Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Silent Woman

The apostolic succession

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Ever since I began working as a biographer—which is one of the few acceptable ways of earning a living as a private eye of culture—I’ve naturally become interested in what other writers have had to say on the subject. My favorite example, as I’ve noted here before, is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which isn’t just the best book that I’ve read on the art of biography, but one of the best that I’ve read about anything. James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden offers an engaging look at the profession from the inside, even if you sometimes get the sense that Atlas wrote it mostly to settle a few old scores relating to his biography of Saul Bellow. And there are certain loose, baggy monsters of the form that can’t help but comment on their own monstrousness. A book like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry functions both as a straight work of scholarship and as a bizarre mediation on its own creation, and by the last volume, the two elements become so unbalanced that you’re forced to confront the underlying strangeness of the whole biographical enterprise. Such hybrid books, which read like unwitting enactments of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, tend to have three qualities in common. One is the biographer’s extensive use of the first person, which allows him to insert himself into the narrative like a shadowy supporting player. Another is the inordinate amount of time or wordage devoted to the project, which usually occupies multiple decades or volumes. And the last, which should probably serve as a warning, is that this tendency is often most pronounced when the biographer is investigating the life of another living writer, which leads to insidious problems of identification, admiration, and resentment. As Sherry said of his biography of Greene to the New York Times: “I almost destroyed myself. By the time I had finished, my life had been taken from me.”

Which brings us to Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, which combines all of these ingredients into one of the strangest books I’ve ever seen. It first caught my eye over a decade ago, with its striking cover inspired by Philip Castle’s poster for A Clockwork Orange, but I’m glad that I’m only reading it now, when perhaps I have a better understanding of the emotions that it expresses. After describing his first encounter as a young man with Burgess, whom he compares to a baboon with “vampiral” red eyes,  Lewis writes:

My need to know about Burgess twenty years ago: what lack or absence in me was being compensated for? I was youthful, full of ambition and ideals; he was a constellation, larger than life-size, a writer’s writer, crammed with allusions. He was, as Carlyle said of Danton, “a gigantic mass of ostentation,” and the piratical swagger was alluring and I had an abiding affinity with it. The facets which you are taken in by when you are young—the languages, the apparent wide knowledge—genuine academics and professionals, people in the know, see it as so nonsensical, it’s beneath them to contradict Burgess’s bluster. His success came from impressing people who didn’t quite know better; he was left alone by those who did. He fell into that gap, and made a fortune for himself.

If it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, Lewis goes on to explain that his feelings have curdled toward his old mentor, whom he later describes as a “pretentious prick” and a ”complete fucking fool.” But Lewis also adds incongruously: “Twenty years on from my days as a student prince, if I’m allegedly repudiating the lion of my late adolescence, it’s no doubt because deep down I continue to feel close to him.”

Not surprisingly, many reviewers regarded the book as an act of “character assassination,” as Blake Morrison put it in The Guardian, or a case study in the pathology of hero worship. But the tangled lines of influence are even weirder than they seem. Lewis’s real mentor wasn’t Burgess, but Richard Ellmann, his thesis adviser, the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde who is generally regarded as the greatest modern practitioner of literary biography. He played a similar role in the life of none other than James Atlas, who devotes many pages to Ellmann in The Shadow in the Garden, writing of his first encounter with the man who agreed to supervise his work at Oxford: “Steven [sic] Dedalus had stumbled upon his Leopold Bloom.” In a lengthy footnote on the very first page of Anthony Burgess, Lewis uses almost identical language to describe their relationship:

Ellmann was my supervisor (though he didn’t do much supervising) for a doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound, of which I wrote not one word. We became friends and used to dine lavishly at the Randolph…We were both aware of a Bloom/Dedalus dynamic in our relationship. I was immensely cocky and callow, Ellmann wholly lacked the Oxford way of people being interested in each other only for their own advantage.

It was probably impossible to be mentored by Richard Ellmann, of all people, without thinking of the surrogate father and son of Ulysses, but in Lewis’s case, the Joycean labyrinth was even more twisted—because it was through Ellmann that Lewis met Burgess in the first place. His biography opens with an account of the evening of May 7, 1985, when Ellmann and Lewis picked up Burgess at a train station and gave him a ride to Oxford: “We all went to find Ellman’s rusty, seldom-washed car…Ellmann took us through the city, turning corners by mounting the kerb, grazing bollards and scattering cyclists.” And all the while, Lewis informs us, Burgess had been “murmuring to Ellmann about Joyce.”

And it gets even stranger. One of Ellmann’s other students was the biographer Henry Hart, who later wrote an essay on his mentor titled “Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Blues.” Hart is also the author of the biography James Dickey: The World as a Lie, another book full of mixed feelings toward its self-mythologizing subject, of whom he writes: “To my great relief, Dickey expressed little animosity toward my project. But he obviously had worries, the main one being the way I would address the romanticized versions of his life that he had aired so free-spiritedly in conversations and publications.” Hart addresses these problems in depth, as the full title of the book indicates. (The subtitle, he claims, was Dickey’s idea.) And I’m fascinated by how Richard Ellmann, the author of perhaps the most acclaimed literary biography of all time, produced three separate protégés whose work—Atlas on Bellow, Hart on Dickey, Lewis on Burgess—all but explodes with ambivalence toward their subjects, their own ambitions, and the whole notion of biography itself. Thinking of Ellmann and his literary progeny, I’m reminded, as many of them undoubtedly were, of Stephen Dedalus’s famous speech in the library scene in Ulysses:

A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil…Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

That uneasy succession, which assumes unpredictable shapes in its passage from one generation to another, must be as difficult for biographers as for anyone else. And Ellmann may well have had other students whose names I don’t know yet. There’s obviously a good story here. Somebody should write a book about it.

My ten creative books #8: The Silent Woman

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

For various reasons, there are fewer useful books on the craft of literary nonfiction than there are on writing novels. This may just be a result of market demand, since more people seem to think that they might make good novelists than biographers or journalists. (As W.H. Auden devastatingly notes: “In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.” And he was probably thinking of aspiring fiction writers.) This is a gap that needs to be filled—I’ve learned firsthand that writing a nonfiction book can be practical and rewarding in itself, and I wish that I’d had more models to follow. In recent years, there have been a number of notable efforts, including Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and the indispensable Draft No. 4 by John McPhee. But by far the best work on the subject that I’ve found is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which, as I recently noted, is probably the best book of any kind that I’ve read in years. It isn’t a guidebook, and if anything, reading it might dissuade a lot of writers from tackling nonfiction at all. Those who persist, however, are rewarded with a book that has more insights per page into the creative process than almost any other that I can name. To pick just one example at random, here’s Malcolm on the biographer’s use of letters:

Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, unauthentic, suspect. Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers the sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes.

And perhaps the book’s most memorable passage comes after Malcolm visits the home of a minor player in the Sylvia Plath saga, who turns out to be a hoarder. Afterward, it strikes her that the house was “a kind of monstrous allegory of truth,” both in how we look at the world around us and in how we face the problem of writing:

This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess…the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life…Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee…But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.

Malcolm concludes: “Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not to start. It may be better to hang onto everything…lest one be left with nothing.” Obviously, she hasn’t listened to her own advice, and we’re all the better for it. But that doesn’t mean that she—or the reader—has to be fine with the outcome.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2018 at 9:00 am

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

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2013 at 7:30 am

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