vocabulary lessons: The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm

If you’re so inclined, see other vocabulary lessons here.


silentAs I wrote yesterday, Janet Malcolm is nothing if not academic; and she expresses this in her vocabulary and allusions. I made no shortage of notes. Here are a few words and references that I took the time to explore further.

asperity: “…writing with the affectionate asperity of a sibling…”

Turandot: “presenting herself as a kind of Sphinx or Turandot before whom the various supplicants must appear…”

bathetic: “Plath, unable to eat or sleep, was running actual high fevers as well as figurative ones of jealous rage and bathetic self-pity,” and again, “…sinks deeper and deeper into bitter bathos…”

Cerberus: “Olwyn ran a small literary agency in addition to her work as Cerberus to the Plath estate.”

transferential misprision! “(In 1956) …relations between men and women were at a nadir of helpless transferential misprision.” She’s showing off now, isn’t she?

lability: “Plath’s recording of the calm stealing over her after she left Sassoon’s house, and of her sense of her entitlement to the pleasures of Paris, wonderfully evokes the lability of feeling for which youth is famous…”

Racine’s Phèdre: “Women are demon spirits in the poem. They’re Racine’s Phèdre.”

marmoreally: “…the letters we used to write one another in the 1950′s and 60′s on our manual Olivettis and Smith Coronas, so different from the marmoreally cool and smooth letters young people write one another today on their Macintoshes and IBMs.”

The Aspern Papers: “I felt like the possessor of a great prize – the prize that the narrator of The Aspern Papers goes to such extreme lengths to try to get.” (I loved learning about this one. I may have to read it and reconsider Henry James.)

oriental, in this usage: “…I’ve also wasted a great deal of time being positively oriental in tact…” (quoted from a letter written by Olwyn Hughes to Anne Stevenson) I remain puzzled by this one; I could find no definition of oriental that made the least sense in this context. My mother the linguist, when consulted, suggested that maybe it’s a reference to a stereotypical behavior of the population of people sometimes referred to as “Orientals.” (This is not considered polite or politically correct usage.) That sounds like the best theory I can find…

Leonard Bast: “Butscher has figured as a kind of Leonard Bast in the community’s imagination – and, I should add, in his own.” From Forster – naturally.

exiguous: “…but as the house and food were nourishing, the memories were exiguous.”

Cyrano: “Cohen apparently forgave her for her rejection of his actual person and accepted his Cyrano role.” All I can figure is Cyrano de Bergerac, though I don’t entirely get the reference. Anyone care to elucidate?

verdigris, from Plath’s poem, Death & Co.: “The nude / Verdigris of the condor.” (I have looked this up repeatedly but can never keep straight which color is verdigris.)

seraphic: “…her head raised with a kind of seraphic expression…” Like a seraphim, of course.

immanence: “…dust that through the years had acquired almost a kind of objecthood, a sort of immanence.”

Whew. Keep the dictionary handy. Anything new to you here?

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

silentThis 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.

Also, this:

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.


Rating: 6 dictionaries.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

A fondly affectionate portrait of a Tawny Owl, tempered by wry wit and British reserve.

owl

Military historian Martin Windrow (Our Friends Beneath the Sands) never considered himself an animal lover. But to aid his recuperation after a skydiving accident, Windrow allowed his brother to acquire for him an unusual pet. Wellington, a Little Owl (“this is a species, not a description”), was more than he had bargained for, and too much for his London flat; when Wellington escaped, Windrow found himself shamefacedly relieved. Convinced to try a different species, he made a second attempt with a Tawny Owl hatchling he named Mumble, and they became fast friends.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is in large part a loving memoir of a dearly departed and singular companion. Windrow also shares his research into the biology, history, folklore and usual habits of the Tawny Owl and its strigine relations. He repeatedly stresses the amateur nature of these studies, but nonetheless imparts wisdom and praise for this corner of the animal kingdom, as well as for his friend of 15 years.

