Sylvia Plath committed suicide in February 1963, and since then her poetry, fiction, and, increasingly, her life have maintained enormous power over readers' (particularly female readers') imaginations. Biographies continue to appear with regularity, despite the strong hold the Plath estate has on her work. But because of that hold, each biographer has been forced to accommodate the living (Ted Hughes, who was separated from Plath at the time of her death, and his larger-than-life sister, Olwyn, long the executrix), often at the expense of the dead. In 1989, Anne Stevenson's peculiar hybrid, Bitter Fame
, was published, complete with an appendix full of devastating memoirs. It was not your average biography. When Janet Malcolm was first sent the book, she was less drawn to it by the Plath legend than by the fact that she had known Stevenson in the '50s, but she soon became captivated by the book's defeatist subtext. The dead woman's voice and writings seemed to overwhelm Stevenson's tentative narrative; and if that wasn't enough, there was also the none-too-angelic choir of those who had known Plath. "These too, said, 'Don't listen to Anne Stevenson. She didn't know Sylvia. I knew Sylvia. Let me tell you about her. Read my correspondence with her. Read my memoir.'"
Bitter Fame was soon garnering some powerfully bad notices, especially that of A. Alvarez in the New York Review of Books. Alvarez, the author of one of the most influential pieces on Plath, in his study of suicide, The Savage God, had some special, personal cards to deal, as have so many others Plath left behind. Because Malcolm's great theme is treachery--that of the interviewer, the journalist, the teller of just about any tale--the Plath mess seemed a perfect fit, and she decided to become a player, too. In 1991, Malcolm was having lunch with Olwyn Hughes in North London, 28 years to the day on which the poet died.
This is only one of the coincidences in The Silent Woman, a postmodern biography par excellence, which is less about the drama of Plath's life and still controversial death than about their continuing effect on the living. For Malcolm, all cards are wild, each one revealing more complexity, human cravenness, and, above all, brilliantly playful aperçus about human agency and writing's deceptions. I look forward to the dictionary of quotations that foregrounds the elegant "The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living." And then there's, "Memory is notoriously unreliable; when it is intertwined with ill will, it may be monstrously unreliable. The 'good' biographer is supposed to be able to discriminate among the testimonies of witnesses and have his antennae out for tendentious distortions, misrememberings, and outright lies." It's clear that Malcolm doesn't see herself as a "good" biographer--she openly declares her allegiance, but is more than capable of changing it and of showing her cards. Or is she? In the end, The Silent Woman is a stunning inquiry into the possibility of ever really knowing anything save that "the game continues."
From Publishers Weekly
The story of the marriage of poets Sylvia Plath (1933-1963) and Ted Hughes has continued to fascinate readers and biographers since Plath's suicide, as somehow representative of our common lot and yet also inscrutably dramatic. In a cunningly resourceful look at Plath's life, at her posthumous existence and at the struggles of her biographers to penetrate, document and interpret her history and her husband's role in it, Malcolm seizes the opportunity to reflect on the moral contradictions of biography itself ("the biographer . . . is like the professional burglar"), somewhat as she examined journalism in The Journalist and the Murderer . The book, reprinted from the New Yorker , is a highly skillful, intrinsically arguable exploration of mixed motives, considering in detail the characters of several figures: Anne Stevenson, one of Plath's biographers; Hughes, whom she regards with more sympathy than many do; his sister Olwyn; and some of Plath's friends and neighbors (e.g., A. Alvarez). Malcolm's characteristic mingling of observation and criticism, her self-scrutiny, her finely modulated tonal shifts and the strategies of her skepticism expose, with a generous range of nuance, the stories that tend to emerge from any story and complicate it--while writing one herself that is of surpassing interest.
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