander and more meaningful.

David Plante & Nikos Stangos

Alongside the personal reflections about his lover’s life and their relationship, Plante also speaks universally about what it’s like to lose a loved one. Each section is headed by short statements about the condition of grief and its effects. These are profound statements which are as striking as solemnly performed piano notes, much different from the prolonged deep inquiry into the numerous mechanisms of grief as presented by Joan Didion in her monumental book The Year of Magical Thinking. In Plante’s numerous observations about the condition of grief he states, “Grief demands a grand, timeless expression, and the bereaved tries, tries for that expression, and wonders if the expression is false.” As a testament to love, this book is finer than any other I can recall. The Pure Lover manages to achieve something which every writer strives so fervently to obtain in their prose; it struck me profoundly because it is so true.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review and the anthologies From Boys to Men and Between Men 2.

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