Connie Palmen: Du sagst es.
(Original title "Jij zegt het", thank you, ratcreature
). This is a new novel about the marriage between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, written in first person from Hughes' pov, and right there you have a basic problem. Not that it's a fictional take on people who lived and died within many readers' living memory (Hughes as late as 1998); there have been others, and fiction at least doesn't declare itself to be THE TRUTH, but the author's imaginative speculation on same; it's more honest than many a non-fiction in this regard. No, it's that both Plath and Hughes were fantastic writers who wrote about their relationship, and sorry, but that's a very high standard to aim for if you're going for first person.
(First person is tricky in general to believe for me as a reader and to do as a writer. I've done it occasionally, but rarely, and as a reader first person more often breaks the suspension of disbelief for me than not. Especially if the narrator is supposed to be someone whose voice has been preserved in written or audio form.)
Connie Palmen doesn't really manage, but that's not the only problem I have with her book. Another, related: there's a lot of prose paraphrasing of Hughes' Birthday Letters
poems, which means something real Ted Hughes expressed in a few concise sentences is expressed by fictional Hughes rambling on for several pages. This isn't helping with the comparisons to the detriment of the novel. Then there's the question as to which type of readers this book is aiming for: can't be people either unfamiliar with the Plath and Hughes saga, or just casually aware of both poets' existence, because the novel rarely bothers with explanations and settings; for example, it starts at their first meeting at the St. Bodolph's Review party in Cambridge but doesn't bother explaining what Hughes was doing there, what Plath was doing there, and expects the readers to know all this already. Otoh, if the book is for readers who know their Lucas Myers (American poet, friend of Hughes) from their Richard Sassoon (on-off boyfriend of Plath's pre Ted), then it feels a bit like the kind of fanfiction that solely describes with a bit more dialogue or inner monologue scenes in broadcast episodes which fans are already familiar with with, you know what I mean? I've read Plath's breathless account of her first meeting with Hughes in her journal, written a day or two after the fact. I've read Hughes' elegic take on it, written decades later in his poem "St. Bodolph's" in "Birthday Letters". Palmen trying to match either writer's command of language by paraphrasing them, and not adding something uniquely hers, just feels - well, second rate, sorry to say.
Then there's the way no one but Plath, and maybe her mother Aurelia, is really fleshed out as a character. His siblings, Olwyn and Gerald, were enormously important to Hughes (see next review), but while that's said in a tell not show way by Palmen's narrator, she doesn't bother with the show not tell, actual scenes (other than Olwyn vs Sylvia arguments) that would show us who they are. Again, I can understand some of the why - both died only this year, which means when this novel was written they were still alive, and one feels more inhibited because of this. But it's still for me a narrative failure.
(Also irritating: Palmen's Hughes repeatedly describing Plath's eyes as "black", when real Hughes described Plath's brown
eyes in some of the most memorable passages of Birthday Letters
. What is up with that? Maybe a Dutch-German translation error, and the original novel means something like "dark gaze"?)
Lastly: having read a lot of Hughes
- poetry, drama, letters, some essays - I don't think he comes across as self-pitying in his published voice. IMO, and that doesn't mean he wasn't, just that his own texts, either due to command of language or editing, don't feel like he was. But Palmen's Hughes feels extremely sorry for himself, as if the author wants to make absolutely sure we do, too, and thus paradoxically prevents it. Jonathan Bate: Ted Hughes.
: Subtitled "The Unauthorized Life", because while the author originally had the cooperation of the Hughes estate and thus access to Hughes' unpublished journals, poem drafts etc., he inevitably (if you know something of the long saga of the Plath biographies and Olwyn Hughes) clashed with them, authorization was withdrawn, and thus the subtitle. This being said, Bate clearly has a lot of respect for the tough as nails Olwyn; when she died in January this year, he wrote her obituary
, and if you read it, you'll see what I mean.
As biographies go, this is a good one. Bate takes Hughes seriously as a poet, which doesn't mean he praises all his work, but it means we get a lot of Hughes' development as a writer - this includes some quotes from early drafts, and to me at least, it's fascinating to see how various alternatives of a later classic phrase were considered before the final one happened - , a strong presence of his Yorkshire background and his love of nature, detailed accounts of his threatre work with Peter Brook etc. - instead of just accounts of his love affairs. Which are, of course, present as well. If there's anything to critisize, it's that brief relationships like the one with Emma Tennant get more in terms of quotes from the lady in question than second Mrs. Hughes, Carol, gets about her decades long marriage, but since this is also because Carol Hughes still won't go on the record for journalists or biographers, I see Bate's problem.
Anyway, Carol aside, Bate is great with bringing the supporting cast of his biography to life. Definitely the siblings, Gerald and Olwyn, and other long lasting relationships, part ally, part adversary Al Alvarez, but also people hardly noticed even by all the Plath biographers before, like Shirley, Hughes' pre-Sylvia girlfriend who was with him during that fateful first encounter, or Susan Alliston, whose affair and breakup with Hughes turned into a long term friendship and who died of cancer the same year Assia Wevill committed murder-suicide with their daughter and Hughes' mother died (supporting Bate's argument that 1969 beat out 1963, the year of Plath's death, as Worst Year Ever for Hughes). His narrative voice is generally non-judgmental, literary judgments aside (I'm with him on "Shakespeare and the Great Goddess" as Hughes at his prose worst, btw, and also that the Ovid translations work as something of a poetical rebirth), and he comes across as trying to be fair to everyone in the big dramas of Hughes' life: case in point, the last but one of the stormy Olwyn versus Sylvia encounters, where they both thought the other was rude, Bate points out Olwyn smoked non-stop despite Sylvia asking her not to and yours truly entirely sympathizes with Sylvia until Bate also points out that Sylvia's other complaint, that Olwyn stayed so long on this particular visit, overlooks that Olwyn lived in Paris at this time and hadn't seen Ted in more than a year, so had a lot of catching up to do.
