Reviewed: Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson

A gorgeous pathology.

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted
Andrew Wilson
Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £20

“People can accept you for what you are or they can accept you for mirroring themselves,” wrote Eddie Cohen to the 19-year-old Sylvia Plath, his pen pal. “As for the second kind,” he went on, “if you try to please all of them, you will become a shapeless, amorphous personality.”

Eddie had a point – though, as things turned out, it was by becoming an “amorphous personality” through death that Plath has been able to mirror and thereby please a far greater number of people than Eddie could ever have guessed. Ted Hughes called this phenomenon “the fantasia about Sylvia Plath” and suggested that it is “more needed than the facts”. Fifty years on from her suicide, it would seem he’s still right. Though Plath’s letters, stories, poems and diaries all brandish right at us a fistful of mania, rage, ambivalence, infantile muddle and fear, she remains, through a public effort of will, an object of worship. Why?

In her short book The Silent Woman, published 20 years ago, Janet Malcolm peered through the thickening atmosphere surrounding Plath’s life. Malcolm’s gifts – for journalistic inquiry, for characterisation and analysis – gave a Technicolor variety to a book about the grey area. Describing the event for which Hughes was summarily vilified – his infidelity to Plath with Assia Wevill – Malcolm suggested that Plath’s suicide denied the crisis a natural evolution.

Ordinarily, Malcolm wrote, after an affair, “Life goes on. The pain and bitterness and exciting awfulness of sexual jealousy and sexual guilt recede . . . People grow older . . . and may even come to realise that what they are forgiving themselves and each other for is youth.” Yet, for Plath and Hughes, the process hitched in time at its dramatic climax. Shortly after Plath’s suicide, Hughes saw their friend Elizabeth Sigmund and said, “It doesn’t fall to many men to murder a genius.”

For all her efforts to ensure even-handedness, Malcolm insisted that objectivity is an impossible ideal, because: “The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive.” In Mad Girl’s Love Song, a new book about Plath by the British journalist Andrew Wilson, the motive appears to be in the subtitle: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted. The phrase has a polemical ring; it suggests a repossession of Plath; but should any vehemently feminist expectations be raised by it Wilson’s selfjustifying assurance that “although Hughes was her husband, he was not the only man in her life” will serve to deflate them. Nonetheless, his treatment of Plath goes on faithfully to catalogue her pre-Hughes relationships not only with men but also with women, her parents and 1950s society in general.

Wilson’s narrative is ostensibly concerned with Plath the schoolchild and college girl. To construct it, he draws primarily on her diaries and on her self-infantilising letters to her mother, which Aurelia Plath published as Letters Home (1975) in order to correct the impression that her daughter had made on strangers, what with The Bell Jar, Ariel and the suicide. Wilson attempts not to correct, but to temper, by adding to that gruesome tableau in which Plath and her parents are locked, a portrait of the artist as a nerdy kid.

Aged 14, determined to add popularity to academic awards, Plath “went to great efforts to win the post of school secretary”. She constructed “a makeshift boat (emblazoned with the words ‘Sylvia for secretary’) that she planned to sail across the stage” at school assembly, pledging to “sail straight and true through choppy waters”. However, the boat got stuck in the door and “the hall full of children filled with laughter”. The image (which might have been conceived by the film director Wes Anderson) offers a poignant contrast to the “I eat men like air” voice of Ariel, though whether this is desirable or in any way illuminating for readers of Plath’s work is another matter.

Despite Wilson’s dignified emphasis on source material, he can be fanciful, mixing analysis with a kind of divination. He men mentions the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, which, he says, “fascinated” Plath (it concerns a young girl who is “the subject of a scientific experiment overseen by her father”) and suggests that it makes “an apt metaphor for Plath’s view of her relationship with her own father”. Yet its aptness is being judged by Wilson, not Plath, whether or not he knows or believes she was “fascinated” by it.

Elsewhere, further out on a limb, he quotes lines from a song “that echoed through the Plath household” and suggests that it can be “used to interpret Sylvia’s childhood”. By what reasoning? The same, perhaps, as that which leads him to refer to certain chapters of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the 17-year-old Plath was given the book for Christmas) and to find them “chilling . . . in respect to Plath’s story”.

Or the same as the reasoning that causes him to remark that “there is something more than a little uncanny” about how Plath thanked the novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, who paid her college fees, for financing “the formation of an individual”, when “Sylvia could have stepped straight out of one of Prouty’s books”. As if to prove a point – it is hard to say what it might be –Wilson goes on to enumerate the similarities between Sylvia and Charlotte, a heroine of Prouty’s novel Now, Voyager.

