Difficult Women comes, word for word, from my diary. I remember extracting entries about Jean Rhys after she died and pasting them together to form not so much a portrait of Jean but a portrait of my relationship with her. I gave the work to my partner, Nikos Stangos, to whom I gave all my writing for his comments; I recall coming in one evening and finding him in bed, reading, and he immediately said, “This is good!” He did not always say that about my writing.
My friendship with Jean had very much to do with writing, about which she had some deeply inspiring insights.
Nikos suggested I send what I had written to Francis Wyndham, Jean’s literary executor. And here I become muddled, because the work was published in The Paris Review in 1979, and I swear I have no idea how this happened. Francis was the only person, apart from Nikos, to have read the portrait, but he was intimidating to me, if only because of the way he looked at me with his soft, somewhat sagging face, without any expression in his eye. So I felt it an impertinent supposition to ask him if he had been interested enough in it, or in me, to have sent it. I was honestly bemused when it won a Pushcart Prize.
When I rang Francis, he invited me to come round to his flat. Jean had stipulated in her will that he was not to approve of any biography of her; in fact, she had said to me that she made it impossible for any biographer to research her life, as she’d changed her name often, and even—and I see her put the back of a gnarled hand to her mouth to hide her laughter—once had a Japanese passport. Francis asked me if I was interested in writing the biography of Jean, but in such a way that the question was already answered by his lowered, expressionless voice; if Francis didn’t say this word for word, what he said was very close to: Why didn’t I write similar portraits of women and call the book Difficult Women? The title came from Francis Wyndham.
Difficult women? Some time after the book was published, Ursula Owen, one of the founders of the feminist press Virago, asked me why I wrote a book called Difficult Women at the height of the feminist movement. I hadn’t thought about the feminist movement but about my relationships with women, and, yes, some of the women were difficult. One of the questions I could have asked myself was, Why was I drawn to them?
I didn’t know. I am very bad at self-analyzing, or any form of analyzing, and if I do indulge myself, I get into a muddle of twisted writing that I finally throw out. This, I believe, was the result of Nikos never wanting to “indulge me,” he said, “in my American self-analysis” whenever I suggested we sit down and talk about problems; if I didn’t love him, he said, that was my fault, not his. So I do not analyze. Because they were unlike any other women I knew, Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer presented me with the heightened impulse to describe them, with no attempt to understand them or to understand why I was so attracted to them; I wanted to get them down on the page, these women who were so much grander than I, whose grandness I would make myself equal to by being the privileged witness to it, and perhaps therefore become grand myself.
Sonia Orwell died in 1980. Mary McCarthy wanted less a memorial to Sonia than a gathering at which friends would speak about her. I searched through my diary and found long entries on a trip to Italy with Sonia—more than a trip, she was to come to the house that Nikos and I had bought on the side of a valley in Umbria and put it into habitable order—and I photocopied pages, cut and pasted. I wanted someone who had known Sonia and had had close and sometimes fraught times with her to give me an opinion, so asked Natasha Spender if I could read out to her the paste up. We were sitting in her car and rain was falling on the windshield. Natasha could be vague, and in this case, she might have been vague because she didn’t want to tell me she disapproved of what I had written, she thought it was not her place to disapprove. She might have said, “Well, yes, I see,” and this was enough to reassure me. At Sonia’s memorial, I read the diary entry out to the gathering in a rather stark hall. Mary McCarthy noted that Sonia had the complexion of a Reynolds. After, there was lunch at a long table. Francis Wyndham was there but said nothing, the softness of his face appearing to sag more, and I thought, He doesn’t like me, and I don’t know why. Cressida Connolly was there, and, excited, she said I had brought Sonia into the room, brought her, alive, into the room.
I can do that, I thought. I can make a person enter a room, stepping out from my writing.
Coincidence plays a huge part in my life. Germaine Greer had a house on the other side of a mountain from my house with Nikos, near Cortona, Italy, and we became friends through Joe and Jos Tilson, who had a house in a valley between the mountains. I joined Germaine on a drive from Cortona to London, stopping only for petrol; in the back seat was a friend of hers with a child, who, from time to time, had to pee in a pot, which pot was emptied out of the window of the speeding car, and, instead of flying backward with the speed of the car, the pee, by some inversion of speed and pee, splashed into my face. I wrote about this trip in my diary.
The coincidence is that Germaine and I were both hired in 1979 to teach at the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma, where we shared a house on a lake. Steven Runciman visited us, and Melvyn Bragg, and Beryl Bainbridge. One Thanksgiving, Germaine suggested we go to Santa Fe, and she drove, with high velocity, through the Oklahoma Panhandle to the adobe city outlined in candles in paper bags. The door between our rooms was locked; a key was found, but the door was in fact painted shut; Germaine had someone with a hammer and chisel break through the paint so the door would open, and, in her room, we watched The Sound of Music on television and both wept. Back in Tulsa, I wrote an extended entry in my diary about this trip.
