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Family Secrets

Annunciation

by David Plante
Ticknor and Fields, 346 pp. (1994)

Born the sixth of seven brothers in a French-Canadian enclave of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1940, the writer David Plante is best known for his trilogy The Francoeur Family (1978–1982), a novelized memoir of childhood, adolescence, and early maturity. Told without fear of the humdrum and repetitious, the book’s achievement is its gradual and convincing creation of nine characters—father, mother, and seven sons—each highly individual but seen to be so in reaction and relation to one another.

Catholic and originally Francophone in a Protestant and overwhelmingly Anglophone world, the Francoeurs are torn by competing impulses, toward solidarity and security on the one hand, independence and risk on the other. The book opens with the stubborn, taciturn father, of part American Indian descent, choosing to go it alone and ignore a union strike call, a decision that will eventually lead to his dismissal and economic downfall. At the same time his wife is lamenting the fact that she has lost all independence in marriage and has to follow her husband’s lead in everything, though she admits having chosen him because she is weak herself and attracted to his protective strength. Unable to find a middle way between fear of family breakdown and desire for personal freedom, she descends through one panic attack after another into a state of near madness, a process Plante describes over five hundred and more pages with extenuating patience and precision.

Meantime, each brother distinguishes himself from the others through the nature of his response to the same conundrum: how to have a separate, independent life in the Anglophone world while remaining loyal to the old community and safe within it. The eldest son, Richard, leaves home but exactly follows his parents’ model, marrying a Catholic girl and producing a large family. More interestingly, the second son, Albert, becomes a fighter pilot, stationed far from home but always turning all his money and attention back toward the family, as if he were only away from them for their benefit. Staying single, he uses his relative wealth to put the younger brothers through college and pay the parents’ mortgage, while his intense religiosity, disturbingly combined with an evident pleasure in bombing missions, is coercively deployed to keep the family aware of their shared Catholic heritage, sometimes forcing them to their knees to pray together.

The third son, Edmond, yearns to leave home like his older brothers but is never courageous enough to stay away for more than a few weeks. Resentfully running small errands for everyone, he will grow into middle age playing with model trains and forming ever more ambiguous friendships with adolescent boys. Once again, it is not just the quality of the character study and occasional drama that is remarkable here, but also the sense Plante gives us of the shared family dynamic from which, over many years, each boy is emerging: Edmond and Albert are two sides of the same coin.

The author’s alter ego in the trilogy, Daniel, has the most complex response to the Francoeur predicament and one that colors the telling of the entire story, and arguably of all Plante’s narratives. Oppressed by parental conflict and neurosis, compulsively seeking approval while guiltily wishing he were elsewhere, from early boyhood Daniel has powerful apprehensions of some magical space beyond the claustrophobic family circle. Crucially, this is not the space of the Anglophone world outside the Catholic enclave; Daniel is not interested in college or career or women or any of the practical roads to independence which, in the anxiety-drenched atmosphere of his family, might be construed as betrayal. Rather he imagines invisible presences lurking outside his bedroom window, other worlds opening up behind the veil of ordinary reality. These apprehensions, occasionally hallucinations, are at once seductive and frightening. They can lead him to strip off his clothes by a lakeside and masturbate into the darkness, as though to achieve some sensual oneness with the night, or they can have him terrified of imagined intruders outside his window and running to sleep in his parents’ bed.

It’s intriguing how Plante integrates this highly specific psychological and social situation with two strong traditions in American literature. Largely seen from Daniel’s point of view, The Francoeur Family at first appears to be a book of meticulous realism, drawing on a rich genre of American fiction that chronicles the fortunes of humble folk in provincial towns. But the sheer weight of detail, the pressure and density of the contingent world described, which always has a melancholy and hypnotic heaviness in Plante’s work, almost obliges the impressionable mind to imagine that there must be a meaning behind it and a space, another world, opening out beyond and, hierarchically, above it. The result is a style where the apparently antithetical traditions of realism and transcendentalism call to each other and complement each other, very much as brothers in a family.