Like a number of her previous biographers, Wilson uses Plath’s diaries and letters in order to generate psychological insights. This is accepted practice and yet, as accounts of personality, particularly of a writer’s personality, diaries and letters are often too polished to be considered faithful – too good to be true. Plath knew only too well that her letters and her talk offered different degrees of intimacy with her. In 1953, when she was a depressed student at Smith, Eddie Cohen wrote to tell her to seek psychiatric treatment. Plath wrote back to ask if she couldn’t just show her letters to a psychiatrist instead of going to appointments and Eddie, whose scepticism about Plath’s thinking is often conveyed on a takes-one-to-know-one basis, replied, “You gotta go in there and talk, talk, talk – even though it tears your guts out to do so sometimes.”

In another letter, Eddie questioned the reality of their relationship precisely because it was being conducted in writing. Searching for a way to define it, he wrote, “The psychiatrists have a term for it – or rather a couple of them – they call it acting-out and projection. And beyond that – who knows what?” To bring the point home, so to speak, he sent her the letter unsigned.

Eddie also made an appearance in Malcolm’s book, in his late middle-age, a salesman of second-hand electrical goods, known more soberly as “Ed”, but still partial to psychiatric diagnoses. He told Malcolm that Plath was, “from her late adolescence on, at her very best what the psychiatrists refer to as a borderline personality”. Not easily blinded by science, Malcolm wondered if Ed’s view could be motivated by revenge – Plath had made it plain she was not sexually attracted to him.

The creation of the Plath fantasia has entailed risky extrapolation not only from her letters and diaries but also from her imaginative writing, and especially from her novel, The Bell Jar. Though it is true that the rudiments of Esther’s story are drawn from Plath’s life, the weird and paradoxical emphases involved in transforming a private self into the multiple details of novels and poems are unguessable to outsiders and often even to the author.

When Émile Zola was asked which of all his characters he most identified with, he said it had been Nana – a courtesan. By this anti-logic, Isabel Archer could have been a portrait of Henry James. Yet, despite the mysteries of artistic composition, biographers conflate the author’s characters with the author’s character at will, because the ensuing critique supplies to the reader the thrill of live psychotherapy.

In a radio interview in 1962, Plath supplied some guidance with regard to biographical readings of her poetry. She explained that although her poems came out of her “emotional and sensuous experiences”, she believed, even in the case of “the most terrific, like madness”, that: “One should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind.” The interviewer – surprised, perhaps – checked that he had understood: “Behind the primitive, emotional reaction there must be an intellectual discipline?” Plath replied, “I feel that very strongly.”

For all the posthumous inventions, some of the Plath fantasia was created by Sylvia Plath. It was not, as she claims in her autobiographical essay “Ocean 1212-W”, her father, Otto, who played with her on the beach, but her middle-aged grandfather; it was not she who crawled directly into the sea, but her brother, Warren; it was not she who found and preserved as a totem some beach driftwood shaped like a baboon, but a neighbour.

But after all, so what? Apparently Ernest Hemingway embellished a few of his wartime adventures, too. The instinct to “manipulate” experiences runs very deep in writers, deeper, perhaps, than the urge to tell the truth – hence all the fiction, hence the dramatis personae; this is the central and gorgeous pathology. If we assume that what writers say about themselves will be verifiable, we’re asking them to stop being writers. And if we read novels and poems for biographical data, we’re asking them to stop being transcendent – and it seems like a shame to do that.

When a person becomes a symbol, it’s worth considering what common need is being expressed in her name. Plath’s first use, after the posthumous publication of Ariel in 1965, was as a symbol of feminist martyrdom; but perhaps the need for this has been succeeded by something more fundamental. We may have reasoned away Zeus and Aphrodite but in 2013 it seems we are no less susceptible than the Greeks were to the idea of immortality; and so we continue to find ways to experience it, often through dead, preferably beautiful, young geniuses such as Plath.

And to those in search of it, she supplies a further, more regressive thrill. Together, the absent poet and the atom bomb of her poems offer the satisfaction of a daydream. On the 50th anniversary of her death, it may be that Plath is the patron saint of passive aggressives – of all those who once imagined they might just vanish or die and leave everyone feeling very sorry.

Talitha Stevenson is a writer and psychotherapist

Sylvia Plath. Photograph: WikiCommons

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit