The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief by David Plante

by Jay Goldmark


David Plante’s most recent book, The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief, explores Plante’s sense of loss over the death of Nikos Stangos, his partner of forty years, poet, classicist scholar, and literary editor. Absence quietly pushes the narrative of this short and emotionally lyric book. The style is both relaxed and controlled, yet there is a wild intensity to it as Plante’s disjunctive memories take on a life all their own.

Written in a pure stream of consciousness that one might find jotted down on the back of a receipt: “Let loose, I tell myself, let loose all that I feel, let loose all that I feel into grief, and, oh, let that grief expand and expand and expand, so beyond me that grief ceases to be mine,” Plante trusts that grief knows something he doesn’t. Joining these fragments by their rough chronology, Plante only loosely edits the raw evolution of his memories. He joins us as readers, following his own dialectic, watching for the moment when grief becomes aware of itself.

The chapter “Delta,” for example, begins with the quote: “Grief cannot help but idealize,” and Plante’s recollections can be understood as consciousness’s attempt to put language into the place where Nikos once lived.  Many paragraphs—only four or five lines long, with lots of white space between them—are written to Nikos.  The sentences uncoil with rich physicality and careful intimacy in the second person: “You always insisted upon doing the clearing up before we went to bed” or “You said to me about my writing, ‘Don’t disappoint me’” or “Your bed became our bed.”  These sparse moments of action in the paragraph, coupled with the omnipresent white space, offer the effect of time passing, or of silence happening. 

The fragments are indelible for their innocence and pathos, and elsewhere for their celebration of the everyday details of Nikos’s childhood in Greece during the Nazi occupation, his intellectual and social life in London’s literary circles, and the love that he and Plante filled themselves with during their four decades together.  Throughout the narrative, a complex view of how Nikos views himself in the world, and as independent from Plante, emerges: “On your return to Athens a sudden view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon over the city made you think, as if for the first time, of what the meaning was to you, a Greek.”

Plante’s The Pure Lover, however, is far from a glossy lament: a hard honesty lurks on every page, something more primary and vulnerable than we normally encounter in our guarded lives.   “You translated [Cavafy] into yourself, making of his beautiful white flowers, his colored handkerchiefs, his mirror hanging in the front hall reflecting the face of a beautiful youth, objects from your life, objects that subtly inspire the pensive, and the senses too.” It’s a serious effect—grief can be terribly sophisticated.


The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief, David Plante