David Plante is an American writer who has lived in London for almost 50 years. His novels are not well known in this country, but anybody who enjoys high-class literary gossip is in for a treat with this second volume of his memoirs, covering the 1980s.
Plante was introduced to Stephen Spender by his boyfriend, the poet Nikos Stangos. Spender and his wife Natasha share starring roles here with Philip Roth, Germaine Greer and David Hockney, all of whom were Plante’s close pals during this period. Bernice Rubens and Anita Brookner get walk-on parts.
It is well known that the Spenders had an unconventional marriage, but the details were fiercely guarded by the couple during their lifetimes. Following Natasha’s death in 2010, Plante clearly feels no need to hold back, exposing Stephen’s homosexual inclinations most revealingly by documenting his affair, aged 68, with the 18-year-old American student, Bryan Obst. As Spender pines for his lover, Natasha becomes more and more miserable, telling Plante, “You see, Stephen basically hates women.”
Spender is full of amusing anecdotes, complaining that Auden, on one long stay, “never paid for anything but his gin”. However, it’s hard to like someone who declares, “My trouble is that I lose my interest in someone when he loses his looks.”
Philip Roth, who lived in London with his wife Claire Bloom, comes across as a more entertaining companion. “Philip Roth rang,” recounts Plante. “He said, ‘I can’t face the desk today. Do you want to have lunch?’” The pair regularly exchange ideas. “That’s my story,” Roth warns Plante during one meeting. “If I don’t use it within two years you can have it.” They make a fascinating trip to Israel together as research for Roth’s novel, The Counterlife. After visiting West Bank settlers, Roth tells Plante he has had the most exciting day of his life. “It’s shit, it’s shit, literature! I’m going to quit writing novels,” he says. “That’s all over.” Bloom, meanwhile, is as miserable as Natasha, confiding in Plante, “I’m more unhappy than I’ve ever been in my life.”
The best is yet to come, however, as Plante takes up a visiting teaching post in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and shares a house (and occasionally a platonic bed) with Germaine Greer. “Every night, before Germaine shut off the light, she did The Times of London crossword puzzle… and all the while I looked at her beautiful breasts,” he remembers.
Reading this posh tittle-tattle is a guilty pleasure – “So much not to talk about,” admits the sheepish Plante, “but no one tells me not to write about it” – and yet you just can’t help longing for the next instalment.
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