Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (1994)

I read this not so much because I was interested in Sylvia Plath, though I've come to have a good deal of respect and admiration for her work, but more because I was interested in the work of Janet Malcolm generally and specifically for her take on "the biographical enterprise," which is the theme of this book at least as much as it is Plath. And incidentally because at the time this was published I had some ideas of my own about taking on a biography, of a figure who seemed to me to occupy a point equidistant between Plath and Hank Williams—Williams, who may (or may not) have committed suicide proper, but at the very least drank himself purposefully to death, with a harpy at his side shrieking away. Thus many of Malcolm's most trenchant points about suicide and/or the various impossibilities of biography I now find underscored in my copy of the book rather forcefully ("As sleep is necessary to our physiology, so depression seems necessary to our psychic economy," "In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened," etc.). Going through it again recently, I enjoyed Malcolm's wry pleasure at inserting herself into the fraught perils of Sylvia Plath's and Ted Hughes's lives. Hughes died in 1998, nearly five years after the publication of this book. I never followed up enough to know Malcolm's thoughts or actions after such a momentous occasion, or indeed anyone else's involved in the Plath biography industry, with the removal of such a monumental obstacle to the project. For the most part here Malcolm trudges down all the previously trod pathways, not unearthing much new as far as I can tell, but bringing her razor-sharp sensibility to bear, one that is particularly well-suited, I think, to Plath's own at the height of her powers in the last year of her life. Lots of unpleasant people populate this narrative, many of whom clash unpleasantly with one another. I do know the Ann Stevenson biography that animates so much here, Bitter Fame—animates Malcolm herself, who evidently knew of Stevenson when they were both going to college in Michigan. When Malcolm says Stevenson's book is the best biography of the bunch then existing I'm perfectly willing to take her at her word. I remember thinking pretty well of it myself, though I could have had no idea of all the stresses and tensions Stevenson endured to get it done. Malcolm at least seems to have had a milder time of putting hers together, the chief strength of which is in her ability to deal on particularly conscious levels with the sideline "meta" issues that shape and distort the narratives of biographies.

In case it's not at the library.

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