A literary life
by Roberto Friedman
At first we weren't sure we would enjoy reading Worlds Apart: A Memoir (Bloomsbury) from the novelist David Plante, just released. While we're aware of Plante's literary reputation (his The Family was nominated for the National Book Award), we're not a particular fan, and his authorial tone can be high-minded, austere, even precious.
But in an author's note at the book's beginning, Plante writes, "I met Nikos [Stangos ] on June 28, at 6:00 p.m., 1966, and I saw him breathe out but not breathe in and felt his body go quickly cold at 10:00 a.m. on April 16, 2004. Those were the years of my life, and it was during those years with him that this book has most meaning." This preface imbues the subsequent scenes of the partners' times together with poignancy, as when at book's end Stangos shows Plante the family plot where he will be buried. Our highest criterion for art or literature is that it moves us, and this memoir is moving indeed.
In its 360 pages there's plenty of travel, dinner parties, and intimate friendships with such personages as poet Stephen Spender , artist Jennifer Bartlett , feminist theorist Germaine Greer , and novelist Philip Roth . Artist David Hockney shares his stash of porn: "David showed us a stack of naked young men – Americans, he said: they're always the best." Plante evinces a dry sense of humor, as when Spender confides that he is in love with his student at the University of Florida in Gainesville: "Bryan Obst, who is eighteen to Stephen's sixty-eight. He repeated, 'It could be a disaster.'"
At first this all comes off as just so much name-dropping, but then it becomes clear that Plante really does have close and fertile relationships with all of these famous folk. He shares a house in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with Greer while they're both on the university faculty there. He makes a trip to Jerusalem and other Israeli locales with Roth, recounted in a chapter that is a sort of memoir-within-the-memoir. Roth is responsible for one of the book's most amusing lines when he tells Plante, "You'll come to America. I'll take you to a baseball game. You'll like it. The players wear uniforms now that show off their asses."
There are all sorts of insider anecdotes, as when art curator and critic Henry Geldzahler cruises a boy in the park outside a Hockney opening. But ultimately the memoir and the diaries it's drawn from come most alive when they observe the life partnership of David and Nikos, and their times together in London, Umbria, Lucca, Greece and rural Ireland. They clearly led a rich and full life together, sadly truncated.
At times the diaries have the curious property of a game of telephone, as when Plante recounts Spender telling tales about earlier encounters with W.H. Auden or Evelyn Waugh. Or as in, "I saw Angus [Wilson] take from the inside pocket of his jacket a little notebook and open it and write what I imagined he noted about the scene," which is then described in Plante's little notebook. The mind boggles.
Out There was in the house at the Marsh Berkeley last Saturday night for a performance of comic Karen Ripley 's newest solo show, Oh No, There's Men on the Land, her stories of lesbian adventures in the Bay Area and beyond. Ripley is a pioneer of gay comedy, having been on the scene since 1977. Her hilarious and poignant look back at decades of gay life takes its title from her visit to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. When biological males came to the fest to empty the port-a-potties, the alarm went up: "Men on the land!" Ripley was there to perform with the all-lesbian band The Wombmates.
Oh, the stories she tells! Backing SF legend Jane Dornacker on drums and coke! Unwittingly high-hatting Bill Graham! Becoming a member of a lesbian collective – that's where eight people share one salary – in Berkeley, where everyone must go to therapy – "it's the law!" Ripley plays the Marsh Berkeley Saturdays at 5 p.m., through Oct. 3. Info: themarsh.org.
This week's issue begins two weeks of fall previews in Arts & Culture. In this week's pages, find samplings of autumn offerings in theatre, art galleries, TV and classical music recordings. Next week, we continue with previews of the symphony and opera seasons, films and art museum exhibitions. Hard to believe the new season is about to begin, but here it comes.
Finally, this week arts writer Tavo Amador describes the life and legacy of Carmen Miranda, who died 60 years ago this month. Amador tells us that there is a YouTube video of her appearance on Jimmy Durante's TV show. The viewer can see her shortness of breath – she even mentions it – and her falling to one knee when they finish a number. Those seem to be symptoms of the heart condition that would kill her the very next day. Ay yi yi yi yi, RIP!