Sylvia and Ted. By Emma Tennant. Henry Holt. $22. 177 pages. The verdict: Teasingly haunts the borderline between fiction and biography.
The legend of poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, who died by her own hand in 1963 at age 30, has spawned a virtual cottage industry. Countless biographies, memoirs and documentaries have focused on the brief, brilliant life of the woman who wrote two of the most influential books of the 20th century: the novel "The Bell Jar," published posthumously in this country in 1972, and "Ariel"(1965), a groundbreaking collection of poems on which Plath worked until the last week of her life.
Part of Plath's legend has been her tumultuous, larger-than-life marriage to the British poet Ted Hughes. Both were beautiful and brilliant, difficult and destructive; Plath suffered from manic-depression, while Hughes suffered from the knowledge that his wife possessed the greater talent. He consoled himself with other women, and ultimately abandoned Plath and their two children for a glamorous Russian beauty named Assia Wevill.
The latest entry in the Plath-Hughes canon, British author Emma Tennant's "Sylvia and Ted," is a novel that portrays the principals in this romantic triangle as figures in a modern myth. Alternating among the three points of view, Tennant intuits the vivid personalities and intense emotions that led ultimately to tragedy. Plath committed suicide; later, Wevill killed herself as well, along with her young daughter, Shura. Only Hughes survived to a ripe age.
In an earlier nonfiction memoir, "Burnt Diaries," Tennant recounted her own love affair with Hughes. This novel, therefore, teasingly haunts the borderline between fiction and biography. "Events described in the book are based on fact," Tennant writes, "and . . . many of the facts were concealed or unknown." However, she insists, the novel is "a work of the imagination." Tennant is less interested in storytelling here than in conveying, through heightened language describing key moments in the three characters' lives, a poetic apprehension of their intense loves and hatreds, their romantic attraction and rampaging jealousy. In a passage halfway through the novel, Sylvia recognizes Assia as a rival for Ted's affection: For Assia is certainly the "other," the reverse side of the coin, the dark, forbidden country across the world from America, where Sylvia, in her brightness, fair as day, stands for order, discipline, and unacknowledged cruelty.
Tennant writes with a poet's gift for the startling image, as when Sylvia views the beautiful, passionate Assia "as a bonfire in orange silk, consuming her home, her husband, her happiness." For all its literary polish, however, "Sylvia and Ted" ultimately is a kind of gossipy, high-level entertainment; and, it should be admitted, the scent of exploitation occasionally lifts from its carefully written pages. Every age chooses its own myths, and for better or worse, the Plath-Hughes story has embedded itself in the mass consciousness of Western culture. Even as "Sylvia and Ted" is published, further books on both poets are in the pipeline, in addition to a major Hollywood film. Tennant's slight but accomplished novel merely continues an inevitable, ongoing process: the transformation of three troubled people into mythic, tragic figures.
Memo: Greg Johnson teaches in the graduate writing program at Kennesaw State University. His books of fiction include "Distant Friends," "Pagan Babies" and the forthcoming "Sticky Kisses."
Copyright 2001 Atlanta Newspapers Inc.
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