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A Poet’s Legacy – #ShinyNewBooks #SylviaPlath

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A quick heads-up about a review I’ve done for Shiny New Books which is now live. The book this time is a fascinating volume which looks at the archival legacy of Sylvia Plath, one of my favourite authors, and it’s an intriguing and involving read.

Plath’s archive is vast and very spread out, and following the adventures of the authors as they explored the many aspects of it was a wonderful experience. You can read my full review here.

 

“It was a queer, sultry summer….”

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Revisiting The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s getting on for 40 years since I first read the work of Sylvia Plath (which is a fairly alarming acknowledgement!); back in the world of 1970s feminism, she was the go-to author for discussion of the female condition and the changes taking place in women’s lives in the relatively recent past. But it’s a long time since I read any of her fiction; I seem to be reading more books about her than by her recently, and it’s been on my mind that it was time to pick up “The Bell Jar” again, to find out what I made of it at such a distance from my first experience of the book. And so the time was right for a re-read of Plath in my trusty old Faber paperback.

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“The Bell Jar” is Plath’s only published novel, and it’s widely regarded as autobiographical, telling the story of Esther Greenwood, a young American girl spending a summer in New York on a placement with a magazine. Coming from a New England town, Esther is struggling to cope with the city; she’s naive in many ways, and doesn’t really fit in with the ‘fast’ girls, though she’s too worldly for the small-town girls. Isolated from both groups, she finds herself slipping behind, failing to meet deadlines and beginning to lose the impetus to make a success of the opportunity she’s been given.

Back in her home town for the summer, Esther starts to spiral into depression when she isn’t accepted onto a writing course. Having sailed through her schooling up to this point, failure is not something she’s used to dealing with. As the hot summer plods on, Esther does to, trying to find some kind of direction and focus. Her mental state deteriorates to the point where she can’t sleep and stops washing, and so begins the record of her treatment at the hands of a series of medics of differing talents and sympathies.

The first doctor is a disaster, administering shock treatment incorrectly which leads to a suicide attempt. Eventually, through the help of a benefactress, she is placed in a more sympathetic environment, with a doctor who is more understanding and Esther begins to work through her illness. In the clinic she meets a school friend, Joan, who’s also made a suicide attempt; the meeting will be pivotal as one girl will make her way back to the world and one girl will not.

A young Sylvia Plath in New York

A young Sylvia Plath in New York

In many ways, I find it hard to talk about “The Bell Jar”; it’s such a remarkable novel, powerfully written and very affecting. Plath builds a convincing picture of Esther Greenwood, the small-town overachiever who finds herself out of her depth and sinking in the Big Apple. She charts the ups and downs of her emotions, her development as a young woman and her struggle to find a role for herself. Running through all this is the dilemma in which many women found themselves during the 1950s – their road through life was no longer obvious, and they were struggling to choose between the traditional role of wife and mother, or the longing for a wider path.

This is particularly exemplified by Esther’s relationship with her high-school boyfriend Buddy Willard, who reappears throughout the book. Initially Esther is bowled over by the fact he should want to go out with her; but as she develops, she becomes more clear-eyed about his faults, about the restrictions there would be if she married him, and she comes back to the same old issue for women – career or family. She articulates it in quite brilliant imagery, which Middle Child mentioned to me when I said I was re-reading “The Bell Jar”:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

It’s an issue that’s relevant to women today, despite all the so-called advances; we still often have to make the choice between children and career in a way men never do, and we’re still encountering everyday sexism in the workplace. And it may well be that it’s the strain of being drawn in so many different directions with so many conflicts that exacerbates Esther’s mental decline.

The book also stands, rightly or wrongly, as a strong piece of autobiography from Plath. Despite the fact it’s fiction, Esther Greenwood’s life is seen as shorthand for Plath’s, as it’s based on many events in her own life. It’s powerful and moving watching EG/SP go through these experiences, fighting against her emotional and mental hardships and coming out at the end – well, cured is not the right word, as I still had a sense that she was coping, maybe even playing the game, but remaining at odds with the world.

I’m happy to say I loved revisiting “The Bell Jar” – I was transported back to my first read of it all those years ago, and my reactions were just the same (which means either I haven’t grown up much or it’s a book that really shouldn’t be classed as for Young Adults as I’ve bizarrely enough seen it done). This is a brilliant book which speaks of women’s struggles whatever their age – and I just wish that Plath’s other rumoured novel had survived the destruction process…

The Poet as Artist

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Sylvia Plath – Drawings

sylvia plath drawings

Sylvia Plath is, of course, best known for her poetry, her novel “The Bell Jar” and (unfortunately) her suicide in 1963. However, there is another aspect of her art which is not so often focused upon, that of the visual arts. Last year I read a wonderful book on this, “Eve Rhymes”, which I reviewed here. As an addition to that, I was so pleased to receive at Christmas this slim volume, published by Faber and Faber, which covers the period between 1955-1957 while Plath was a Fulbright scholar at Newnham College, Cambridge. It was a pivotal time in her life as this was when she met and married (in secret) Ted Hughes and they spent time in Paris and Spain before returning to the USA in 1957.

Sylvia-Plath-drawing

Edited and with foreword by Plath’s Daughter, Frieda Hughes, the book is divided into four sections, each covering one particular set of drawings from a particular place: England, France, Spain and the USA. The individual sections also have an extract from a letter or diary accompanying the relevant pictures. Reading Plath’s prose is always a great delight, and when it’s accompanied by the drawings it’s even better. It’s clear that Plath had quite a talent as a visual artist, and obviously took great pleasure in her art; though I still believe that the written word was her ideal medium.

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As a Plath completist, I obviously have to have this book; but for a more general reader it would make a great introduction to Plath’s artwork, rather than diving straight into something like “Eve Rhymes” which is much more in depth, but demands a lot more commitment. This is a poignant reminder of Plath in her younger years when she seemed to have all she wanted and a perfect life ahead of her….

Plath and Hughes in Paris

Plath and Hughes in Paris

… in which I realise just how many books I have about Sylvia Plath…

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… and the results are rather scary! I’ve been reading Plath since my late teens – which is quite a while ago – and so I’ve gradually gathered a large number of books by and about her over the years. Reading “Eve Rhymes” recently and then trying to find a space to squeeze it onto the Plath/Hughes shelf meant that I ended up pulling all of them *off* the shelves for a dust, audit and reorganise. And here they are, spread out on the spare room bed – a rather large and scary pile!

Looking at them all set me thinking about how much has been written about Plath and Hughes, their relationship, their work, their legacy et al. And it’s not as if the subject has lost interest for the public – even after the passing of Plath, Hughes and their youngest child, there still seem to be restrictions on the availability of research material, accusations of the Estate controlling access and use of quotes, and bitterness on all sides.

Picking up and flicking through a few of the books brought back memories of reading these partial-biographies, attempts to get at the truth and the way that in some ways they’ve muddied the waters. I doubt the controversy will ever go away – at least, while some of the protagonists are still with us. I would like to see Frieda Hughes, a fine poet and artist in her own right, in control of the Estate as I feel personally she would bring a sanity and sense of balance to things.

I certainly don’t have all of the books on Plath/Hughes and I find myself wondering what would be the point of reading yet another version of their lives. The most valuable one I can think of at the moment *is* “Eve Rhymes”, for giving me back a vision of Plath as a complete artist. I’d love to see her complete “Letters Home” if they still exist, and I wish that all the journals, as well as the lost novel, could be found. But I doubt that will happen, and in the meantime I shall just return to Plath’s poetry and stories when I want to connect with her.

However, that does leave me with the rather difficult decision of whether I should put all these books back on the shelf, and whether I will ever read them again!!

Recent Reads – Eve Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual

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In my twenties I must had read everything available by and about Sylvia Plath – and that *was* a little limited, because those were the days when her legacy was still being tightly controlled by her Estate, and apart from her poetical works and stories, little biographical information had been allowed to leak out.

Now, of course, we are flooded with material – biographies, treatises, psychological analysis; in many ways, so much is available that it becomes confusing, blurring the picture we have of Plath’s work so that it can feel difficult to actually decide which you feel about the poet and her art. Certainly, I’ve got to the point where I’ve stopped reading all these books, because in many ways we will never know the truth about so many of the questions surrounding Sylvia Plath and the constant speculation becomes exhausting.

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However, one book I have just read is this, “Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual”, a lovely big hardback volume given to me as a gift by Youngest Child a while back. It was published by the OUP in 2007 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of her birth, and its focus is on Plath’s early years and how the visual arts inform her poetry and writing.

The book contains several essays on different aspects of Plath’s art, and the most substantial is the long section by Kathleen Connors, one of the book’s editors, entitled “Living Color: The Interactive Arts of Sylvia Plath” which looks at the visual arts produced by Plath over her early years and also her influences. Other essays focus on her attitude to war, the influence of de Chirico and Plath’s attitudes in relation to 1950s expectations of femininity.

This was a really absorbing and fascinating book, and the Connors essay in particular was quite revelatory. I don’t think I’d quite taken on board before how committed Plath was to the visual arts, so much so that for much of her school and college life it was a toss-up as to whether she’d follow the discipline of literature or painting. There are lavish illustrations included and Plath certainly produced some remarkable artworks with a distinctive, individual style. Eventually, literature claimed her, but it’s intriguing to wonder how her art would have developed had she followed painting.

The other essays were mainly excellent too, although I confess to skipping a couple I found a little impenetrable. However, the one by the volume’s other editor, Sally Bayley (“Sylvia Plath and the Costume of Femininity”) was superb, discussing Plath in relation to the image of the 1950s all-American perfect woman – housewife, mother, supporter of men. Plath struggled with, and against, this image, displaying an ambivalence to the role – she always wanted to be perfect at everything, but recognised that this was a false, restricting role being imposed on women and she vacillated constantly about whether she should try to fulfil the stereotype or not.

Plath self-portrait

Plath self-portrait

I have to say that the most wonderful thing about this book was its balance – the discussion was measured and academic, looking at Plath as a woman and an artist, not a suicidal freak show. It’s so difficult to approach her work nowadays without the baggage that informs it – I suppose the only ‘pure’ way to read her work would be with no knowledge at all of her life, and that must be nigh on impossible.

We rely on our poets, artists and writers to reach down into and articulate the depths of our emotions for us, so that we don’t have to take that risk; but the eventual damage and destruction they suffer on our behalf is often immense. Plath gave more than most, and has been stereotyped as the “mad girl” for too long. Reading this book has given me back Sylvia Plath the artist and I want to return to her work once more, but now with a clearer mind.

Sylvia Plath : October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963

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Sylvia_plath

 

Lady Lazarus
  by Sylvia Plath 

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it–

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?–

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot–
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart–
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash–
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

23-29 October 1962

(With thanks to Poets.org and particularly to the lovely ileneonwords for reminding me it was Sylvia’s birthday)

Birthday Bookishness!

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It was my birthday at the weekend (I’m not saying which one….) and my family were kind enough to spoilt me with some very bookish gifts! Some of these were as a result of hints, but some they came up with on their own, so I was very pleased (to say the least!)

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First up, other half very cleverly found a couple of books on Agatha Christie’s Notebooks, with unreleased stories. As a life-long lover of Dame Agatha’s work, this was a great treat!

women

Next up, Youngest Child presented me with a beautiful US Penguin edition of “Little Women” to replace my childhood volume which I’ve lost over the  years. This has a lovely faux-embroidered cover and the ragged-cut edges US paperbacks have – gorgeous!

umbrella

Middle Child produced a rather wonderful treat in the form of a signed copy of Will Self’s latest novel, “Umbrella”! I love Self’s work and saw him give a very funny talk and reading session a few years back. He did the same thing recently in her local town and she went along and picked up a personalised copy for me, which I’m very excited about!

old ways

And Eldest Child went to my wish list, circulated among family, and came up trumps with Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways”. I’ve read a lot about this book recently so I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

plath

Last but not least on the bookish front, OH treated me to a CD – a BBC/British Library collection of Sylvia Plath (and Ted Hughes) interviews and readings – much excitement!

So I am in the luxurious position of having lots of reading material to choose from and not knowing what to pick up first – thank you, lovely family!

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