De­mo­li­tion man


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

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