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Janet Malcolm (1934-2021) on Plath & Hughes [by David Lehman]

By Janet Malcolm
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 208 pages. $23.
Reviewed for the Boston Globe by David Lehman (March 1994)

          Janet Malcolm is among the most intellectually provocative of authors. A genuine iconoclast, she strews bold judgments in the reader's path with confidence bordering on impudence. Able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight, she may damn all journalists in a single universal clause or may, to equal rhetorical effect, define a person's character on the basis of her reaction to a failed recipe. Controversy trails her like the clouds of glory following the blessed babe in Wordsworth's Immortality Ode.

          In her last two books the whole thrust of Malcolm's effort has been directed at the writing profession -- which, given her scrutiny, would seem to be very nearly as impossible a line of work as psychoanalysis, the subject of a pair of previous works by Malcolm. The Silent Woman, her new book, created a major buzz when it dominated a late-August issue of The New Yorker last year. In a strict sense, it is a literary essay on the rival merits of half a dozen biographies of the poet Sylvia Plath, all of them problematic, none of them satisfactory.

          But The Silent Woman is much more than that. It is a double narrative in two time zones. One narrative centers on Plath's bleak last days and the unbearable emotional pressure that made possible her great outpouring of poetry but also led to her suicide at the age of thirty in February 1963. The second narrative concerns the fighting that ensued (and shows no signs of letting up) over the meaning of Plath's life and death. The implacable animosity between Plath's hagiographers and Plath's husband, the often vilified Ted Hughes, who was conducting an adulterous affair at the time of her suicide, leads Malcolm to propose an "allegory of the problem of biography in general" (p. 28) -- an allegory as trenchant and incisive as her earlier allegory of the problem of journalism, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990).

          The first sentence of The Journalist and the Murderer has become justly famous: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." At a time when journalists have graduated to the status of media figures and are glamorized as never before, Malcolm depicts the very species as contemptible. The journalist is a "confidence man" who preys on "credulous widows," she writes in The Journalist and the Murderer. And as a parable designed to illustrate this truth, she tells the riveting story of a lawsuit brought by a convicted murderer (Jeffrey MacDonald) against the author of a best-selling book about the murder and the murder trial (Joe McGinniss). MacDonald claimed he had been conned by McGinniss into cooperating with him on Fatal Vision, only to be betrayed by McGinniss in Fatal Vision.

          For Malcolm, MacDonald's legal narrative was more compelling than the traditional defenses summoned in McGinniss's behalf. She had no trouble making the convicted killer's position seem more sympathetic and more reasonable than that of the swashbuckling, intrepid reporter. For her, moreover, this quite exceptional case represented the standard or norm for the relations in general between people who write for a living and the people they write about. Her strong views on journalism did not endear her to some in the journalistic community, and they displayed their glee when Malcolm's theory seemed to be borne out inadvertently in the legal melodramas of her own life. When rogue psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson took Malcolm to court for having misquoted him in a series of devastating articles exploring his ouster as curator of the Freud archives, he was charging her with the same bad faith that she found so odious in Joe McGinniss. It became possible to regard The Journalist and the Murderer as obliquely confessional, and the same is true of The Silent Woman.

          Malcolm leaves us in no doubt that The Silent Woman is a continuation by other means of the arguments put forth in The Journalist and the Murderer. Again she indicts an entire genre of literary production, and again she seems to be implicating herself -- with whatever degree of ironic self-awareness -- in the indictment. Biography's essential nature is "transgressive," she writes, and the biographer resembles a crook: not a con artist this time but a "professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away" (p. 9). Changing metaphors, she depicts biography and journalism as related pathologies, "virulent" strains of "the bacillus of bad faith," to which she is herself "susceptible" (p. 28).

          Sylvia Plath's life and death have become a cherished feminist myth, and the imperatives of biographers seeking to perpetuate it are usually given priority over the keepers of the estate, jealous of their privacy and eager to put their own spin on destiny. Malcolm, the contrarian, sides with Ted Hughes and his protective older sister Olwyn, whose resistance to the biographical incursion may well be imagined; in the Plath legend, Hughes has always figured as the villain who hastened her demise. Malcolm prefers to see Hughes as Vronsky to Plath's Anna (p. 123). The fact that Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath, committed suicide in 1969, gassing herself as Plath had done, "in a bizarre gesture of imitation" (p. 102), has the perhaps surprising effect of enlarging Malcolm's sympathy for the reclusive Hughes, Britain's current poet laureate.

          In an allegory, everyone stands for something, and Hughes is the embattled artist: "His effort to disentangle his life from the Plath legend while tending its flame is a kind of grotesque allegory of the effort of every artist to salvage a piece of normal life for himself from the disaster of his calling" (p. 156). Olwyn Hughes is the "Cerberus" of the Plath estate. The cluttered-up house of a fatuous old man, whose claim to fame is that he dwelled in the flat below the one in which Plath took her life, becomes a "monstrous allegory of truth": "This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas's house, the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless -- as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life" (p. 204).

          There is more intellectual excitement in one of Malcolm's riffs than in many a thick academic tome. Consider her contention that "the nineteenth century came to an end in America only in the 1960s" (p. 15). Or this take on journalism: "The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism's uncontested privileges, and the rendering of subjects as if they were characters in bad novels is one of its widely accepted conventions" (p. 41).

          Sometimes Malcolm goes too far, even for me -- and I'm a big fan. There is, for example, the kitchen episode with Anne Stevenson, whose biography of Plath, Bitter Fame, was widely thought to have failed because she had made too many concessions to Olwyn Hughes. When Malcolm visited her in England, Stevenson prepared a lasagna dinner, forgetting at the last minute to insert an inessential ingredient ("the white sauce"). Here is how Malcolm magnifies the omission: "When we ate it, half an hour later, it tasted good, but Anne was critical of it and repeatedly apologized for it. As with the publication of Bitter Fame, she had no choice but to serve it, but she felt it to be an imperfect, compromised thing. I understood her anguish and felt for her" (p. 105). Turning Stevenson's hospitality into a homely metaphor for a failed literary enterprise seems both unfair and unkind, the sort of journalistic stunt that Malcolm deplores when she spots it in the work of others.

          Malcolm raises ethical questions that almost all nonfiction writers must confront, and the fact that her own practices have been questioned scarcely invalidates her thesis or her individual insights. Summing up her own ambivalence, she likens herself to "a lawyer defending a case he knows to be weak and yet obscurely feels is just" (p. 177), but she is also the quavering defendant and the severe magistrate. When she condemns biography as a form of "voyeurism and busybodyism" that can be sadistic and cruel, what she is really doing is initiating a powerful argument with herself, for she knows that she shall not 'scape whipping. If The Silent Woman may be likened to a poem, it is not only because the writing is so fine but because of the truth in William Butler Yeats's observation that we make rhetoric out of our quarrels with others -- and poetry out of our quarrels with ourselves.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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