Sylvia Plath Forum

REVIEW by William Bedford

A Lover of Unreason
by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
(Robson Books, 2006).

Celebrity Big Brother meets Mills & Boon in this atrocious biography, whose only clear achievement is to make Sylvia Plath seem relatively normal. The “Select Bibliography” does list the usual forms of published material, but much of the source material appears to be unpublished telephone interviews and e-mail exchanges, and references to Archive material, which the reader cannot easily access. When long-distance telephone calls or private e-mails are being paraphrased, we have no way of checking the authenticity of the interpretation. The same applies to Archive material we have never seen. Presumably the custodians of those Archive collections are free to express their own opinions on the way their sources have been used.

Much of this is a shame, because the “Preface” clearly leads one to expect significant new insights. ‘Our intensive search for new primary source material has not gone unrewarded and in its course we have uncovered a wealth of documents and private papers, many of which were not known to exist’ (p.vii); and more excitingly, ‘The examination of this material in conjunction with Assia’s diaries, letters and poems is of great importance in the understanding of the writing of the protagonists of the book’ (ibid), for me the only possible justification for this kind of biography: assuming of course that the ‘protagonists’ meant are Plath and Hughes; there is nothing in Wevill’s diaries, letters, two quoted poems or contributions to advertising slogans to excite the literary mind.

And this in itself is one of the fatal disappointments in Koren and Negev’s book. They are assiduous horders of information, but they can’t read. In Wevill’s disturbed and frankly disturbing life, what ought to be of interest to the literary biographer let alone the literary scholar is Wevill’s translations of Yehuda Amichai. These were published in 1968 as Poems and in 1971 as Selected Poems and received a ‘rave review’ (p.179) in the Guardian from Pat Kavanagh, who claimed that the translations ‘are so stunning, such good poems in English, it seems absurd to treat them as translations at all’ (ibid). What precisely was the nature of this process of ‘translation’? The authors note that Wevill ‘was out of touch with the changes in the resurrected language and its budding literature’ (p.167) but was able to rely on ‘her good ear for languages’ (ibid) to complete whatever work it was that Hughes was encouraging. How far Hughes himself was involved is discussed briefly: ‘Hughes helped her by reading her drafts and he “combed them a little”. She consulted him when undecided about the choice of words’ (p.172) just as she consulted Amichai himself: ‘Amichai had a good command of English and Assia relied on his taste and judgement’ (ibid) promising to change anything he was unhappy with.

The problem for the reader interested in close reading is the absence of a detailed study of these translations – if they are what I take them to be: Assia Wevill’s one significant claim to our interest as readers of poetry, her poetry. Kavanagh’s review certainly treated Poems as the work of Wevill, but in his recent Selected Translations Daniel Weissbort clearly implies that the project was Hughes’s from the start: ‘Hughes got to know of Amichai’s work in 1964 . . . Hughes shortly after began to work on more poems with Assia Gutmann’ (1) and again ‘About his translations, Ted Hughes in his Introduction to Amen, remarked that what he wanted to do was to “preserve above all . . . the tone and cadence of Amichai’s own voice speaking in English”’ (ibid). This is of course the great theme of the work Hughes and Weissbort did together with the founding of Modern Poetry in Translation in 1965 – how far ‘translations’ should be literal or the creation of something new, as in Lowell’s Imitations. I don’t know where Assia Wevill fits into this debate, and in such a long detailed biography I would have hoped for more enlightenment.

When it comes to close reading, the authors seem to have difficulty with the kind of nuances essential for understanding poetry. The poem “Lovesong” in Crow always struck me as impenetrable and disturbing for reasons I couldn’t identify, except as having something implicitly to do with his relationship with Plath. Neil Roberts in his recent Ted Hughes: A Literary Life provides the only helpful reading I have come across of this ‘sinister tone’ (2), in his discussion of “Salmacis and Hermaphroditus” in Tales from Ovid, but even without the help of that reading it would never have occurred to me to claim as the authors do that the poem ‘celebrated symbiotic conjugality; the lovers became one, exchanged limbs in their sleep, “their brains took each other hostage”’ (p.189). This seems to me one of those ‘literal’ readings of the words which take no account whatever of the tone, which is where the meaning is to be found.

