Friday, July 5, 2013
There are gaps, in other words, huge gaps in my literary education, and there always will be. I had not, for example, ever read Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, until this week. Which is zany, I know, because a dear friend, Kate Moses, wrote Wintering, a Sylvia Plath novel, and because I have freaked out myself (and sometimes my students) listening to Plath read her own poems on audio tapes. But The Bell Jar? I had not read it.
It's been sitting here for the past six months, along with dozens of other books I bought in an effort to improve my education. I chose to read it on a day of deep but temporary illness, which was not, many of my Facebook friends warned, one of my best ideas. Still, I was intrigued, from the start, by the chatty quality of the book's opening pages—this Esther (so much like Sylvia) reporting on her summer in New York as a winner of a fashion magazine contest. Days were spent "working" at the magazine, which is to say receiving gifts and going on adventures and writing from time to time for the editor. Nights were spent in a girls' hotel, the Amazon. Or that's where the nights were supposed to be spent. But these were girls in New York City, and there were hungers.
New York, through the eyes of the heroine, presented on the first page:
New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.That cindery dust is a forewarning, as is the early obsession with the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, and soon what appears to be a straightforward account of a growing-up summer fractures and splinters, and time comes undone. Esther is searching, first, for a reason to live. Then she is searching for a way to die. The words climb over themselves. The scenes see-saw. It is all both naive and awful, artless and poetical, and no one is spared, least of all Esther/Sylvia herself.
Plath, we know, did not want this book published in the United States (it was first released in England) for fear of how it would affect those she thinly disguised, or turned into caricatures. (She was also concerned about the book's impact on her literary reputation.) Indeed, despite the change in names and facts, it is difficult for any reader not to draw conclusions about the real mother, the real editor, the real benefactor, the real institutions of Sylvia's life, and Sylvia herself. Just as it is sometimes difficult to remember that the voice in this novel also belongs to the searing Ariel poems.
All of which reaffirmed for me these simple facts:
1. Anyone writing truthfully, even if from behind a mask, will forevermore negotiate the consequences of the act.
2. Writers possess many voices, writers are many moods, writers write well and not well, and are still writers.
3. A single book can contain the best of the writer's talent and the plaintive worst. We need to look at the whole, when we evaluate. We need to respect the difficult thing that writing finally is. I lately see too many self-styled critics out there declaiming against a hugely talented author's work as if they might, themselves, have written the book better. Just try, I think, to write the book better.