The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

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9780330335775: The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
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Janet Malcolm has produced a brilliant, elegantly reasoned meditation on the art of biography, in which she takes as her example the various biographies of the poet Sylvia Plath. "The Silent Woman" is an astonishing feat of criticism and literary detection. It is not a book about the life of Sylvia Plath, but about her afterlife: how her reputation was forged from the poems she wrote just before her suicide; how her estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, as executor of her estate, tried to serve two masters - Plath's art and his own need for privacy; and how it fell to his sister, Olwyn Hughes, as literary agent for the estate, to protect him by limiting access to Plath's work. "The Silent Woman," in the end, embodies a paradox: even as Malcolm brings her skepticism to bear on the claims of biography to present the truth about a life, a portrait of Sylvia Plath emerges that gives us a sense of "knowing" this tragic poet in a way we have never known her before. The result is a provocative work that will dispel forever the innocence with which most of us have approached the reading of any biography. It will be talked about for years to come.

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Sylvia Plath committed suicide in February 1963, and since then her poetry, fiction, and, increasingly, her life, have maintained enormous power over readers' imaginations. Biographies continue to appear with regularity, despite the strong hold the Plath estate has on her work. But because of that hold, each biographer has been forced to accommodate the living (Ted Hughes, who was separated from Plath at the time of her death, and his larger-than-life sister, Olwyn, long the executrix), often at the expense of the dead. In 1989, Anne Stevenson's peculiar hybrid, Bitter Fame, was published, complete with an appendix full of devastating memoirs. It was not your average biography. When Janet Malcolm was first sent the book, she was less drawn to it by the Plath legend than by the fact that she had known Stevenson in the 50s, but she soon became captivated by the book's defeatist subtext. The dead woman's voice and writings seemed to overwhelm Stevenson's tentative narrative; and if that wasn't enough, there was also the none-too-angelic choir of those who had known Plath. "These too, said: "Don't listen to Anne Stevenson. She didn't know Sylvia. I knew Sylvia. Let me tell you about her. Read my correspondence with her. Read my memoir."

Bitter Fame was soon garnering some powerfully bad notices, especially that of A. Alvarez in the New York Review of Books. Alvarez, the author of one of the most influential pieces on Plath, in his study of suicide, The Savage God, had some special, personal cards to deal, as have so many others Plath left behind. Because Malcolm's great theme is treachery--that of the interviewer, the journalist, the teller of just about any tale--the Plath mess seemed a perfect fit, and she decided to become a player, too. In 1991, Malcolm was having lunch with Olwyn Hughes in North London, 28 years to the day on which the poet died.

This is only one of the coincidences in The Silent Woman, a postmodern biography par excellence, which is less about the drama of Plath's life and still controversial death than about their continuing effect on the living. For Malcolm, all cards are wild, each one revealing more complexity, human cravenness, and, above all, brilliantly playful aperçus about human agency and writing's deceptions. I look forward to the dictionary of quotations that foregrounds the elegant "The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living." And then there's: "Memory is notoriously unreliable; when it is intertwined with ill will, it may be monstrously unreliable. The "good" biographer is supposed to be able to discriminate among the testimonies of witnesses and have his antennae out for tendentious distortions, misrememberings and outright lies. It's clear that Malcolm doesn't see herself as a "good" biographer-- she openly declares her allegiance, but is more than capable of changing it and of showing her cards. Or is she? In the end, The Silent Woman, is a stunning inquiry into the possibility of ever really knowing anything save that "the game continues."

Review:

"Rich and theatrical."--The New York Times Book Review.
"The Silent Woman is one of the deepest, loveliest, and most problematic things Janet Malcolm has written. It is so subtle, so patiently analytical, and so true that it is difficult to envisage anyone writing again about Plath and Hughes. She is the cat who has licked the plate clean. It has an almost disabling authority about it, a finality like a father's advice."--James Wood, The Guardian (London)
"Not since Virginia Woolf has anyone thought so trenchantly about the strange art of biography."--Christopher Benfey, Newsday
"There is more intellectual excitement in one of Malcolm's riffs than in many a thick academic tome . . . She is among the most intellectually provocative of authors . . . able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight."--David Lehman, Boston Globe
"It is the best-written and most stirring polemic of the year. Completely brilliant."--David Hare, The Times (London)
"The Journalist and the Murderer was a deeply thoughtful exposure of the moral problems of in-depth journalism . . . [The Silent Woman] contains some of the best thinking I know on both the practical and the philosophical problems of biography."--Bernard Crick, New Statesman & Society

"The Silent Woman is one of the deepest, loveliest, and most problematic things Janet Malcolm has written. It is so subtle, so patiently analytical, and so true that it is difficult to envisage anyone writing again about Plath and Hughes. She is the cat who has licked the plate clean. It has an almost disabling authority about it, a finality like a father's advice."--James Wood, The Guardian (London)

"Rich and theatrical."--The New York Times Book Review.

"Not since Virginia Woolf has anyone thought so trenchantly about the strange art of biography."--Christopher Benfey, Newsday

"There is more intellectual excitement in one of Malcolm's riffs than in many a thick academic tome . . . She is among the most intellectually provocative of authors . . . able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight."--David Lehman, Boston Globe

"It is the best-written and most stirring polemic of the year. Completely brilliant."--David Hare, The Times (London)

"The Journalist and the Murderer was a deeply thoughtful exposure of the moral problems of in-depth journalism . . . [The Silent Woman] contains some of the best thinking I know on both the practical and the philosophical problems of biography."--Bernard Crick, New Statesman & Society

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