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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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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