Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath

In 1977, what you might call the cult of Sylvia Plath was still in its infancy; controversy raged about her legacy, but probably more in feminist circles than in the mainstream (that was to come later). But in that year, Faber and Faber issued “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”, a collection of prose by Plath, and it must have been manna from heaven for those who wanted more from the author. I have three copies – I’m not quite sure why – and one at least will have been from the late 1970s or early 1980s when I was first discovering Plath. I couldn’t say if I’ve revisited it since, but I was really keen to do so to find out what I thought of it now. All I can recall for sure is that I thought the title story was weird…

Yes, I do indeed have three copies of “Johnny Panic” and this was the one I read…

The book pulls together a number of prose works, collected by Ted Hughes, and these he divides into those he considers “more successful”, other stories, notebook excerpts and stories found in the Lilly Library. It’s perhaps an odd way to assemble a book, and his introduction doesn’t help matters by referring to her ‘lost’ novel “Double Exposure” (now so famous that mention of it turned up in a book a reviewed not long ago…) So what of the works that *are* included here? Well, of course they’re marvellous.

The bottom one is my original from way back when – and I can see from an ancient bookmark, that I did re-read at least *some* of it at one point!

As well as being a magnificent poet, Plath was also a great prose stylist and these works are little gems. Yes, the title story *is* a bit weird – drawing on Plath’s experience of mental illness, presumably – but it’s bloody good and no wonder I remembered it. So are the others – good, that is – with a particular favourite being “The Daughters of Blossom Street”, again with a hospital setting. The works are an interesting mixture really – and from what we now know of Plath it’s easy to see how the fictions draw on the material of her life, and sit so well alongside the non-fiction pieces. A short one and a half page prose piece, “Context”, is particularly strong, with Plath discussing where her poetry sits. She identifies very much with the attitude “the personal is political”, and it’s rather frightening to think how little has changed in the conflicts present in our world over the last 50 years or so.

For me, the real issues of our time are the issues of every time – the hurt and wonder of loving; making in all its forms – children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings; and the conservation of life of all people in all places, the jeopardizing of which no abstract doubletalk of ‘peace’ or ‘implacable foes’ can excuse.

Then there are memoir pieces like the evocative “Ocean 12-12W” recalling her young life by the sea at her grandparents’ house; and “Snow Blitz”, which presumably was one of her final pieces of writing, dated as it is 1963 and dealing with the frozen winter that had its part in her final demise. Chilling, in both senses of the word.

… the simple, lugubrious vision of a human face turning aside forever, in spite of rings and vows, to the last lover of all.

The notebook extracts are tantalising, reminding me of the fact that I really need to sit down and read Plath’s journals and letters, and also making me crabby about the fact that some of them were destroyed. In all her prose works, Plath shows herself to be a sharp observer of human behaviour and also a writer capable of conjuring a setting or an atmosphere seemingly at ease; and I can only wish that there were more works available.

Because much as I love being able to read these prose works of Plath, it strikes me as what we have here is inadequate. In 1977, apart from the individual poetry books, “Letters Home” and “The Bell Jar”, nothing else was available and *anything* was a bonus. Now, however, I think we need a proper collection; someone to undertake the bringing together of all her shorter prose pieces, in much the same way as her letters and journals have been collected. Plath was constantly writing and submitting works, so I presume there are plenty more lurking somewhere. I think in many ways Hughes was not necessarily the right person to curate her writings, and it needs a scholar to bring objectivity to them and also proper organisation. As an example, the works collected here are in no particular order and if Hughes chose a thematic approach, I can’t quite see what that was. However, a chronological gathering would allow the reader to see how her prose developed as she honed her craft and that would be fascinating. I believe that her work and her legacy deserves this, as do her many readers. Nevertheless, “Johnny Panic” is an essential collection until we get something more definitive, and another wonderful title from 1977.

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