Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Breaking the silence

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On Saturday, I participated in an event at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans with the authors Alex White (A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe), Tessa Gratton (The Queens of Innis Lear), and Robert Jackson Bennett (Foundryside). It went fine—I signed books, met some interesting people, and had the chance to speak to librarians about Astounding, which is why I was there in the first place. I had also been told that I should talk about a book that I had recently read, but because of a miscommunication, the other writers on the panel never got the message, so the idea was quietly dropped. This wasn’t a serious problem, but it deprived me of the chance to recommend the title that I’d selected, which I feel comfortable describing as the most interesting book that I’ve read in at least two or three years. It isn’t about science fiction, but about the art of biography, which can be a form of speculative fiction in itself. As regular readers of this blog know, I stumbled into the role of a biographer almost by accident, and ever since, I’ve been seeking advice on the subject wherever I can find it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that biographers are eager to speak about their art and struggles, and that they’ll sometimes overshare at moments when they should be fading into the background. (I have a sneaking fondness for books like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry and Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, in which the biographer smuggles himself into the life of his subject, even if I can’t defend it. And James Atlas recently published an entire book, The Shadow in the Garden, mostly as an excuse to air his grievances about the reception of his biography of Saul Bellow.) But it wasn’t until recently that I found a book that captured everything that I had been feeling and thinking, along with so much else.

The book is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which was originally published in 1994. I think it’s a masterpiece—it’s one of the best nonfiction books that I’ve ever read of any kind—and it instantly elevated Malcolm, whom I’ve long respected, into the pantheon of my intellectual heroes. I’ve read a lot of her work in The New Yorker, of course, and I greatly admired her books Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives. (The former includes a passage about the history of psychoanalysis that I find so insightful that I’ve quoted it here no fewer than three times.) But The Silent Woman is on another level entirely. On the surface, it’s a close reading of all the biographies that have been written by others about Plath and Hughes, but as you read it, it unfolds into a work of fiendish complexity that operates on multiple planes at once. It’s a fascinating—and gossipy—consideration of Plath and Hughes themselves; an account of Malcolm’s own investigation of some of the figures on the sidelines; a meditation on biographical truth; and a fantastically involving reading experience. Malcolm has a knack for crafting a phrase or analogy that can change the way you think about a subject forever. Writing about the appearance of the first collection of Plath’s letters, for instance, she uses an image that reminds me of the moment in certain movies when the screen suddenly widens into Cinemascope size:

Before the publication of Letters Home, the Plath legend was brief and contained, a taut, austere stage drama set in a few bleak, sparsely furnished rooms…Now the legend opened out, to become a vast, sprawling movie-novel filmed on sets of the most consummate and particularized realism: period clothing, furniture, and kitchen appliances; real food; a cast of characters headed by a Doris Dayish Plath (a tall Doris Day who “wrote”) and a Laurence Olivier-Heathcliffish Hughes.

The result is as twisty as Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but even better, I think, because it doesn’t wear its cleverness on its sleeve. Instead, it subtly ensnares you, and you end up feeling—or at least I did—that you’re somehow implicated in the story yourself. I read the first half online, in the archive of The New Yorker, and as soon as I realized how special it was, I checked out the hardcover from the library. Once I was done, I knew that this was a book that I had to own, so I picked up a used copy of the paperback at Open Books in Chicago. I leafed through it occasionally afterward, and I even lent it to my wife to read, but I didn’t look at it too closely. As a result, it wasn’t until I brought it last weekend to New Orleans that I realized that it included a new afterword. Unlike many books, it didn’t advertise the presence of any additional material, and it isn’t mentioned on the copyright page, which made it seem like a secret message straight out of Dictionary of the Khazars. It’s also a confession. In the original edition, Malcolm states that Ted Hughes decided to posthumously release Plath’s novel The Bell Jar in America because he needed money to buy a second home. After the book was published, Malcolm reveals in the afterword, Hughes wrote to her to say that this was incorrect:

One part of your narrative is not quite right…You quote my letter to [Plath’s mother] Aurelia in which I ask her how she feels about our publishing The Bell Jar in the U.S. That was early 1970; I wanted cash to buy a house…When Aurelia wrote back and made her feelings clear, even though she said the decision to publish or not rested with me, I dropped my idea of buying the house. My letter reassuring her is evidently not in the archive you saw (or obviously your account would be different).

Before I get to Malcolm’s response to Hughes, who is politely but firmly pointing out a possible mistake, I should mention my own situation. Yesterday, I delivered the final set of corrections to Astounding. In the process, I’ve checked as much of the book as I can against my primary sources, and I’ve found a few small mistakes—mistyped dates, minor transcription errors—that I’m glad to have caught at this stage. But it means that I’m very conscious of how it feels to be a writer who learns that something in his or her book might be wrong. As for Malcolm, she wrote back to Hughes, saying that she checked her notes from the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington:

In 1971, Aurelia made an annotation on your letter of March 24, 1970. She wrote, in tiny handwriting, “’71—children said this was a horrible house’ and they didn’t want to live there. Ted did send me $10,000 from the royalties (I protested the publication, which Sylvia would not have allowed) and deposited [illegible] in accounts for Frieda and Nick—Ted [illegible] bought the property!!!” Not knowing anything to the contrary, I took Aurelia at her word.

Malcolm and Hughes spoke on the phone to straighten out the misunderstanding, and everything seemed fine. But on the very last page of the book, Malcolm slips in the literary equivalent of a post-credits scene that changes everything that we thought we knew:

The next morning I awoke with one of those inklings by which detective fiction is regularly fueled. I telephoned the Lilly Library again and asked the librarian if she would read me Aurelia Plath’s annotation of Hughes’s letter of March 24, 1970—I was especially interested in a word that I had found illegible when I took notes at the library in 1991. Perhaps she could make it out? She said she would try. When she reached the relevant sentence, she paused for a suspenseful moment of effort. Then she read—as I felt certain she would—“Ted never bought the property.”

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2018 at 9:22 am

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