Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Plath’

The Bell Jar

December 2, 2013

I have been continuing my mission to read the three books which Margaret Drabble said helped her to live her life, and now I am on to The Bell Jar, the one to which I was secretly looking forward the most.

Everyone knows the sad story of Sylvia Plath. I suspect like most people, I first came across Plath’s writing at school. We studied some of her poems for GCSE, which, I have to say I think is a terrible idea. There we were, a whole bunch of highly-strung, over-emotional fifteen-year-old girls, and we were given a load of depressive poems by a woman who killed herself.

Of course most of us loved Sylvia Plath. I thought she was so inspiring that I briefly considered keeping bees as an alternative to getting married. Her story continued to haunt me as I grew older. For instance, when I moved into a flat with a gas oven, she was all I could think about, and I never really got the hang of using it.

The Bell JarThe Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel. It begins with Esther Greenwood, the narrator, doing a magazine internship one summer in New York. Esther is staying in a women-only hotel, with other girls from the magazine, all ‘bored as hell’. One night, Esther and her friend Doreen ditch one of the magazine parties for a smooth-talking DJ, which works out slightly better for Doreen than for Esther:

My drink was wet and depressing. Each time I took another sip it tasted more and more like dead water … There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.

Plath gives Esther a flat cynical voice which is dry and funny. There is great line after great line. One of my favourite moments is when Esther tells us about the first time she saw her boyfriend naked:

The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.

(Although, surprisingly, my edition says ‘the only think I could think of’, which I assume is a typo. Quite how a typo can still be in a book 50 years after publication is v puzzling.)

To start with, the way Esther finds everything ‘depressing’ and ‘demoralizing’ and boring comes across as a kind of wry humour, but it takes a bad turn when her month in New York comes to an end. She had hoped to get on to a creative writing course, but hasn’t:

All through June the writing course had stretched before me like a bright, safe bridge over the dull gulf of the summer. Now I saw it totter and dissolve, and a body in a white blouse and green skirt plummet into the gap.

So her breakdown begins in earnest and I struggled to continue, not because it isn’t a brilliant book, beautiful and compelling, but because it is painful to read about someone so miserable, so intent on ending her life. It is horrific to read of the cool calm way in which Esther weighs up her different options for suicide. Then there is a stay in a terrible asylum, where she has electroshock therapy.

Esther’s detatchment can bring a certain black humour, but it also becomes profoundly sad:

 Wherever I sat … I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

At last, things take a turn for the better when a benevolent stranger pays for Esther to go to a better asylum, where she will be ‘patched, retreaded, and approved for the road’.

So The Bell Jar is about having a nervous breakdown, which is a big enough subject on its own, and yet it is about more than that. It opens, famously, by placing the time as ‘the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs’:

The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick … I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

The first thing we know about Esther Greenwood is that she feels sick at the idea of being electrocuted, and yet she is also strangely drawn to it. When she has electroshock therapy, you can’t help but link it to the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, only her electric shocks are to generate a rebirth not death.

While the predominant feeling conveyed by the distancing of the bell jar is boredom, there is a violent frustration in that boredom, which is very affective. Why are there no other options, Plath is asking, why does life have to be like this? It is a similar sentiment to that felt in The Group:

I tried to imagine what it would be like if Constantin were my husband.

It would mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee and dawdling about in my nightgown and curlers after he’d left for work to wash up the dirty plates and make the bed, and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he’d expect a big dinner, and I’d spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted.

This seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s, but I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor, and had been a private school teacher herself.

It is this, the asylum, or death, and the energy with which Esther chooses death goes to show the grimness of the other options.

In this very good article from the 1971 New York Times, Robert Scholes describes The Bell Jar as being written ‘posthumously’, that, is, ‘between suicides’:

She wrote her novel and her ‘Ariel’ poems feverishly, like a person ‘stuck together with glue’ and aware that the glue was melting.

Plath writes with ‘the authority of suicide’, weighting what she has to say with an awful significance. She is a poet. Her sentences are beautiful. And I think that is where the tragedy lies. Plath, like Esther, is a writer who would prefer to create her own fictions rather than being made to live the dreary reality of others. Esther lies in bed reading a story and reflects:

I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree.

There were no beautiful big green fig-trees in the reality of 1950s America, when intelligent women could only marry and ‘cook and clean and wash’ or be electrocuted like the Rosenbergs. If only Plath’s ‘black lines of print’ were enough for her to crawl in between and retreat inside. Instead she chose the oven. At least she has left us her black lines of print.

Sylvia Plath in 1957

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Birthday books

November 12, 2012

As you’ll have seen from last week’s post, Thursday 8th November was my birthday. I suspect that you won’t be surprised to hear that I was given a few books as presents. They are all rather special – and one is little short of a miracle.

First, my friend Sophie – evidently inspired by my endless stories of strange things that happen in the bookshop – bought me this funny little book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. It is packed with all sorts of silly lines:

‘Is this book edible?’

‘Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I’ve bought?’

‘Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?’

This exchange is particularly familiar:

Customer: You don’t have a very good selection of books.

Bookseller: We’ve got over ten thousand books.

Customer: Well, you don’t have the book I’ve written!

I still can’t get over quite how many strange things happen in the bookshop. At least once a week, I have an extraordinary encounter. You might remember the time when we chased the notorious Mr Men thief – an old lady who actually had a real get-away car and driver waiting for her outside. Just last week a strange man came in asking for books about herbs and then told me I had the face of an angel. ‘It’s your Grandfather’s face,’ he said, to which I replied that my Grandfather didn’t look particularly angelic.

