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The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Paperback – March 28, 1995
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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.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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At the same time, "The Silent Woman" walks us once again through the short, turbulent life of Plath, who was just beginning to make a name for herself at the time of her death and who has since risen to cult status. I found most moving some of Malcolm's observations about suicide, the silence it leaves and the rebuke it suggests for the deceased's survivors. She critiques the Plath v. Hughes battle lines, in which some partisans depict Plath as the victim of a faithless husband and anti-feminist repression while others view her husband, Ted Hughes (later, a Poet Laureate of England), as a man worn down by a mentally unstable wife. Hughes's role as the executor of Plath's literary estate and his destruction of her last diaries also come in for a close analysis.
"The Silent Woman" gave me additional perspective on Sylvia Plath while raising provocative questions about the nature of writing and biography. It's concise, well written, and I highly recommend it, especially to writers.
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 . . . . The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity." And, "there is no length he [the biographer] will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people's mail." Similarly, "The reader's amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole."
She uses one of her extended metaphors to discuss the issues of writer's block and the elusiveness of truth, which I had not realized were related: "At the end of Borges's story 'The Aleph,' the narrator goes to the cellar of a house, where he has the experience of encountering everything in the world. He at once sees all places from all angles . . . . Writer's block derives from the mad ambition to enter the cellar; the fluent writer is content to stay in the close attic of partial expression, to say what is 'running through his mind,' and to accept that it may not--cannot--be wholly true." Later, Malcolm says, "Truth is, in its nature, multiple and contradictory, part of the flux of history, untrappable in language." She contrasts nonfiction and fiction in an interesting way: "In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports what is going on in his imagination." (Of course that leaves unanswered the real question of whether that imagination captures the truth.) Finally, Malcolm relates a visit she made to the incredibly littered, filthy house of an artist and author who had written recollections about Plath. She saw the place as "a kind of monstrous allegory of truth" in its "unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity."
In relation to the cluttered house, she writes further, "the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is life. . . . Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, . . . to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that a reader will want to linger awhile among them, rather than to flee. . . . But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in."
Malcolm is also insightful on post-structuralism, a viewpoint that she at least partly shares, calling it "a theory of criticism whose highest values are uncertainty, anxiety, and ambiguity." Writing about a poststructuralist writer and professor of English literature who wrote _The Haunting of Sylvia Plath_, Malcolm says that "In accordance with post-structuralist theory," Jacqueline "Rose argues for suspension of all certainty about what happened, and thus of judgment and blame." Finally, she refers to "the post-structuralist vision of writing as a kind of dream, which no one (including the dreamer-writer) ever gets to the bottom of."
Of her conversation with Rose, Malcolm says, "I render it with the help of a tape recording, which preserved the words that passed between Rose and me but did not catch any of the language of face and body by which we all speak to one another and sometimes say what we dare not put into words." This from a woman who had won a lawsuit brought against one of her books about Freudianism by a psychoanalyst; she won by playing a tape recording of her interview with him.
Recommended even for people who are not specifically interested in Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes because of the book's insights into the nature of truth, memoirs,fiction, and biography.
The marriage of Plath and Hughes, her death and the characters of these two poets are fascinating and Janet Malcolm maintains our interest in them throughout. I would have liked even more extracts from Plath's poems as well as some from Hughes but, then, that would probably be another kind of book. Nevertheless, an excellent read.
This book is great food for thought.