Essential Stories

David Plante

I like to think of Blaise Pascal, though fiction didn’t much concern him, when trying to understand why fiction has more and more been reduced to details of quotidian life as against a vision of universal life, of essential life. Contemporary fiction seems to be locked in nothing but details, though at one time in the past (am I being romantic?) fiction considered the great and grand above all. The words from Pascal’s Pensées:

God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place: stars, sky, earth, elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, plague, war, famine, vice, adultery, incest…

I am a non-believer, strictly a non-believer, but I believe that fiction must have a vision which it has lost, even at the risk of calling on God. I’ve written too many novels, many too many, and as I get older I regret that when I was starting out, some forty years ago, I didn’t trust a vision of universality enough. I concentrated on details that I hoped were “evocative” (a strange expression), and critics praised me for my “evocative” details. Something in my late years has happened to me—let’s call it a revelation—that has caused me to reject the imposition of the quotidian detail for something I can only hope is more universal. It comes as so great a liberation, I should add, as the moment in 1959, at nineteen years old, when I stood on top of the Rundtarn in Copenhagen, high above the roofs of the city, and the revelation came to me that there is no God, and all the bells of the city rang out. This has remained with me: that there is no God of received ideas, but there is a God of writing, and this God is against received ideas, especially received ideas about God, and longs for meaning beyond the received idea of details in literature, and inspires me to break open the prison, to liberate the universal heart.

I call these stories that follow essential.

© 2009 by David Plante

David Plante is the author of the novels The Ghost of Henry James, The Family (nominated for The National Book Award), The Woods, The Country, The Foreigner, The Native, The Accident, Annunciation, and The Age of Terror. He has had stories and profiles in The New Yorker, and features in The New York Times, Esquire and Vogue.