book 4 of 24 books in 28 days: the pure lover: a memoir of grief
On the back jacket, Philip Roth and Mark Doty call David Plante's The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief "wrenching."
Their words can't prepare you for the experience of reading this book.
In the prologue, David Plante writes,
Nikos Stangos died April 16, 2004. We had been loving partners for some forty years. He died of cancer–of the lungs, spine, and brain. I was with him when he died, in our bed, after six months of physical and mental deterioration.
It was as if all my nearly forty years of life with Nikos contracted into no time, into no place, as if from outside our day-to-day relationship, so a recollection from late in our lives together was followed by one from the very beginning, and event remembered from his last weeks in London followed by one long before, in Greece or Italy. No doubt some inner reckoning of my grief was evolving. These notes seemed to me spontaneous but random, yet I sensed that grief knew more than I did about the evolution of grief, knew something whole while I knew only flashes of the whole.
Perhaps it is a stage in grief's evolution to want to try to put some order in the notes I took, much in the same way there is a stage in grief when the bereaved suddenly wants to put order in his lost lover's clothes, papers, the effects of his desk drawers. Over and over, I arranged and rearranged the notes–the markings of grief's way–and slowly tried for some coherence in time and place.
Do the fragments come together as a whole? I imagine this: an invisible Greek amphora, larger than all the assembled fragments, shaping the larger invisible whole.
I could tell you that I quote at length this Prologue, because here Plante explains how he "does" memoir. I could give you a link to a Wikipedia page in case you (like I) don't know that an amphora is a two-handled vase.
But that can't prepare you for the experience of reading this book.
The first chapter, "Alpha," like the rest, consists of fragments, bits of the political and personal history of Nikos Stangos. The personal fragments use the second person extensively, as if the book is a long letter to Stangos, maybe even as if Plante is double-checking with Stangos the details he, Plante, has been told over the course of forty years.
He writes of their domestic life (Stangos was adamant that toilet paper rolls should be placed on the holder so that the paper rolls toward the wall–I admit that I remember this because I disagree). He tells us about the ways they loved one another, and his use of the second person reinforces the sense of their deep connection.
The book is so raw and the writing so poignant (and, Mr. Roth and Mr. Doty, so wrenching) that to quote from the fragments seems wrong. As powerful any of them might be, they are so much less than the whole that I have to recommend that you read the whole amphora.
The way Plante does memoir gives us (gives you) his full vulnerability. He trusts the process of grief and I answer him, yes, the fragments come together as an exquisite whole.