Byline: Marianne Nault
Will Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes ever be left in peace? Biographies, films, poems and now, we have the first novel about what it was like to be the tormented poet who died by her own hand.
Poetic prose is perhaps the most precarious ship on which any novelist should attempt a maiden voyage. Kate Moses, editor, daughter of a British father and American mother, living in San Francisco with a husband and two children, in the opening of this debut 'novel' (based on meticulous research into every word written by and about the two poets) attempts to immerse the reader into a kind of Virginia Woolf stream of poetic consciousness, into the crevices of Plath's tormented mind, exacerbated by electric shock treatments she endured after a suicide attempt ten years before.
Sadly, the overly adjectival descriptions (even Woolf eschewed such overwrought prose) serve to diminish rather than illuminate the subjects of this enquiry.
Curiously enough, the most powerful passages in the book deal with Ted Hughes's agony over his 'crime of abandonment', as Moses puts it. Of course Moses - and the literary world - has been assisted in understanding just what he felt about the death of his wife, mother of his two children, with the publication of his magnificent book of poetry, Birthday Letters, that eloquent reworking of their courtship and marriage, published months before his untimely death from cancer in 1999.
One could argue that is all we need - those poems and Plath's own magnificent outpourings throughout her brief life. In the portrayal of Ted Hughes returning to his idyll, the thatched manor house in Devon that they had created together, before the serpent in the garden destroyed it all, Moses creates marvellous insights - fictive though they may be - of the guilt-stricken mate trying to retrieve items that Sylvia had requested.
Having researched all of Plath's manuscripts, published and unpublished, along with the Hughes archives, with an eye for a double biography, I revisited the host of characters in this novel, whom I personally interviewed over the years. Sadly, apart from a few passages, I was disappointed. The 'imagined conversations' between Sylvia and her mother, the menage a trois that grew when Assia Wevill became the 'other woman' who wreaked destruction (killing herself and Ted's daughter Shura some years later), the conversations with neighbours, all ring false.
Recycling is fine for the environment, but this regurgitation of poetry-cumprose provides little for the literary landscape of these two giants. May we be spared additional authors of biofiction, queueing to dig up new bones, new graves. RIP.
Selected Poems. By Sylvia Plath (Faber, pounds 9.99) Any new edition of Sylvia Plath's poems reads like an urgent message from the edge. The simple fine design of the cover of Selected Poems is just as Sylvia would have wanted, and within, a selection of poetry that ranges from early discursive lyrics from 1956 to the final embittered poems, written days before her suicide in 1963, an extraordinary sweep that makes clear the scope of her talent. …