We are ushered into a feminine world on page 1 of David Plante’s DIFFICULT WOMEN (New York Review Books, $16.95), when the author meets Jean Rhys in a South Kensington hotel lounge decorated all in pink — pink paper on the walls, pink roses on the carpet. Rhys, who became a literary grande dame after the late-in-life success of her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, sits decomposing in a pink hat on a red sofa under a pink lampshade. “I’m dying,” she says, and asks Plante to run out for a bottle of sweet vermouth. By the end of the afternoon, they are both beyond blotto, and Plante has rescued Rhys out of the toilet into which she fell after he neglected to put the seat down.
The second subject of this “memoir of three” is Sonia Orwell, widow of George, who, according to Plante, would arrive at a dinner for four, count five bottles of wine, and send him out for two more. It never hurts to arm oneself against the vicissitudes of life. “There was with Sonia the sense that she knew beforehand everything that was going to happen, and there would be no great surprises; everything would be awful.” Orwell, surrounded by writers and artists, is a manipulative snob, and always lonely. Plante invites her to stay with him in Cortona, Italy; she huffs, puffs, and redecorates the house. The third subject, Germaine Greer, has her own house nearby, and drives Plante across Europe while nipping on a bottle of brandy. Later, she drives him from Tulsa to Santa Fe as he feeds her licorice. When they cross the Panhandle, she orders him to pop the champagne.
An American novelist in literary London, Plante was an eager-to-please young parvenu. Then he wrote this book. It was first published in 1983, when Rhys and Orwell were already dead. Greer refused to read it and seems not to have forgiven him. As recently as 2006 she wrote in the Guardian that “a writer who hangs the carcass of her invention around the necks of real people cannot expect them to rejoice in a burden that they can now never relinquish.” It is true that after you read Difficult Women you are likely to think of Germaine Greer as the person who once fed her cats a testicle (we aren’t told what kind) and stole Plante’s office chair. But you are equally likely to remember her as an excellent cook who mastered local dialects and could converse as knowledgeably about shock absorbers and roof tiles as about eighteenth-century women writers and female eunuchs.
Plante’s novels are anguished, cerebral affairs about the spiritual lives of working-class Catholics; Difficult Women will outlast them. It shows a remarkable gift for portraying talk, dress, and self-presentation, and for pacing a scene. The women never stop talking, perhaps because they never feel heard; occasionally they are reduced to shouting. In a coda, Plante categorizes their disparate attitudes about a range of matters — children, social justice, domesticity, and business sense:
Sonia’s lawyer asks if she hasn’t some friends in business who might have advised her in her dealings with the George Orwell Estate. She angrily replies, “Of course I don’t have business friends! Of course not!”
If the reportage isn’t exactly what we would call fair and balanced, it does contain moments of mad beauty, as when Rhys describes literature as a lake fed by “rivers” (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky) and “trickles” (herself). “All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake. It is very important. Nothing else is important.”
The first reviews of Difficult Women concentrated on questions of accuracy and ethics. “Telling funny stories about your friends is a tricky business if you intend to go on having friends,” Mary-Kay Wilmers observed in the London Review of Books. Thirty years on, all that remains is a delicious sequence of character sketches, interrupted by the occasional self-interrogatory aside. (“I knew I felt guilt towards, not all women, but difficult women. . . . I had made them difficult.”) It is obvious enough that the book is a self-portrait of the artist as a young gay man drawn to outrageous female companionship. But all works of art are self-portraits of one kind or another. I suspect that Plante loved these women in his own way, and that his act of betrayal felt to him like tribute. He has the cold, killing passion of a lepidopterist, but in the end the book succeeds because the women are so horribly alive.
The painter Elizabeth Peyton has a love for her subjects that is more like worship. Do not say that she has crushes, however. “I don’t like that word ‘crush,’ ” she told Calvin Tomkins, a New Yorker writer, in 2008, the year her retrospective opened at the New Museum, in New York. “It sounds light — you know, l-i-t-e. I really love the people I paint. I believe in them, I’m happy they’re in the world.” In the 1990s and 2000s, while her contemporaries were soaking sharks in formaldehyde and arranging piles of candy, Peyton became known for her small, rapturous, sincere portraits. She painted musicians such as Kurt Cobain, Jarvis Cocker, Pete Doherty, and the brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher, as well as friends, celebrities, and historical personages — Mad King Ludwig, a dreamy Napoleon. Her subjects were white, languid, youthful, thin, red-lipped, male, and girlish, and stared heartthrobbingly out of the canvas. Her brushstrokes were large and visible. Tomkins called her paintings “vivid and immediate, and almost embarrassingly personal.” They beautifully mixed tenderness and melancholy.
