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The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Paperback – March 28, 1995
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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
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Malcolm is explicit in her premise: A biography had been written of Plath by Malcolm's University of Michigan cohort, Anne Stevenson (Bitter Fame), that had been controversial. Plath loyalists fulminated against Stevenson's pro-Hughes bias, and the Hughes family denounced it because they said that Stevenson had not cooperated enough. Malcolm, who looked up to the slightly older Stevenson at U of M, who is also a poet of some standing, follows the process of the Plath biography, as well as other works on the famous poet and the machinations/efforts of her former husband and Plath's literary estate executor, Hughes's sister, Olwyn. Malcolm interviews many of the participants, including Olwyn, but not Ted Hughes, and works not to find a "right" or "wrong" but to understand the issues with biography that can create the problems of trying to portray another's life. In the process, she exhibits more on the life of Hughes and Plath that fascinates those who are interested in such things. She couldn't have chosen a better example/subject to use for this dissection, because their lives are compelling, and the drama around how those lives have been portrayed by others -- including the impression management on the Hughes side, which was no small matter -- seem never ending.
Malcolm writes, "In a work of nonfiction, we almost never know the truth of what happened" (p 154).Read more ›
Most literate readers know about the basic facts of Plath's life--the marriage to Ted Hughes, his philandering and subsequent abandonment of her, and her suicide in 1963. On these basic signposts various biographers (and, more crucially, Plath's friends, family, and enemies during her lifetime) have hung all sorts of interpretations, to the point where a college classmate of Malcolm's, Anne Stevenson, agreed to write an unsymathetic account of Plath's life on behalf of Hughes and his sister Olwyn--and wound up devastating her own literary career by pleasing neither the Hugheses nor Plath's advocates.
This is one of the most thoughtful studies of biography and its problems ever written, and shows the horrible things people can do to one another in the name of trying to "set the story straight."
Of biography Malcolm says that it "is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out into full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house . . . .Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Not written as a bio. More a review of others work. Covered OWL. Hughes (sister) quite in depth.Published 4 months ago by justinsheila baumgatdner
A characteristically stimulating performance by Malcolm, and well worth reading for what it teaches us about biography and the task of writing; I have to say, though, that unusual... Read morePublished 6 months ago by P. Stern
I really enjoyed this book. Janet Malcolm writes with a certain finesse, and her points are laser fine. Read morePublished 9 months ago by Ada Ardor
An unexpected page turner, a literary who-done-it in which everyone is implicated even the writer herself.Published 14 months ago by Bronwyn Sprague
I really liked the way the author looked at the Plath story through the lense of the limitations of biography. Read morePublished 19 months ago by Amazon Customer
This book is the most honest Plath book I have read. It is direct and straight forward. It reveals a lot about Ted Hughes sister and puts her in a better light than other books I... Read morePublished 22 months ago by Robbie Byrd
Janet Malcolm is always very interesting, thoughtful, entertaining and in an understated way quite a stylist. Read morePublished 24 months ago by Semon Strobos
This is a very good, perceptive, entertaining book. It is also a fairly malicious and, in the end, rather pointless one. Read morePublished on December 24, 2013 by A Customer