Responses to Ted Hughes's "Last letter"

Michael Rosen and a close friend of Sylvia Plath write to the NS.

This week's magazine features two intriguing responses to our publication of a previously unseen poem by Ted Hughes. First of all, the poet Michael Rosen has written a sensitive, thoughtful analysis of "Last letter", Hughes's only poem to deal directly with the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. You'll have to pick up the magazine to read the full thing, but here's an excerpt:

I suppose nothing concentrates the mind on questions of human agency more than being around suicide. Hughes finds explanations in mechanistics, Hardyesque fate and deterministic mythoi. I sense that he isn't completely convinced by this. From the first line onwards - "What happened that night? Your final night." - the poem is packed with repetitions of words. Within many of the lines and between pairs of lines, sounds repeat too [...] On one level this is the cohesion of poetry. On another, it feels like a special pleading: if I say something twice, you will be more convinced.

The other response comes from Elizabeth Sigmund, who knew the couple in the early 1960s, and became a close friend and confidante of Plath in the months leading up to her death. Below is her letter to the magazine, reproduced in full:

I got to know Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath after they moved to Devon in 1962. So much joy in getting close to such exceptional minds - until the terrible break, until the anguish and chaos and desperate end. Ted's poem betrays guilt, confusion and the howling of a trapped animal.

My escape
Had become a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted
Only wanting to be recaptured...

He had such faith in dreams, that was where he searched for answers and prophecies, and with Sylvia's death she had gone beyond Ted's comprehension.

From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

Attempting to escape repeated agonising events, Ted searched for forgetfulness in other complex relationships, each one involving yet further chaos and pain.

One could only stand by and watch the result of this tragedy. Death after death, young and old, male and female. It has been beyond tears, beyond words, although words are all that are left to us to remember that they were real, living beings. And what words.

Elizabeth Sigmund
Callington, Cornwall

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear