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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, December 25th, 2005


 

American Ghosts: A Memoir

by

Cast Off

A review by Ronald Wright

It has been said of David Plante's novels that they can be read but not described. The same is largely true of his memoir, American Ghosts. Waking as a child in terror of a ghostly Indian he imagines at the bottom of the garden, young David is told by his mother "There's nothing there, nothing, nothing". But to him "everything was out there", and later in life he admits wanting "to have everything, to have nothing less than everything". Such a hunger for knowledge and experience is common enough, especially among writers. But although this book seems to promise both a personal and historical quest, it seldom ventures beyond the subjective and imaginary, recoiling from real contact with history, geography, ethnicity or politics. Plante himself is disarmingly frank about this and other shortcomings, telling how he took from his Greek lover Nikos "the criticism that my great weakness in my writing, as well as in my life, was a self-indulgent lack of engagement with the world".

Despite his stated interest in the family and community past -- a potentially fascinating past which includes a Blackfoot Indian great-grandmother and French Canadian fur traders -- Plante does little research beyond a day or two of half-hearted genealogy in France. He does not visit French Canada, the ancestor of his Franco-Catholic enclave in the state of Rhode Island, until invited to lecture there at the age of fifty. And though he speculates at length about his Indian blood, these thoughts fail to rise above American cliche: the Indian deep within his father is a Hollywood cipher, a strange, stoic, superstitious, laconic creature of "the woods". He shows no curiosity in the Blackfoot themselves (a bison-hunting people of the far western plains) and no awareness that the local Indians of New England and New France were maize farmers who lived not in the woods but in sizeable towns (Quebec City and Montreal were inhabited by thousands when Jacques Cartier arrived in the 1530s). He does not even ask himself how a Blackfoot woman might have met his great-grandfather thousands of miles to the east. Oddest of all, for a person with Native American blood, the one historical question he does raise several times is whether America "belongs" to the English or the French. The ghosts of the land never escape from a naive mythology absorbed from French missionary romances and the beguiling fictions that America prefers to the hard truth of extermination and dispossession.

American Ghosts, then, is a book about its author and his state of mind, a stifling house of dreamlike images and dark obsessions adrift from the temporal world. The strongest images -- the early ones before Plante leaves home for Paris, Barcelona and London -- have a hallucinatory compulsion like the miracles and mortifications of his provincial Catholicism, a medieval relic lingering improbably in a stale corner of the New World. His aunt Cora used to show him her collection of "holy cards" dwelling on the gore of favourite martyrdoms in pornographic detail: the plucking out of St Lucy's eyes, the lopping of St Agatha's breasts, and "the disembowelment of Saint Erasmus, his intestines wound out of him onto a big wheel". Not surprisingly, young David becomes one of Christianity's psychological amputees, persuaded that the physical world is at best a prelude to the "hereafter", and at worst a dangerous seduction that will get him damned.

The self-absorbed intensity of Plante's prose works best in these childhood years; later it becomes tedious, like the recounting of dreams more compelling to the teller than the told. Readers hoping for strong attention to style (as, for example, in J. M. Coetzee's Boyhood) will be frustrated by the book's unevenness. Some parts are elegantly written, others so careless they seem unrevised. Plante's subtle, tender account of his sexual awakening in Spain -- one of the most finely drawn scenes -- is described only a few pages later as "the most amazingly unique experience of my life."

If in childhood Plante falls under the baleful candlelight of grisly icons, in adolescence he discovers Thomas Aquinas and the brothers James. He admits coming to London as a young man "to be a minor Henry James", a fantasy from which he claims to have been saved by the astute Nikos. But only somewhat saved: Plante has inherited the Jamesian gift of being able to write for page on page about nothing very much beyond nuance.

Plante identifies his home community as "Le Petit Canada", a term that usually refers to old parts of French Canada left south of the border after the American Revolution. Though he creates an aura of age and authenticity for his parish, it was in fact a much more recent offshoot founded by migrant workers in the late nineteenth century. In one of the book's rare sparks of wit, David's mother asks Aunt Cora if the eviscerated Erasmus is the saint one should apply to for a constipation cure. Plante believes French Canadians in general and himself in particular to be "humourless", a judgement American Ghosts certainly supports. But this is an odd thing to say about French Canadians, normally regarded by their Anglo neighbours as a fun-loving lot. If "humourless" truly describes Plante's childhood culture, that culture must have been a local anomaly. Drink, laughter, dancing, all seem to have been suppressed to a degree unheard of in Quebec or Acadia. This suggests (though Plante does not) that his uprooted Franco-Catholicism had already been infiltrated by the American Puritanism surrounding it.

Plante eventually returns to his parish to find it almost wholly erased: the old families gone, the graves dug up and moved (the dead friendless against developers). The few faithful at the rundown Catholic church are now Mexicans. One wave of migrant workers has been succeeded by another, as they in their turn will no doubt be absorbed by the great melting pot of deracinated America. American Ghosts is a deeply American work: a minute self-examination by a wounded yet perversely callow consciousness. The ghosts interest David Plante not for their own sake but rather as elements of his personal psychic decor.

Ronald Wright's Stolen Continents: Conquest and resistance in the Americas, 1992, was reissued earlier this year. His most recent book is A Short History of Progress, based on Canada's 2004 Massey Lectures.



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