The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes By Janet Malcolm Alfred A. Knopf, $23
It's difficult to believe that Sylvia Plath died 31 years and three months ago. Died by her own hand, of course, her head in an oven in a London apartment during the worst winter in decades, estranged from her cheating husband, the poet Ted Hughes.
He is now poet laureate of England. She remains perpetually cut off in the emotional mess of her life at a time when her genius was undergoing an extraordinary - and brief - flowering, an eternal victim of a man who done her wrong.
Plath had published one volume of poetry, The Colossus, during her lifetime. It was the posthumous Ariel (1965 in England, 1966 in the United States) that made her reputation as a shockingly fearless explorer of despair and the longing for oblivion; most of the poems were written in the month before her suicide, some at the rate of three a day. These are qualities ripe for biographical treatment.
In her new book The Silent Woman - which ought to be subtitled Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes & Janet Malcolm - Malcolm lists biographies of the poet published in 1976, 1987, 1989 and two in 1991, testimony to the remarkable hold Plath has on the contemporary mind.
What Malcolm has produced is not a biography but an indictment of the whole genre as "the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world." Malcolm likens the biographer to a "professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away." She equates biography with "voyeurism and busybodyism," and she asserts that the "apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity" does not hide biography's "transgressive nature."
In her previous book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm decried the practice of journalism as an act of remorseless betrayal in which the reporter entices, befriends and coerces subjects into saying things they might not otherwise reveal. The focus of the book, first published as a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1989, was the relationship between convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and journalist Joe McGinness, who set out to write an account of MacDonald's trial and in the process became convinced of MacDonald's guilt. He finished the investigation, during which he and MacDonald became close, and wrote the book without telling his subject that his feelings had changed.
Malcolm does not make McGinness's mistake. First, she never meets Hughes, though his presence looms over the book. Second, she makes it clear that her sympathies lie with the laureate. She writes on page eight, "Like Prometheus, whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged, Hughes has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers and newspaper journalists." Stopping a taxi in front of Hughes's house, Court Green, Malcolm spies a "fully stocked bird feeder, around which English robins and sparrows were swarming. I felt a return of my feeling of tenderness toward Hughes - I felt his reality, his aliveness, his stuckness . . ." Almost sheepishly, we are drawn to Malcolm's sympathies, because she is so frank about them and because of the audacious artlessness with which she applies herself to the task: "Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness. The pose of fairmindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses; if they were genuine, if the writer actually didn't care one way or the other how things came out, he would not bestir himself to represent them."
Of the five biographies of Plath that Malcolm investigates, the one she finds "by far the most intelligent and . . . aesthetically satisfying" is Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson (1989) which was flayed in the press because, while it presented Plath as (in Malcolm's words) "a highly self-involved and confused, unstable, driven, perfectionistic, rather humorless young woman, whose suicide remains a mystery," it also relied heavily on the aid and testimony of Hughes's sister Olwyn, a fact that induced great teeth-gnashing and vituperation among Plath advocates. If you sympathize with Hughes, then you can't believe that he, at least emotionally, murdered her and snuffed out the career of a great poet.
To those who believe such, Malcolm says, in effect, "Get a life," adding, perhaps, as corollary, "and leave Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes alone."
We live in an age in which lives and events are driven to a disheartening degree by the engines of advertising and public relations, and the notion that we have rights over our own lives becomes increasingly questionable. Malcolm herself is not immune to this blurring effect. Last September, after a 10-year suit and a widely reported trial, a federal jury decided that Malcolm had fabricated five quotations in her book In the Freud Archives and that two of them were libelous. Malcolm admitted combining quotations from different interviews and changing the locations of interviews to shape the narrative flow, but she denied putting words in the mouth of Jeffrey Masson, whose firing as projects director of the Freud Archives in London was the subject of the book.
Knowledge of these events cannot help but color a reading of The Silent Woman, and when Malcolm writes, "Memory is notoriously unreliable," one's reaction is to hope she tapes that sentiment to her refrigerator door. On the other hand, one cannot help but be attracted to her combination of outrageous confidence and insouciant coyness. Malcolm sheds canny insights about Plath's life and poetry, about biography and our perceptions of celebrity with the smoothness of David Letterman dropping punchlines into a Friday night audience. Her accounts of interviews with several Plath biographers and "friends" are rich with color.
As she writes in The Silent Woman, however: "In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios - there are none.
This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open."
Copyright 1994 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN
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