Again, the interpretation given of Hughes’s feelings about his daughter with Wevill, Shura, seemed to me to derive from a misreading of tone. The authors claim that in ‘letters to family and friends, Hughes proudly detailed every accomplishment and witticism of Frieda and Nick but nothing of Shura. Only once in his extensive correspondence with his brother Gerald did he mention Shura’ (p.213). Well, I have no grounds to contest this, as I haven’t seen the archive and the Faber Selected Letters has been slightly delayed, but when the authors go on to discuss the same issue in the poems, I think they distort the evidence. They point out that ‘In the few posthumous poems that he wrote about Assia and mentioned Shura, he referred to her as Assia’s daughter only, never once “mine”’ or “ours”, or by her name’ (ibid). This is true, but it is equally true of the poems talking to Plath about Frieda and Nicholas. As far as I can see, the use of ‘your daughter’ in “Visit” and ‘your daughter’s fingers’ in “Fingers” and ‘your son’s eyes’ in “Life after Death” are agonised moments when Hughes is trying to tell his dead wife how her children are doing. This to me is deeply moving, an almost unbearable whispered conversation between husband and wife, not a denial of parenthood. These are poems - as in “Life after Death” - ‘For two babes, who have turned in their sleep/Into orphans/Beside the corpse of their mother’. To try and ‘make a case’ against Hughes on the basis of such a misreading seems to me discreditable.

Questions of ‘reading’ are invariably controversial, as the history of literary criticism evidences, but in fact this is an extremely difficult book to read at all, for a number of reasons. It is clearly not an academic or literary study. I used the pejorative “Showbiz” as my title because that is precisely what the book seems like: an attempt to tell this story for a mass-market unused to difficult literary and psychological arguments. The use of the familiar ‘Nick’ for Nicholas Hughes in the passage quoted above is symptomatic of the manner. I have nothing against the Hello audience, I just don’t share their view of the world. I certainly don’t think it is a view which helps us very much in trying to understand one of the most complex and confused domestic stories of our time; complex and confused not only because of the nature of the events but because of the deliberate and understandable obfuscation which has gone on from the very beginning.

The Hello style is infuriating. Assia as a young woman is seen on a bus ‘wrapped in a halo of crisp, fresh-smelling soap’ (p. 22); she appears at her second wedding in a ‘glorious white evening gown, one shoulder totally bare and with a deep cleavage, a white garland embracing the nape of her neck’ (p.50); ‘In her every word and deed Assia seeks to ensnare her innocent Adam. With charm and attentiveness she plays up to the poet Hughes’s considerable ego or, in a negligee, she stealthily descends the stairs and creeps up behind Ted while he’s sitting alone at the kitchen table with his morning coffee. The story has Assia raising her nightgown up to her chin and then lowering it down over Hughes’s face and torso until the two of them are straight jacketed in its fabric’ (pp.86-7).

This latter quote is interesting, because it is the authors attempting to paraphrase decades of ‘biographical literature’ (p.86), and they are presumably right, but they don’t specify any texts. Just as they don’t give evidence of the apparently endless series of abortions Assia went through, or precisely which poems they are referring to in the following sentence: ‘Relating to Assia in his poems, Ted Hughes incorporated words (sic) like ‘death-camp’, ‘ex-Nazi Youth Sabra’ and ‘Hitler’s mutilations’ (p.8). The authors do mention “Dreamers” in the same paragraph, again without sourcing it to Birthday Letters, and ignoring the fact which they themselves point out, that it actually addresses ‘Plath’s fascination with Assia’s Germanic background’ (ibid) rather than Assia’s own fascination with it.