ELIZABETH PEYTON: DARK INCANDESCENCE (Rizzoli, $75) collects paintings the artist made from 2009 to 2014. The introduction is by Kirsty Bell, a critic and the former director of Gavin Brown’s enterprise in New York, which represented Peyton until a few years ago. The book contains a number of still lifes with titles such as Flowers and Book, Paris and Flowers and Bird, Berlin, which Bell attributes to the artist’s “desire for introspection after a period in the public eye” and a “turning to look at the things closest at hand.” Many of the paintings in Dark Incandescence were made in Peyton’s home or the homes of friends. There are portraits of artists and performers as well as compositions in which the subjects appear at one remove, in copied photographs or book covers, alongside flowers or plants. There are series based on scenes from Bizet, which feature opera singers clutching one another, all of them done in fiery expressionist hues.
Peyton’s evolution as a stylist can be seen by comparing two paintings of the actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The first, lush and romantic, was made in 1998. Leo is wearing a black turtleneck and clutching a swan. His skin is smooth and rosy, and his eyes look like frozen tanzanite. The second is from 2013. Leo’s face is heavily modeled with blue and pink, and he has the nose of an alcoholic. His suit jacket is ghost-white and thickly outlined. This is a mature Leo — less Romeo than Oscar also-ran. Peyton, too, has matured, a tricky business for someone whose appeal was the fetishistic intermingling of innocence and decadence. She still paints her friends, often from life, but now adds more streaks of color. Background and foreground are more tangled together. Faces emerge out of plants and flowers. The mood remains sensual and contemplative, but it has become a little depressed, and in some of the faces the opioid gaze has been replaced with a hard, clenched jaw.
In 1758, Deborah Franklin commissioned a portrait of Benjamin Lay as a birthday present for her husband. Painted in oil by a local artist, it showed a spry, red-faced Lay outside his cave eight miles north of Philadelphia, holding a walking stick and his favorite Thomas Tryon book, a basket of vegetables and two melons at his feet. As Marcus Rediker notes in THE FEARLESS BENJAMIN LAY: THE QUAKER DWARF WHO BECAME THE FIRST REVOLUTIONARY ABOLITIONST (Beacon Press, $26.95), the portrait gives no indication of “the cause for which Benjamin was best known, his unbending opposition to slavery.” Lay, who was thrown out of so many Quaker meetings that I lost count, was a wild and vehement person, and the author of the wild and vehement antislavery tract All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. Benjamin Franklin published it in 1737, though he kept his name off it.
The first Quakers arose alongside Diggers, Levelers, and other radical elements unloosed by the English Revolution, and were vocal critics of impressment, servitude, and the impoverishment that followed the loss of the commons. A hundred years later, in America, Quakers held slaves and profited from slavery, and those who didn’t were too polite to talk about it. Rediker doesn’t lean too hard on the idea that it was Lay’s own difference that made him sensitive to the plight of suffering bodies, but he does suggest that the “Quaker comet” was uniquely empathetic for his time. His activism was rooted in a belief in the spiritual equality of mankind — a notion not embraced by other white abolitionists, whose politics were, at best, tinged with paternalism.
Why was Lay able to see the evil of slavery at a time when so few whites could? As a teenager, he was a shepherd for his brother’s flock. Then he trained as a glover, an urban trade he despised. At the age of twenty-one he became a sailor. On his crossings he acquired “a hard-edged, hard-earned cosmopolitanism” and heard stories about the Middle Passage. He and his wife, Sarah, another little person, lived for eighteen months in Barbados, where they befriended slaves and witnessed the daily reality of the practice: humans “murthered by working hard, and starving, whipping, racking, hanging, burning, scalding, roasting, and other hellish torments.” Lay was also influenced by his reading of William Dell, an antinomian and chaplain of the New Model Army; Diogenes and other Cynics; and Tryon, who believed that human violence had its roots in the abuse of animals. Accordingly, Lay consumed only fruits, vegetables, milk, and water. (His favorite dish was “turnips boiled, and afterwards roasted.”) He went so far as to refuse to purchase or use anything made with slave labor. “In his time,” Rediker writes, “Benjamin may have been the most radical person on the planet.”
Early Quakers were anarchic and theatrical in their protests. They refused to doff their hats to social superiors and burned Bibles to insist on the importance of the “inward light.” They heckled so many ministers that Oliver Cromwell had to pass a proclamation against it. Lay also employed guerrilla tactics. He stood outside a Quaker meetinghouse with his bare foot in a snowbank; when friends advised him to get inside, he replied that though they cared for his discomfort, they lacked compassion for the slaves in the fields. If a slaveholder rose to speak, he would jump up and interrupt, “There’s another Negro-master!” Once, when he was ejected from a meeting, he lay down in the mud outside so that everyone would have to walk over him afterward. He sat in an open-air market smashing teacups to protest the bondage of those who harvested the tea and produced the sugar. At a yearly meeting of Philadelphia Quakers, he hid an animal bladder filled with pokeberry juice inside a Bible and, when the moment was ripe, ran a sword through the cover. “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures,” he announced. Rediker calls him “a deeply principled and often impossible man.” We might call him difficult — not as difficult as Sonia Orwell, perhaps, but a handful nonetheless.