Mumble is an endearing juvenile, a feisty adolescent, and initially tolerant of visitors, but eventually too prickly to admit her master’s friends. Windrow moves out of London and into the country to allow her greater freedom, and watches her personality and customs change as she ages, molts and nests. It has taken nearly 20 years after Mumble’s demise for him to reopen the tender subject of her life, drawing on diary entries that recorded her vocalizations, eating habits, grooming and quirks. Fans of loving memoirs about pets, accessible science writing and dry humor will be charmed by Windrow’s love letter to Mumble.


This review originally ran in the June 13, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 HHS (hoot and head shots).

Teaser Tuesdays: The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

silent

Having been impressed by Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, I knew I wanted to read what I thought was her biography of Sylvia Plath (and, secondarily, husband Ted Hughes). I am not a great scholar of Plath, but I’ve read The Bell Jar twice, and some of her poetry, and I thought the combination of subject and biographer sounded very promising.

I was wrong, though; this isn’t a biography of Plath, but rather an examination (even an exposé) of biography as a genre, using Plath as an example. How interesting! I was still on board, having been interested in some of the problems of biography (and autobiography, and especially, memoir) for some time. Also, I just finished Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, as you know, and she muses (and her mother muses) on some of the problems of memoir, too. So this is all welcome.

I’ll just share an example from Malcolm’s opening pages that struck me, and that helps to define her understanding of the problem.

The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. 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.

Putting aside Malcolm’s use of the male pronoun (shame on you!)…

Part of me, of course, wants to protest on behalf of the Truly Good Biographies out there; but I know exactly what she means. So on the one hand: we read history for some lofty purposes, don’t we? And history includes biographying certain history characters, doesn’t it? Need we be voyeuristic to want to learn about Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor? I say, no. But oh, then there was my reading of Jaycee Dugard’s book, which made me feel just dirty. And I get the point with someone like Plath, too: she is a literary figure, but admittedly, a certain part (probably a large part) of her fame relates to the lurid details of her failed marriage and her suicide. We’re fascinated with these things. And, as Malcolm will go on to outline, another defining aspect of Plath’s case – and what makes her different from Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor (and like Jaycee Dugard) – is that the other players in her story are still alive (or were when this book was published). They are still vulnerable to injury from the conclusions a biographer might draw, about Who To Blame; and naturally conclusions of this sort will be drawn, in such a tale of suicide and woe. Point taken, then.

Stay tuned for what looks like a stimulating read.

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

motherI am deeply impressed by Alison Bechdel: her self-awareness, her fraught journey through her life and her relationship with her mother, her psychoanalysis and her work in this book (and, I’ll wager, her earlier Fun Home, which I haven’t read but have heard lots of good things about. I’ve put it on the list). This is a memoir of her mother, at first glance; but it’s more self-involved than that, although I don’t mean that in a bad way. That’s just what this book is. It’s the story of her writing a book about her mother, and it’s that book; it’s really a book about herself, then.

It is also a graphic memoir, which is not a format I’ve spent much time on, as I find it a little exhausting to follow; I guess I’m a traditionalist when it comes to my reading matter! I prefer traditional fonts, and certainly hard-copy rather than electronic (well, there are the audiobooks…). I’ve read very few graphic works, and although I’ve enjoyed them all, I tend to find them a little more effortful. On the other hand, though, I sped through these 289 pages easily in an afternoon. Seeing Bechdel’s visual version of herself, her mother, and her other characters (a father, two brothers, two psychoanalysts, a few girlfriends) added to the experience; so, props on the format as well, as it turns out. (This is where I’ll note that Alison Bechdel is also the author of the esteemed comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and a whole pile of books of said comic.)

I feel the need to address a personal element of my reading this book. I have aspired for a handful of years now to write a book about my own mother. And it was my mother who gave me this book – I believe after she went to an author reading at a bookstore? – with a nudge toward writing my own version. This is funny to me now that I’ve read Are You My Mother?, because for one thing, Bechdel’s mom was less than pleased with her efforts (is there a joke in there, Mom?); also, the book I envision, hope, one day to write is not very much like this one. No criticism there, of course. I dream of something a little more like Haven Kimmel’s mother-book, She Got Up Off the Couch. That is, I want to tell my mother’s story (unavoidably mediated through the lens of being her daughter), because I think her life story needs telling. Bechdel’s need was admittedly a little more self-focused. She quotes Virginia Woolf more than once: about To the Lighthouse, “I suppose that I did for myself who psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” And that is what Bechdel is working on doing through this memoir: psychoanalyze herself, and put her emotions to rest. At the end, it feels like she does, at least a little.