I suppose very little of this would matter, given the likely audience for such a biography, but the quagmire of abortion, promiscuity, callousness and viciousness does rather leave one wanting evidence. I am not for a moment suggesting that the endless paraphrased interviews and e-mails don’t exist. But I would like to see transcripts or quotations from the e-mails. After David Wevill’s attempted suicide, the authors tell us ‘Assia was ruthless enough to announce that Hughes had raped her’ (p99). I actually find the casual nature of this authorial comment quite disturbing: it is a devastating comment on Assia Wevill herself, and on Hughes. And there is more of it. The poet Nathanial Tarn is quoted as saying that in making love Hughes was ‘so violent and animal, he ruptures her’ (p98). This is little more than gossip, the kind of hearsay evidence a court of law would dismiss: ‘He said she said’ might have helped. The book is full of such material, including the notorious memory of Angela Landels, Assia’s boss at the advertising agency where she worked: ‘Assia said in her rich deep voice, her green eyes challenging one to protest – “I’m going to seduce Ted”’ (p.86). Does anybody actually talk like this? I suppose they might in an advertising agency, but to me the whole thing sounds like melodrama: ‘She made no secret of Ted’s ferocious lovemaking among her office friends. Equally repelled and fascinated, she told Edward Lucie-Smith, “You know, in bed he smells like a butcher”’ (p.98). Given that she remained involved with him for six years, we may take it the scent was not too off-putting.
This is actually ridiculous. I resent having to read such material, and certainly am not convinced by a word of it. I am not doubting the gossip: literary life is plagued by such gossip. The more important point is that I don’t care, and I can’t believe anybody else will care either. These stories seem to be the symptoms, no doubt genuine, of authentic domestic nightmares. But those nightmares reveal nothing but their own secretiveness. Everything said is a point of view. Perhaps not as virulent as the old feminist point of view, but an agenda nevertheless. The connections with the published writing – Plath’s or Hughes’s – are hardly ever established. They leave us with nothing but a foul taste, and the awful reality of the little coffin besides Assia Wevill’s when she was cremated with the daughter she took with her.

This kind of material needs a Richard Holmes or a Richard Ellmann. In his majestic two-volume biography of Coleridge, and in his profound and original editing of the Penguin Classics Samuel Taylor Coleridge Selected Poems, Holmes managed to convey something of the troubled feelings in Coleridge’s long passion for Sara Hutchinson. Ellmann similarly handled the Joyce archives with tact and common-sense. But in truth to say that is to exaggerate the difficulties. It can be achieved, even with lives so recently lived. In her brilliant Her Husband (3), Diane Middlebrook handled much the same kind of material in her careful discussion of Hughes and Plath. There are Journal entries by Plath dealing very explicitly with sexual relations, and yet Middlebrook manages to discuss them in a way that is adult and helpful and perfectly inoffensive. Neil Roberts in his excellent Ted Hughes: A Literary Life negotiates the same maelstrom without evading any of the difficulties or making impertinent moral judgements and at the same illuminating the creative relationship between Hughes and Plath in a way that genuine scholars and readers always hope for. That men and women have troubled relationships is only a shock and an outrage to our illiterate culture. What Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev have given us is more akin to Michael Hastings’s appalling dramas supposedly having to do with Eliot and his first wife Vivienne, or Joyce and his daughter Lucia Anna. ‘A louse in the locks of literature’ as Tennyson said. He has good company with these authors.

(1) Daniel Weissbort, Selected Translations, p. 50 (Faber, 2006).
(2) Neil Roberts, Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
(3) Diane Middlebrook, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: A Marriage (Little Brown, 2004).

William Bedford is a novelist and poet. His first novel Happiland was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize. He has had articles published in Punch, Harpers & Queen and the Catholic Herald amongst others. His latest collection of poetry is The Red Lit Boys (Pennine Pens 2000)