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Before he begins the story itself, David Plante quotes a line from the journals of his partner, Nikos Stangos: “Please let me make the fragments meaningful.” What follows is a recounting of Stangos’ life, death, and forty-year relationship with Plante, author of several nonfiction books and novels, including The Family, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1979, and current professor creative writing at Columbia University. The story, subtitled “A Memoir of Grief,” is told through a series of fragments: a paragraph followed by a couple of blank lines followed by another paragraph and so on. This style will throw off some readers who will wish for a more cohesive flow, but others like myself will appreciate seeing memory at work. After all, we remember in fragments.
The book still follows a linear path starting with Stangos’s birth in 1936 outside Athens, Greece, amidst rising tensions that would tear Europe apart in World War II. The story ultimately ends with Stangos’ death in 2004. In between, we encounter a couple who deeply entwined home and career so intensely that their love seemed to fuel all aspects of their life, public and private, which makes Stangos’ death particularly painful for Plante.
While reading this book, I could not help but think of what its existence says about the tradition of gay male memoir. Fifteen years ago, the grief memoir was practically all we had–think of Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time, Clifford Chase’s The Hurry-Up Song, and many of the essays that fill Leslea Newman’s edited collection A Loving Testimony. New drug therapies meant revisiting how we live and how we write, which explains why Plante’s memoir seems particularly sad.
Those of us who lost partners, friends, and family to AIDS in the 1980s and 90s found comfort in reading story after story of losses similar to our own. That sense of connection no longer runs beneath our narratives of grief, replaced instead by a sense of isolation (ironic considering the fact that loss is an experience that should unite all of humanity). When Plante writes that he can never be buried next to Stangos because Plante himself is not Greek Orthodox, or when he describes returning home and lying on Stangos’ side of the bed getting drunk on wine, it hurts, but I feel less connected to him than I did to the authors I was reading over a decade ago. This is not meant to be a criticism of Plante, however, but more a sign of how our reading and writing practices have changed over time. Thankfully, gay men are no longer dying as rapidly as they were, but Plante reminds us that we do die and we do get left behind. Grief has become individualized again.
After making such statements, it would be easy to fall into cliché and proclaim that we should seize the day and all that. While true, it would be wrong to reduce this book to that message. Plante has created a deep meditation on grief, love, and how one cannot exist without the other. For those open to the intellectual and emotional journeys Plante provides–and we should all be open to them–we will not find an end to isolation but might find ways to lessen its impact on us when we inevitably find ourselves in a similar position to his: lucky to have loved yet immersed in loss, with fragments of memories almost all that is left behind.
THE PURE LOVER
A Memoir of Grief
By David Plante
Hardcover, $23.00, 128p