The Catholic community Plante evokes construes any intuited space beyond the real world as the Christian paradise, or indeed the Christian hell, and there is much talk among the Francoeurs of being reunited beyond the grave, but Daniel’s awareness of alien presences is more in line with indigenous Indian mythology. So if the relationships between the members of the family are often and cleverly established by the play of eye contact between them, Daniel adds an extra dimension by imagining himself as constantly watched by invisible eyes in woods and wilderness. It is a situation in which he is both enthralled and passive. In rare moments when he takes an active part in his parents’ interminable battle of wills, he has out-of-body experiences during which he has the impression that he is watching the melodrama from a distance, becoming himself one of the presences that fascinate and frighten him. He is there and not there. In general, these psychic experiences occur at moments of indecision, when Daniel is caught between the longing to be outside the family and the longing to stay in it. After one pathetic scene with his mother, we hear:

A sudden desire came over him to get out of his house into the outside and at the same time he wanted to close the door to the living room, to close all the open doors, against what would come in.

In the passage below Daniel is exploring the lake near the family’s country house with his younger brother Julien. The spiritual experience arises when the natural world offers only impasse:

Julien said he thought he’d go back. Daniel wouldn’t go on without him. The long hill they had been walking over sloped away, and at the bottom of the slope was a large, dense clump of what they called waxen-berry bush, in fact laurel, and there seemed to be no way through. They didn’t move. Noises slowly increased in volume; low insect noises, a lap of water, the sudden high screech of a heat bug. But the noises made Daniel aware of a deeper silence; it was the silence of a person, or people, keeping silent, and he all at once felt they had come into a place where, a moment before, people had been moving about freely and talking, and now, with the intruding presence of the boys, the people had stopped still and become silent, and those people, behind trees, in the waxen-berry clump, floating, perhaps, just beneath the surface of the water, were watching Daniel and Julien, who didn’t dare talk, didn’t dare move, both of them frightened that any word or sharp gesture might release those people from the tense immobility and silence they kept; then they would appear, and Daniel didn’t want them to appear.

While the first, longest, and best part of the Francoeur trilogy never allows us to see any of the family members except when at home or with one another, as if any life outside the home were meaningless, the second part relates the adolescent Daniel’s frustrated attempts to form relationships with girls and college friends, suggesting how profoundly family experience has conditioned his sexuality. Finally, the third part is told in the first person by Daniel, now a novelist in his thirties and living in London, where Plante himself has spent much of his adult life. But again, the book concentrates entirely on the family during return trips to Providence. The space beyond the ordinary world has been discovered and conquered in the art of writing, but just as older brother Albert sent his money home, so Daniel/ Plante turns his creative attention back toward his family: the fictional space he creates is an imaginative reconstruction of the world he escaped and hence a way of showing continued attachment and loyalty.

The nonfiction work Difficult Women (1983) gives us a sense of what Plante was up to in London while writing The Francoeur Family. Now declaredly homosexual, he tells us of his relationships with three remarkable women who inhabit the world of literature to which he aspires. As they appear in these portraits, Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer all richly deserve the epithet “difficult,” in that Plante, ever the child seeking mother’s approval, finds himself frequently abused, exploited, and even insulted in their company. Most men would walk away, but the author hangs in there and eventually wins the friendship that is so important to him, perhaps by creating situations where he has become the necessary foil for these ladies if they are to give full reign to their caprice.

From time to time Plante lets us know that he understands all too well what is going on. Here he is with the decrepit, alcoholic, self-pitying, and irretrievably idiosyncratic Rhys:

How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother—“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother!”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her very greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

Elsewhere Plante answers his own question by showing admiration for Rhys’s ability to bring out the extraordinary behind the ordinary in her writing and to create “a sense of space around your words.” The link with his experience as a child is evident.

Plante makes these portraits effective by mixing ruthless exposure of his subjects with genuine affection. Ironically, for someone who yearns for transcendental truth (“these…impossible longings” as he has referred to this state of mind in interview), the quality of his work lies not in any vision of the absolute, but once again in the way that in scene after scene, dialogue after dialogue, one character emerges in relation to another, as in this case the three women all respond very differently to Plante’s masochistic determination to accommodate.

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