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

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The biggest bastard in pop: how Allen Klein changed the game for music revenue

Fred Goodman's new biography shows the man who made the Rolling Stones and wrenched open the door for today's superstars.

A reputation for toughness goes a long way in the music business. Allen Klein’s Christmas card came with the inscription: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, ’cause I’m the biggest bastard in the valley.” Seven years after his death at the age of 77 and fifty since he came to prominence as the business manager of first the Stones and then the Beatles, his reputation reverberates. Even the Stones’ first manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who sold his stake in the band to Klein in the late Sixties when he thought they were past their peak, still refers to him as “Allen Crime”, and Oldham was on good enough terms to turn up to Klein’s memorial service in 2009.

Fred Goodman’s biography was written with the co-operation but not the approval of Klein’s family and his company ABKCO. Although the book neither glosses over his run-ins with the law – one of which led to Klein spending two months inside in 1979 for failing to report income from selling promotional records – nor averts its eyes from the many cases where his sleight of hand was a bit too sleight for the artists he was supposed to be representing, it also recognises the services he performed for them, which were significant.

Klein didn’t know anything about music but as a bookkeeper he was familiar with the smell of cooking. He had the forensic skills to detect where record companies were short-changing their detail-dyslexic artists; he supplemented these skills with the kind of heavy manners that made firms’ lives uncomfortable unless they paid up. For Klein, a contract was merely a starting point, a royalty statement just an opening offer. He drilled down to the detail, demanding sight of invoices, delivery notes, lists of breakages, all the little tricks that the companies used to chisel performers out of pieces of their already small slice of the pie.

One of his early clients was Sam Cooke, for whom he won a very lucrative record deal. Less than a year later, in 1964, Cooke was dead and Klein was unexpectedly in control of copyright in the likes of “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Wonderful World”, which ultimately proved a licence to print money. When Klein saw a rough cut of the Harrison Ford movie Witness in 1984 and realised the barn dance sequence would have to be reshot if the producers couldn’t get “Wonderful World”, he demanded and got $200,000 for the use of that one song, thereby triggering the sync-rights gold rush that rages to this day. He was, as Goodman puts it, “the first hardball player in a slow-pitch league”.

Hired by the Rolling Stones in the mid-Sixties, he secured sums for them which the more successful Beatles, managed by the painfully naive Brian Epstein, could only dream about. Because this was the era of 90 per cent taxation on royalty income in the UK, he invested the Stones’ money in US companies so that they could reduce their tax liability by drawing income over a longer period of time.

The bands did not fully grasp that these companies were in fact controlled by Klein, an oversight they rued for the next fifty years. “Don’t take 20 per cent of an artist’s income,” he told an associate. “Give them 80 per cent of yours.”

The Stones ceased to be represented by Klein in 1970 but ABKCO controls their Sixties material to this day. This has turned out to be the bit worth having. When the Verve made the mistake of sampling a violin part from an orchestral cover of a Stones song on their 1997 hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, they had to settle with Klein. The deal was that the band’s frontman and songwriter, Richard Ashcroft, sign over all his rights in the song for a mere thousand dollars. ABKCO took the rest of the revenue away. “I was very bad today,” Klein said blushingly to a friend, after the deed was done.

Klein represented only three of the four Beatles. This was the great sadness of his career. It was Paul McCartney’s refusal to have any truck with him that made the band’s split so bitter. When Klein took over, after Epstein’s death, he couldn’t believe how little money they had made. He’d hoped they would remain together. “He had a contract to manage the affairs of the Beatles. Unfortunately, there were no longer any Beatles to manage,” Goodman writes. Nonetheless they prospered as solo artists and in 1971 George Harrison’s single “My Sweet Lord” became a worldwide hit. After a court decided that the song had been plagiarised from an old Chiffons tune, “He’s So Fine”, Harrison had to pay damages in the region of $2m to the publisher, Bright Tunes. Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ, as people in the business never tire of saying. But the Harrison case had a further twist. By the time of this settlement, in 1981, the three Beatles had ditched their manager and Bright Tunes had a new owner: Allen Klein, always more far-sighted than the acts he managed.

Klein went to school in Newark, New Jersey, with Philip Roth – and through Goodman’s book you can imagine him as a character in one of Roth’s novels, returning to its mean streets in limos with his illustrious clients, still driven by having been rejected by his father as a boy, winning in business by dint of an extraordinary capacity for hard work, prevailing on the tennis court simply by refusing to be beaten, and delighting in walking out of the most expensive restaurants without paying. (His driver would come in to settle the bill.)

Goodman has worked this ground before, in his book The Mansion on the Hill, which describes how the ragged-trousered troubadours of folk rock became rich beyond dreams of avarice during the CD boom. Unlike most people who write about the music business, he is not naive when it comes to the numbers. It’s difficult to know who are the winners and the losers in music. Artists are either poorer than you’d think, or richer than you could possibly imagine. Klein may not quite have shaped rock’n’roll as the book’s subtitle boasts, but he raised the expectations of the tiny handful of performers lucky enough to get to the very top. Every time a star uses a moment in the sun to move on to a better deal than anybody else – from Sam Cooke to Taylor Swift, it’s all the same – they get there through a door first wrenched open by Klein, the biggest bastard in the valley.

David Hepworth’s “1971: Never a Dull Moment” will be published in April by Bantam Press

Allen Klein: the Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock and Roll by Fred Goodman is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (302pp, $27)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war