The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

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9780679431589: The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

From the moment it was first published in The New Yorker, this brilliant work of literary criticism aroused great attention. Janet Malcolm brings her shrewd intelligence to bear on the legend of Sylvia Plath and the wildly productive industry of Plath biographies. Features a new Afterword by Malcolm.


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Review:

Sylvia Plath committed suicide in February 1963, and since then her poetry, fiction, and, increasingly, her life have maintained enormous power over readers' (particularly female readers') imaginations. Biographies continue to appear with regularity, despite the strong hold the Plath estate has on her work. But because of that hold, each biographer has been forced to accommodate the living (Ted Hughes, who was separated from Plath at the time of her death, and his larger-than-life sister, Olwyn, long the executrix), often at the expense of the dead. In 1989, Anne Stevenson's peculiar hybrid, Bitter Fame, was published, complete with an appendix full of devastating memoirs. It was not your average biography. When Janet Malcolm was first sent the book, she was less drawn to it by the Plath legend than by the fact that she had known Stevenson in the '50s, but she soon became captivated by the book's defeatist subtext. The dead woman's voice and writings seemed to overwhelm Stevenson's tentative narrative; and if that wasn't enough, there was also the none-too-angelic choir of those who had known Plath. "These too, said, 'Don't listen to Anne Stevenson. She didn't know Sylvia. I knew Sylvia. Let me tell you about her. Read my correspondence with her. Read my memoir.'"

Bitter Fame was soon garnering some powerfully bad notices, especially that of A. Alvarez in the New York Review of Books. Alvarez, the author of one of the most influential pieces on Plath, in his study of suicide, The Savage God, had some special, personal cards to deal, as have so many others Plath left behind. Because Malcolm's great theme is treachery--that of the interviewer, the journalist, the teller of just about any tale--the Plath mess seemed a perfect fit, and she decided to become a player, too. In 1991, Malcolm was having lunch with Olwyn Hughes in North London, 28 years to the day on which the poet died.

This is only one of the coincidences in The Silent Woman, a postmodern biography par excellence, which is less about the drama of Plath's life and still controversial death than about their continuing effect on the living. For Malcolm, all cards are wild, each one revealing more complexity, human cravenness, and, above all, brilliantly playful aperçus about human agency and writing's deceptions. I look forward to the dictionary of quotations that foregrounds the elegant "The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living." And then there's, "Memory is notoriously unreliable; when it is intertwined with ill will, it may be monstrously unreliable. The 'good' biographer is supposed to be able to discriminate among the testimonies of witnesses and have his antennae out for tendentious distortions, misrememberings, and outright lies." It's clear that Malcolm doesn't see herself as a "good" biographer--she openly declares her allegiance, but is more than capable of changing it and of showing her cards. Or is she? In the end, The Silent Woman is a stunning inquiry into the possibility of ever really knowing anything save that "the game continues."

From the Back Cover:

"Rich and theatrical."--The New York Times Book Review.

"The Silent Woman is one of the deepest, loveliest, and most problematic things Janet Malcolm has written. It is so subtle, so patiently analytical, and so true that it is difficult to envisage anyone writing again about Plath and Hughes. She is the cat who has licked the plate clean. It has an almost disabling authority about it, a finality like a father's advice."--James Wood, The Guardian (London)

"Not since Virginia Woolf has anyone thought so trenchantly about the strange art of biography."--Christopher Benfey, Newsday

"There is more intellectual excitement in one of Malcolm's riffs than in many a thick academic tome . . . She is among the most intellectually provocative of authors . . . able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight."--David Lehman, Boston Globe

"It is the best-written and most stirring polemic of the year. Completely brilliant."--David Hare, The Times (London)

"The Journalist and the Murderer was a deeply thoughtful exposure of the moral problems of in-depth journalism . . . [The Silent Woman] contains some of the best thinking I know on both the practical and the philosophical problems of biography."--Bernard Crick, New Statesman & Society

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