Bate declares right at the start he wants to write a complete life, not just another take on the Plath and Hughes relationship, and points the reader to Diane Middlebrook's "Her Husband" for one of the most recent and thorough, but inevitably, though her suicide happens on page 216 of 556, Sylvia Plath is the strongest non-Hughes presence in the book. There's a good argument to be made that dead Sylvia had a stronger grip on Hughes - both as a poet and as a woman - than any of the other living women he became subsequently entangled with, and certainly more than poor doomed Assia. (Another plausible argument can be made that if Sylvia had lived, so would Assia have; both Assia and Ted Hughes despite their affair were anything but sure they wanted to have a permanent relationship before Sylvia died, they both still had other relationships - Assia with her husband David plus a brief fling with, of all the people, Al Alvarez, Ted with the aforementioned Susan, and if Sylvia had lived, the Ted/Assia affair probably would have burned itself out quickly, and they'd have moved on, whether or not they would have re-committed to their respective spouses. But being known as The Other Woman after Sylvia Plath had killed herself trapped Assia in a competition she could no longer win, and in a relationship she and Hughes thought they HAD to make work now which went on to ensure it didn't.)
Bate shows that the poems addressed to Plath collected in Birthday Letters
were indeed written (and redrafted a lot) during decades, not a last outburst before Hughes' death (the decades long process had been mentioned at the time Birthday Letters
was published, but was met with scepticism), and again, the early drafts are interesting to me both in terms of how a poem is written and as an endlessly attempted dialogue with a woman who is gone. (Ditto for Hughes' comments on her poetry and prose, be it in private letters or, rarely, in public.) His version of Euripides' Alcestis
, the last complete Hughes work to be published within his life time, wasn't something comissioned or otherwise inspired by an outside source, he chose
to write about a woman dying and then returning to her husband as he felt himself dying, and since I thought there were repeated Sylvia echoes in ALCESTIS
, I was gratified that so does Bate. (He found a Wuthering Heights
allusion Hughes has smuggled into Alcestis
which I missed, though, and which has no equivalent in the original Greek text. In Hughes' Alcestis
, Admetos after Alcestis death imagines his own death:
"I think of cool soil
A mask over my face,
A weight of stillness over my body,
In which she lies next to me - her lips
Maybe only an inch from my lips,
, Bates speculates, is Hughescliff, imagining himself in the moorland graveyard at Heptonstall
, and goes to quote the relevant Wuthering Heights
"You were very wicked, Mr. Heathcliff!" I exclaimed, "were you not ashamed to disturb the dead?"
"I disturbed nobody, Nelly," he replied, and "I gave some ease to myself. I shall be a great deal more comfortable now, and you'll have a better chance of keeping me underground when I get there. Disturbed her? No! She has disturbed me, night and day, through eighteen years - incessantly - remorselessly - till yesternight, and yesternight I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper, with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers." Wuthering Heights
was of great significance to both Plath and Hughes (who grew up almost next door, well next village, in Yorkshire), and there are poems about it and Emily Bronte by both of them, but that parallel had still eluded me before.
After describing Hughes' death and giving a brief overview of the lives (and in one tragic case death) of his surviving family in the subsequent years, Bate returns once more to the tale of Ted and Sylvia, and after 500 pages of trying to keep up a matter-of-fact, occasionally ironic tone, at last throws caution into the wind and goes for the bloody passion, and does it better in half a page than Palmen does in an entire novel:Sylvia Plath's death was the central fact of Ted Hughes's life. However he tried to get away from it, he could not; however the biographer broadens the picture, it is her image that returns. In the letters of his final months, even after the expiation that came with
Birthday Letters, Plath remains the most vivid presence in his mental world. So, for example in a simple sentence of luminous poetic prose in a long letter to his German translators who had sought advice on the meaning of various phrases in such poems as 'The Bee God', Ted explains how the image ' Your page a dark swarm':
"brings together SP bending over the bees (pending over the beehive with its roof off), SP bending over her page (where the letters as she composed writhed and twisted, superimposed on each other, displacing each other), her page, as a seething mass and depth and compound of living ideas - carrying, somewhere in the heart of it, in the heart of the words, of the phrases, of the poetic whole struggling to form itself, the vital nuclei of her poetic operation - her 'self' and her 'Daddy' - and finally, her poem (in process of composition there on her page as she bends over it) as a warm of bees clinging under a blossoming bough."
"The lit blossom", he writes, "is also Sp's face." It is as if Sylvia instead of the thought-fox has entered the room and is bending over Ted as he writes. Her face is radiant. Her ghost has returned in recognition of the knowledge that he loved her until the day he died. Before him stands yesterday.