Day 62 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project.
Emily is reading The Bell Jar because Sylvia Plath never goes out of style. Countless young women come into the store asking for her poetry, and we seldom have it, because it goes back out as soon as it comes in.
Oddly, yesterday we had two copies of The Bell Jar, one a sturdy hardback, and one a pretty new paperback in the window. Emily bought the sturdy hardback. Julia, my co-worker who completed the transaction at the cash register, then asked me about the book. She is a young woman who has not read it. "Is it good?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, searching for the words to describe it. "It is compelling and excruciating," I said, and she winced at "excruciating," intuiting something. It is a novel, but an autobiographical one, so I had read it, even as a young woman, aware that much of it was wrenched from the author's own life, and sensing that the author wanted both to hide and to reveal her own suffering. I had forgotten that Plath first published it under a pseudonym.
I spoke then of A. Alvarez, The Savage God, a study of suicide, which I had sought out after reading The Bell Jar and Plath's poetry. I spoke briefly to Julia of theories that Plath's suicide, set up as it was, may have been another cry-for-help attempt, not the yearning for this utter conclusion.
It is delicate to discuss these things with a young woman. I want to stress Plath's passion for life as well as death, I want to steer any impressionable young woman away from an obsession with death. Julia was troubled that Plath ended her life with her children in the house, and that is troubling, but I can't help but think she did not want to abandon her children. She wanted something else, and she didn't know how to get it.
In college classrooms over the years, I saw young women drawn again and again to Plath when they picked poems to pursue in papers. They want something, too, these women, or to escape something, perhaps. There is undeniable power in Plath's poems, for them to speak so intimately and so enduringly.
I have The Collected Poems, in paperback, and my mother gave me for Christmas, 2004, the year it came out, Ariel, The Restored Edition: A Facsimile of Plath's Manuscript, Reinstating Her Original Selection and Arrangement, with a foreword by Frieda Hughes, the poet's daughter. My mother's gift inscription is wise: "For some insight into someone else's process." She knows, in this case, to stress the art, not the life.
Julia knew something I didn't know, or knew and had forgotten, or blocked--that Plath's son Nicholas committed suicide last year. Like his mother, he had struggled with depression.
I had also blocked another fact, or scarlet thread--that Assia Wevill, the woman Ted Hughes left Sylvia for, had killed herself in the same way Sylvia had (head in the gas oven), but also taking their 4-year-old daughter with her. Maybe this was just too much for me to bear, maybe I rejected the gossip/legend aspects of the troubled lives of these people, maybe I thought that to know too much was to invade their privacy.
I remember gossip in the reaction to Birthday Letters, the poems of Ted Hughes that finally handled his reactions to his life with and the loss of Sylvia Plath. I have read some of those poems. I have read excerpts from letters in which Hughes spoke of the relief in publishing these, in which he reminded his son that love is the key, and to hold back love is a prison. All I can feel is sympathy, no blame, for all these people. Their lives were tied up in terrible knots.
What I have by Ted Hughes is Tales from Ovid, his renderings of Ovid's Metamorphoses, those great myths of transformation. And a myth is a way of speaking a truth.