This was a very interesting read, and not exactly what I’d expected; but it is in line with my own previous Janet Malcolm read, Iphigenia in Forest Hills. As I said on Tuesday, this is not a biography as I thought; it is rather an examination, if not an excoriation, of biographies generally. The life of Sylvia Plath is chosen as a vehicle for Malcolm’s argument, her journey and study toward developing that argument, and she does make an appropriate vehicle. She is a sensation, what with her suicide and all; she has living family members (notably her husband, sister–in-law, and her mother; she also has children, but they are only referred to by others, and don’t show their own faces) to be hurt by biographical portrayals which naturally handle their lives as well, often less than gently; and the biographies that have been written of her have tended to viscerally choose sides. Some are in the pro-Plath camp: she was a fine talent, tormented and abused by her evil husband Ted Hughes and her mother; others are pro-Hughes: he was a saint, she was a terror.
[Here is where I want to point out that this book was published in 1994, so the living relatives Malcolm writes about and that I’m referring to were living then. Plath’s mother Aurelia died in 1994; but in the present tense of this book, she is alive. Hughes died in 1998. I can’t confirm Olwyn Hughes’s status; I am therefore tempted to presume she is going strong.]
Very briefly: you know Sylvia Plath? Troubled poet, author of The Bell Jar? She was married to poet Ted Hughes, had two children, and was separated from him when she made her second suicide attempt, which was successful, by putting her head in an oven and gassing herself. Ted and his sister Olwyn have controlled her literary estate, with Olwyn playing the active role and ferociously defending his reputation.
Janet Malcolm traveled in 1991 to England to meet with Olwyn Hughes, and several Plath biographers, to talk about the Plath legacy and the ways in which it has been mismanaged. While the various parties differ on how, why, and when, I think they will all agree that it has been mismanaged. The biographical processes and products have been fraught with bitterness and poisonous resentments and failures of compassion, of put-yourself-in-someone-else’s-shoes. I am undecided as to what side I’m on, and Malcolm has something to say about this failure to choose sides.
The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive. Rose’s book is fuelled [sic] by a bracing hostility toward Ted and Olwyn Hughes. It derives its verve and forward thrust from the cool certainty with which… she presents her case against the Hugheses… If it had been impossible for Rose to take a side, her book would not have been written; it would not have been worth taking the trouble to write. 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.
(The male pronouns, present throughout, strike me as quite a shame. C’mon, Malcolm, you yourself are a writer who is not a “he” – can you not represent that possibility in your writing?)
Okay, so, point taken; but I didn’t get much of a feel for either Plath’s or Hughes’s point of view, honestly, from what I read in this book, and I’ve read none of the biographies. (Ironically, I was trusting to Malcolm to do that job for me; clearly that was a no-go, although what I received instead was worthwhile.)
Malcolm talks with the pro-Plath biographers and the Pro-Hughes biographers; they run a gamut from academic intellectuals through standers-by, friends and neighbors, and frankly (though Malcolm doesn’t use these words) some who strike me as tabloid-mongers. She reads letters and journals – the published ones, and the ones in archives. She reads manuscripts. She is most interested in the conflicts, the ethical questions, the difficulties – of biography generally (again see this week’s Teaser Tuesday for a perfect expression of this problem), and even more so, the difficulties of biography of a living person or one, like Plath, whose supporting cast is still living. (Or, again, was at the time of this book’s publication.)
It is all very interesting: Malcolm’s arguments, the people she meets – and her interview subjects get some excellent characterization. Considering The Silent Woman as a work of literature in itself, these characterizations are by far Malcolm’s strongest moments. I appreciate the criticisms she makes of biography, and of the delicate situation involved with still-living subjects; a person could almost be convinced that we should wait for everyone to have died before we write up their nasty secrets… but not quite.
Malcolm’s style is decidedly cerebral, classical, academic. She goes heavy on the allusions. This is not necessarily a compliment or a criticism, but read these lines:
The framework of deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and feminist ideology on which Rose has mounted her polemic against the Hugheses gives the work a high intellectual shimmer. There are close to eight hundred footnotes.
I’m afraid we have applied the wrong standard here! I certainly hope we’re not down to counting footnotes… of which, by the way, there are none in this book. There is nonetheless a great deal of theory, and it could get a little trying if that was not what you were there for. Just a head’s up.
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 on what is going on in his imagination… We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios – there are none. This is the way is is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.
This is off-topic and perhaps not highly relevant to the arguments we’re working on here, but I couldn’t let it pass by. Hello, unreliable narrators?? I guess Malcolm’s area of expertise lies in nonfiction, journalism, rather than literary criticism or *novels* – but really! I was surprised that she would make such a blanket statement that “fiction is true”. Just a few example of classic unreliable narrators that I have read might include Humbert Humbert of Lolita (she wanted it, right?), Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nick in The Great Gatsby, that guy from Fight Club, Lockwood from my old favorite Wuthering Heights, and (famously, recently, and for me, unreadably) the two narrators of Gone Girl.
I fear that I’ve been rambling. I find Janet Malcolm’s mind-workings fascinating and thought-provoking, and intelligent; I appreciate all the research she made me do in her vocabulary and allusions (you will see a vocabulary lessons post coming soon). Despite The Silent Woman not being what I’d expected, it was well worth my time; and it did take time, being rather dense. She is not a light read, be aware. I’m still on board for Two Lives, though.