Difficult Women By David Plante New York Review of Books £12.65 Oldie price £9.78 inc p&p
David Plante’s demolition job on Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell and Germaine Greer first appeared in 1983. Tasteless, treacherous and horribly brilliant, Difficult Women has now been awarded the ultimate prize by being reissued as a New York Review Classic, so we need no longer be ashamed of admiring it.
Plante is a (minor) novelist of FrenchCanadian descent with a yearning for fame and a genius for treachery. Not one for betraying his daemon, Plante, a diabolical Boswell, sniffs around literary London, accumulating smart invitations in order to murder his host. The first part of Difficult Women describes lunch with Jean Rhys, in her eighties and living in a hotel in South Kensington. Sozzled and lachrymose, Rhys is lost in memories of Dominica and dead babies, while Plante’s role is to replenish her glass. Occasionally, the spotlight falls on him: ‘Do you hate women?’ asks Rhys, who has just described ‘all of writing as a huge
lake’, fed by rivers like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and ‘trickles, like Jean Rhys’. Plante, blinking ‘to rid my eyes of tears’, is doubtless thinking that, if Rhys is a trickle in the lake of literature, then he is a dripping tap. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘I don’t hate women. I have very complicated feelings towards them.’ ‘You must hate them, though,’ Rhys insists. ‘Sometimes I hate some women,’ Plante concedes.
Does he hate Rhys – and himself – when he describes her, later that afternoon, in the bathroom, ‘her head with the battered hat leaning far to the side, her feet, with the knickers about her ankles, just off the floor, stuck on the toilet’? Rhys is a goddess, Plante a worm, yet we admire his appalling manners, his determination to cross the Rubicon in the name of Art and wave from the other side.
Enter Sonia Orwell, the talentless snob on whom Jean Rhys relies. ‘I’m not helping Jean because she’s just anyone. I’m helping her because she’s Jean Rhys,’ she explains. Sonia, who married Orwell on his deathbed then adopted his nom de plume, introduces Plante to ‘people I had known only as names’. When he ventures an opinion at one of her dinner parties, Sonia shouts, ‘What do you know about writing?’ Plante ‘felt myself rise up from myself and stare down at myself from the table, and that disembodied self said, coldly, “You fool”’. Who’s the fool now, Sonia so-called Orwell?
Germaine Greer invites Plante to Italy, where she makes a pass at him (he’s gay). In his recent memoir, Worlds Apart, Plante describes meeting her again soon after Difficult Women appeared. ‘I know you don’t like me,’ says Plante. ‘Not much,’ Greer agrees.
‘Part of the allure of Difficult Women,’ explains Scott Spencer in his underpowered introduction, ‘is trying to puzzle out what motivated Plante’s exposure of his friends and himself.’ The answer, surely, is revenge – for not being recognised as the difficult man he is.
God the Father, by Antoine Coypel, from Versailles: The Great and Hidden Splendours of the Sun King’s Palace, Thames & Hudson, £50, Oldie price £34.18