When I returned to London, where Nikos and I lived, he suggested I give the draft of the book to Catherine Carver, who was keen to read it. Catherine was one of the great editors, of Lionel Trilling, Leon Edel, Flannery O’Connor, and more, from all of whom she had a large collection of letters; Catherine asked me if we could drive to the country to find a field where she could burn them all, but I said that would not be lawful, so she threw them into a black plastic bag and then into the rubbish. About my book she suggested that I cut out all names except for those of the main people, and, because of Catherine’s stature, I agreed, though I did regret leaving out Dee Wells telling me, when I told her I was going to Italy with Sonia, “You’re out of your fucking mind.”
In 1982, I sent the portrait of Germaine Greer to my then editor at The New Yorker, Dan Menaker, and told Germaine I had word that there was excitement at the magazine. She typed out, had witnessed, and signed a statement saying that I could write anything I wished to about her and she wouldn’t sue me, but she reserved the right to write anything she wished to about me. Then Dan Menaker wrote that the magazine couldn’t print the word fuck, without which any quoted talk by Germaine would not be true to her. The portrait was published in Mother Jones instead.
And so Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three came into being in 1983, thirty-seven years ago, published by Gollancz in the UK and Atheneum in the U.S. I was forty years old.
Difficult Women did not do well in the publishing world.
Only Vivian Gornick, who reviewed it in The New York Times Book Review, saw that what I was trying to do in the book was, again, to account for relationships simply by describing them. When I met her some years later, she told me there had been some pressure on her by the Times to condemn the book for being antifeminist, and, to top that, antifeminism as rudely indulged in by a homosexual!
I heard that Paula Cooper and Barbara Rose argued about the book for as long as it took to read it.
Jennifer Bartlett “hated” the book, and though we remained weird (as she would say) but doting friends, she would often repeat, “I HATE that book.”
Bernice Rubens, who had been a close friend, cut me at a drinks party, and our friendship didn’t recover. As an American, I didn’t know what a British cut was: you simply walk past a person who no longer exists.
Linda Nochlin, mother of feminist art history, liked it.
So did Mary Gordon.
I had a letter from Diana Trilling in support: I would have my revenge. I thought, Revenge?
I had sent a proof copy to Decca Mitford, who’d offered a quote: she wished she were difficult enough for me to write about her.
I suspect Natasha Spender would have used the condemnation of the book—especially the section on Sonia—not to speak to me, and to Nikos, too, for in the first years of our friendship with Natasha, her acceptance of us was a strain on her because of our friendship with Stephen; but Stephen stood for the book, and told me to keep a low profile.
I recall entering a large hall at the zoo with Nikos for a birthday party for Angus Wilson, and in the crowd, a writer, who hadn’t been an admirer of my novels in his reviews, pointing at us and laughing; but Angus came quickly toward us.
I don’t know why, but I wasn’t bothered by the bad reports, or Nikos told me not to bother, and I acted on his words. I always did.
In his introduction to New York Review Books’ reissue, Scott Spencer draws on Janet Malcolm’s words concerning “writers who insinuate themselves into the lives of others”: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible … Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art.”
It simply did not occur to me that I should justify Difficult Women. When a friend once said to me that I was a kind of innocent, I responded that, No, there is no innocence in the writer of Difficult Women, and I could only leave it at that.
When I asked Janet if she found the book embarrassing, she said, “Embarrassing enough,” and smiled.
I had a postcard in praise from John Waters, whom I had not met, nor have met yet.
I had a fan letter from Philip Roth, then living in London. He said he’d like to meet me but would understand if I declined. We met often at a restaurant called M. Thompson’s in Notting Hill. He told me he had had a row about the book, one that could have ended the friendship, with Harold Pinter.
Harold Pinter condemned me publicly at a meeting in a hall of the PEN Club, where I was on a panel to discuss Jean Rhys’s work. Francis King officiated. Pinter was sitting in the front, Antonia Fraser next to him, and he leaned forward to blast me: What did I mean by saying that Jean Rhys had saved her wreck of a life by writing? I thought, I know what I’ll do, I’ll cross my arms on the table and lay my head on my arms and I’ll fall asleep. I don’t recall what I answered, but perhaps repeated, “Jean had saved her life by writing.” Antonia smiled.
I rang Germaine. She said it wasn’t nice, was it, being attacked? And she invited me round for some “comforting spaghetti,” and I thought, Well, she is a great person. She said she wouldn’t read the book, but I had a right to write what I did, and she wasn’t going to object.
