Janet Malcolm's Is A Fresh Slant On Art Of Biography

from: The Star Tribune (Minneapolis) - April 10, 1994

by Robin M. Neidorf

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath By Janet Malcolm

"Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world," writes Janet Malcolm. "The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling though certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away."

"The Silent Woman" is an exploration of the ambiguous art of biography, played out against the history of Sylvia Plath's afterlife in the world of literary biography. Plath's chroniclers have long struggled against the control that her husband, Ted Hughes, and his sister Olwyn Hughes (until recently the literary agent for the Plath estate) maintain over the story of her life; they refuse permission to quote, insist on revisions to book manuscripts and threaten lawsuits with dependable regularity.

Where Malcolm enters the picture is with the publication of Anne Stevenson's biography of Plath, "Bitter Fame," published in 1989.

"Bitter Fame," the first Plath biography written with the explicit assistance of Olwyn Hughes, was eviscerated in the press; Stevenson was criticized for her negative portrait of Plath, for her apparent co-option by the Hughes camp.

Malcolm makes her loyalties very clear in her narrative. Stevenson is an old classmate of hers from the University of Michigan, and the lingering "incandescence," as she put it, of her youthful admiration for Stevenson impinges through her treatment of her. Malcolm respects and likes Olwyn Hughes and admires Ted Hughes' character and powerful writing, both his poems and his letters. Other Plath biographers are disdained as burglars and mythmakers. Plath herself is incidental to Malcolm's story; where biographers are concerned with unearthing the dead, Malcolm is occupied with tracking the survivors.

Malcolm may behave like an ordinary journalist, conducting interviews, following leads and writing her story, yet she does so with such deliberate self-consciousness that the end result is as much a story about getting the story as it is the story itself. ''I took careful note of the bad impression she made on me at our first encounter," is a typical Malcolm comment, inviting the reader to be as critical of her as she is of the burglars, to consider the process by which we forge our literary alliances. The tension between objective truth and subjective writing is one that has often appeared in Malcolm's work, most notably illustrated by the highly publicized charges of misrepresentation and statement manufacturing on the part of Jeffrey Masson, a source for one of Malcolm's previous books, "The Freud Archives." The point Malcolm consistently makes is that in all nonfiction writing, there is no objectivity, and, indeed, that there should not be. "The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive," Malcolm says in "The Silent Woman." In the world of fiction, there is no ambiguity of what really happened; the author's version of the truth is the only one. In nonfiction, and particularly in biography, there is always another side to the story, an alternative scenario. Picking and choosing among them is the task of the biographer; without a point of view or a "motive," the task is incomprehensible.

Malcolm's own motives, however, are not clear. She cobbles her narrative skillfully, from letters, poems, interviews and memoirs. She is a sharp observer, letting her pointedly subjective observations be the trail of bread crumbs leading through her story. And yet what is the final result? Is this a book exposing the illicit relationships between biographer, source and audience? A criticism of the literary climate? A defense of a particular biographical point of view?

"The Silent Woman" is all of these. With an admirable sleight of hand, Malcolm manages to criticize the ambiguities of biography while claiming for her own work those aspects which suit her needs.

Memo: Robin M. Neidorf is a writer and reviewer based in Minneapolis.

Copyright Star Tribune : MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL : Copyright 1994

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