It is truly an extraordinarily weird place to work, yielding one bizarre encounter after another. But it’s surprisingly tricky to convey the oddness of it to friends. Those exchanges – so loopy when they happen – lose something in translation, fall a little bit flat, and I’m usually left with a yawning husband trying to change the subject, while I wonder how I can be a writer and such a terrible story-teller. One day, I will sit down and write a book about it, and maybe then, I’ll manage to convey something of its strangeness. For now, at least I can comfort myself with this record of other booksellers’ similarly peculiar encounters – thank-you Sophie!

My aunt-in-law (probably the wrong technical term) gave me a very handsome Everyman edition of Doctor Thorne by Trollope. This was particularly good timing as I have been longing to get stuck into a big thick engrossing novel, rather than all these slim ones to which I seem to have grown addicted. Added to which, a friend just got back from her honeymoon and said that one of the best bits was reading so much Trollope. Praise indeed! I must read some, I thought to myself, as I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read any Trollope at all. No excuses now, I can’t wait to begin.

My mother-in-law gave me a beautiful exhibition catalogue of Sylvia Plath’s drawings. I hadn’t realised that Plath was an artist as well as a poet, and it’s fascinating to look at these intricate, beautiful drawings. There seems to be a honeymoon theme amongst these birthday books, as many of Plath’s drawings date from her honeymoon with Ted Hughes, in Paris and then Spain. They are mostly of things – pots and fruit, stoves, bottles, a few of buildings – roof tops, a ‘colourful’ kiosk, and not many of people.

I remember studying Plath’s poetry when I was at school, I think it must have been for GCSE. Bits of them have stayed resolutely with me, which is surprising as I have a terrible memory for specific quotations and am usually much better at  hanging on to the gist of things, while the actual words are forgotten.

Not so with Plath: I still have ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, and the ‘bald cry’ of the child, mouth ‘clean as a cat’, ‘vowels rising’ from ‘Morning Song’. I remember ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’, and the horrid idea of a coffin ‘of a midget, /Or a square baby’ in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. Most of all, I remember her poem ‘Mushrooms’ – ‘nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves’ – the threatening feeling of which freaked me out so much that I’ve struggled to eat our fungal friends ever since. Now I think of it, I suppose that like her drawings, her poetry is often full of things, rather than people. As Carol Ann Duffy, who has just brought together a selection of Plath’s poetry in another very beautiful book, wrote for the Guardian recently:

A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships.

Children and friendship are almost lost amongst the melons, spinach, figs, moles, bees and all those other things.

I’ve saved the miracle for last.

My mother very sweetly and thoughtfully told me that she’d like to buy me a special book – a first edition of something I loved – and suggested that it could be repeated every year, so she could help me to build up a library. (You might remember that she gave me this beautiful set of Virginia Woolf letters and diaries for my twenty-first.) So off we trotted to Peter Harrington, a fine antiquarian bookshop in Chelsea.

We went upstairs to the twentieth-century literature section where I let my eyes drift slowly across the very tall bookcases, packed with tantalisingly old and special-looking books. I stopped towards the end of the Bs, when I saw Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve not read many books by Elizabeth Bowen, but those I have, I  adored. (I wrote about Bowen’s Court itself here, The Heat of the Day here, and The House in Paris here.) I asked the bookseller if he had any other books by Elizabeth Bowen, thinking that this might be a chance to get a special edition of one of her books that I had yet to read.

The bookseller leapt off his antique chair and bounded over to the bookcase. ‘That Elizabeth Bowen’s a great book,’ he said.

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve read it.’ I felt a little smug, for not many people have read Bowen’s Court, an idiosyncratic history of her ancestral home, Anglo-Irish family and Ireland itself, which is now out-of-print.

‘Look.’ He fished it down from the shelf and opened it up.

My eyes nearly dropped out of their sockets. There on the first page was this:

I realised then that when the bookseller had said it was a great book, he wasn’t talking about the writing, but the actual thing itself. This was a great book indeed.

I picked it up and held it, feeling the book weigh heavy in my hands. I told myself that I was holding a book that E.M. Forster had held. This was the actual book that Elizabeth Bowen had given to E.M. Forster. They had both held it, one after the other. I wondered if she had posted it to him, inscribing it, wrapping it up and taking it to he post office to send. Or perhaps she had given it to a mutual friend, who she knew would be seeing him soon. Or perhaps she gave it to him herself, when she went round there for tea one day. ‘Morgan, I do hope you like my new book,’ she might have said, over a slice of cake. There is a whole story here in this book aside from the one written in its pages. This story is nearly invisible, its traces remaining in that pencil inscription and in where it might fall open more easily (pages 62-3, 98-9, 222-223), or where there are liver spots of moisture (page 83), even a corner a little bent (229).

I read Bowen’s Court after I came across it in Alexandra Harris’ wonderful book Romantic Moderns. I thought it would be useful research for my own novel, which is about the stories held in a derelict house, and added it to my list of ‘house books’ – books in which houses have a real presence, along with those like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House and E.M. Forster’s Howards End.

When it came to writing my novel, there were three quotations from all my house reading that I found particularly inspiring and which I decided to use as epigraphs. The first is from Howards End by Forster:

Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts.

The second is from Bowen’s Court:

With the end of each generation, the lives that submerged here were absorbed again. With each death, the air of the place had thickened: it had been added to. The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms – as I said, we had no ghosts in that house – because they already permeated them. Their extinct senses were present in lights and forms.

So you see, to have chanced upon Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court, so soon after finishing the first draft of my novel, felt like a miracle.

I can’t wait to read all these books – to giggle at other booksellers’ weird encounters, to become thoroughly absorbed in a huge dollop of Trollope, to gaze at these drawings of objects that inspired such a poet, and to hold Bowen’s Court in my hands, gently turning the pages while thinking of Forster doing the very same thing in June 1942.