A few days later, I rang her to invite her to supper with Nikos and me, and she said, and this is in my diary, “I’m thinking of how I can destroy you.” I heard from friends who had heard her talk about me on the radio that she did just that, or tried to.
The great difficulty in writing about well-known people is the presumption of knowing them, or of having known them, and I have no idea how to excuse this, so I don’t. I have been very lucky in my friendships. And the great influence on my life was and is that of Nikos, about whom I wrote in my diary with total frankness, as he told me to do.
Above all, he taught me to be especially hard on myself. To be hard on myself was also to be hard when, for example, Sonia shouted at me what might have sounded like an insult. Her accusations contained some truth that I had to recognize in my hard way, which was to listen and to accept, but not react, but perhaps smile, as when she told me I was trying to live a life socially beyond me. I would never accuse Sonia of being untruthful, never, especially when drunk. And I would think, I will put that in my diary, which is as much about me as it is her.
A word about my diary: I started it when I was nineteen, in 1959, and over the years people appear, disappear, reappear, connecting, disconnecting, connecting again, often with coincidences that will make me imagine there is a pattern to the whole that is determined somewhere out in space. Apart from Difficult Women, I have had two volumes of my diary published, which are but fragments and do not connect with the massive whole.
The last time I saw Germaine was in Cortona. I was alone. Walking along the high street, I saw, in the distance coming toward me, Germaine, carrying plastic shopping bags. She was with a man. As we advanced toward each other, we smiled, and near her I said, “What are we supposed to do? The last time we communicated, you said you were not disposed toward me.” “I’m not,” she said. I leaned forward and put my hands on her shoulders and kissed her cheeks. She laughed. “Where are you having lunch?” she asked. “Wherever you are,” I said. She introduced me to the man, an Australian, who, his voice high with the improbability, said, “Oh, I know who you are.” I said, “You mean, the writer who wrote a book about difficult women?” He seemed to step back.
Outside a bar in the street, she encountered two people with whom she was to have lunch, and when she introduced me to them, a man and a woman, they appeared amazed, and I thought, Germaine so condemned me to them that they could only have been shocked that I was to have lunch with her.
The five of us stood around a big square table, the others not sure where to sit, but I said, “I want to sit next to Germaine.” She laughed that affectionate laugh she has, which is really a giggle.
As much as I had talked excitedly on the way to the restaurant, I said very little during lunch, but looked at Germaine as she talked. She was beautiful, her hair pinned up in loose loops. Her hands were dirty and scratched from working in her garden. She said that no reviewer had understood her book Sex and Destiny, had “got it all wrong,” especially in America. I expected her to rage against them, but she appeared indifferent and said nothing more about it, as if she were shrugging off both the book and its reception.
During lunch, I often touched Germaine, on her arm, wrist, shoulder, as if involuntarily. She reciprocated while talking by touching my arm, wrist, shoulder, in a kind of distracted way. In fact, I felt distant from her.
From time to time, she attracted the Australian, who, when he spoke, roused Germaine to say, “If you want to join the conversation, you’ve got to do better than that,” and he said less and less.
I reached out for one of Germaine’s hands and raised it to my lips as if to kiss it but bit into it, hard, then dropped it. Astonished, Germaine looked at me.
I asked her, “Will you come stay with me in Lucca?”
“No,” she answered. “I hate Lucca. It’s dark and damp.”
I laughed and thought, Lucca is damp.
She said she was cold, and I rubbed her back.
I said to her, “You should know by now never to be friendly with writers.”
She made a moue at me.
Somehow or other, she and I started to talk about anger. I said, “Very few people have ever seen me angry.” I again grasped Germaine’s hand and looked hard, right into her eyes, and said, “You would be amazed by my anger,” and again I dropped her hand. She drew in her chin and simply stared at me.
She said to the Australian, “Come on. We’ve got to go. We’ve got to dig up the carrot patch.”
Germaine and I walked together along the high street, the balding Australian some way ahead. She asked me where I was staying, as she knew that the house Nikos and I had bought was now sold, and I said in a hotel. I had the momentary sense that she was about to tell me to come stay with her.
“I suppose you’re going to have a nap now,” she said.
Again, I had the sense that had I said, No, I don’t want a nap, I want to do something, she would have asked me to her house.
“Yes,” I said.
We walked in silence for a while.
“I know you don’t like me,” I said.
Jean Rhys once told me that all good reviews are not good to have, and neither are all bad reviews good to have, and then she simply held up her gnarled hands and shrugged her thin shoulders and said, “Let’s have a drink.”
David Plante is the author of several novels, including his lauded Francoeur Trilogy—The Family, The Country, and The Woods. He has also written several works of nonfiction in addition to Difficult Women, most recently The Pure Lover, Becoming a Londoner, and Worlds Apart.