She is quite involved in the idea of psychoanalysis, and does quite a bit of her own research; in addition to relationships with two different analysts, she reads Freud and some lesser-knowns; her personal favorite is one Winnicott. She opens each chapter with a dream, then sets it in the timeline of her life and discusses what it might mean. It’s an interesting lens, and not one I’m familiar with. I’m not ready to go get analyzed, myself, but I came away respecting Bechdel’s process. Some of the papers she studies and quotes from are overly academic for what I was looking to get out of this book, but that’s okay; I let them flow over me and stayed on track with what Bechdel was up to, which was what I was looking for.

I found Bechdel funny, personable, sympathetic, and authentic. I’m glad for her in what she gained through this process. I expect to come back to this book for some thoughts on my own work, if/when I ever get that far; for now, it was a rewarding read. And I’ll be looking for Fun Home. For feminists, lesbians, mothers, daughters, or people with relationships to solve – I recommend this deftly drawn work of emotion and searching. Thank you, Alison.


Rating: 7 sessions.

did not finish: Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter

shadowsFull title, Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine. Briefly: I was excited about the concept of this book. History; true crime; alcohol!; and a strangely-spooky-but-real tale of apparent insanity, set in a vineyard, of all places. I recognized in this book the spirit of The Inheritor’s Powder and The Remedy, among others. (I may also have a burgeoning interest in amateur botany, based upon A Garden of Marvels, The Drunken Botanist, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.) Additionally, the author is an accomplished journalist, which I thought promising.

But where the concept hooked me, the text failed. I found a profusion of sentence fragments. And sometimes this works, for dramatic effect – although I think it still works best in limited dosages, because for gosh sake, sentence fragments are the breaking of a grammatical rule and should be used sparingly and with respect for the rule being broken. (I still recall Mrs. Smith, my sophomore and junior year English teacher, and her lecture about Hemingway’s use of the passive tense, wherein Cohn “was married by the first girl who was nice to him.” She taught us that you have to be a Hemingway-caliber writer before you get to go messing about with the passive tense like that.) And Potter has a tendency to tell his reader what character thought, felt, did or said in rather distant history, which I found off-putting and untrustworthy in a journalist. As intriguing as his story looked from afar, I found it insufficient to keep me on board through these difficulties. Oh, and there were rather too many references to God in the opening pages for my personal taste; if these were going to be drawn together and made relevant to the story, it didn’t happen in time for this reader.

Better luck next time.

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

A detective novel by the horror master in which a mass murderer torments a retired cop who fights back.

mr. mercedes

Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes opens in a present-day depressed Midwestern metropolis, where retired detective Bill Hodges is haunted by the one who got away. It has been several years now, but he can still see the job fair, the long lines of unemployed people who’d waited overnight in the cold, the ghostly gray Mercedes accelerating through the crowd, the gristle and gore dripping from its fender as it drove off. Hodges is considering suicide when he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer.

Hodges is reinvigorated by a second chance at solving the cold case, with a few unlikely allies. The neighbor kid who mows Hodges’s lawn contributes computer skills and a surprisingly strong sounding board for new theories. The sister of the car’s original owner is both a delightful foil to the former cop’s depression and a potential love interest. Her niece brings the challenge of dealing with mental illness, but also a steely resolve, to this dubious crime-fighting team. While tracking Hodges’s efforts, Mr. Mercedes simultaneously follows the Mercedes Killer himself. He’s a loner who works two jobs, lives with his mother and attracts no attention, but harbors creepy inclinations worthy of Stephen King.

King’s fans will recognize his talents with suspense, finely drawn Americana and the horror of pure evil lurking in the everyday. His characters are as true-to-life and likeable as ever. As the improbable heroes and the Mercedes Killer rush toward a crashing finish, Mr. Mercedes is proof yet again that King can still terrify his readers without invoking the supernatural.


This review originally ran in the June 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 ice creams.
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