Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cleaving the Bees

Maggie Taylor, "Girl in a Bee Dress"

Girl in a Bee Dress


Very interesting Atlantic essay/review. Almost as interesting as the Middlebrook bio—Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: Their Marriage. Many of the literary biographies are shifting their attention to Ted Hughes: the other side of the coin. A bright silver dollar on one side—a dirty penny on the other.

The Hughes Estate—rich, powerful, lawyers, publishers, friends and relatives. No wonder it’s taken so long—for a more reliable narrative to emerge from the Sylvia Plath closet. At least it’s not as bad, I suppose, as Lord Byron or the Shelley Esate?

So many versions of the Domesticated Goddess—so little time. And yet there’s plenty of time—isn’t there? Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman—actually it’s more about Jane Malcolm than Sylvia Plath. How she deconstructs the art of biography—from Bitter Fame to all the other ones. Seeing herself—as a “textual entity” amidst all the other players in the ongoing “performance art” of Sylvia Plath. Jacqueline Rose in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath calls it post-structuralism—others call it freeing the playing field. Making all POV players equal—and democratically embedded in ongoing storytelling.

I tend to see biography now as Nonfiction Novels—like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. So that the deluge of Plath biographies—well, they’re actually each one a sort of unique nonfiction novel approach to writing Sylvia Plath’s life-story.

Why? Because there’s no such thing as an authorial omniscient observer—nor does a reliable narrator exist to convince me that the biographer is any more reliable that Shade in Pale Fire or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. I may fall in love with Zembla Lit and King Kinbote—I may find James Mason more charming than Jeremy Irons—I may prefer Sue Lyon to Dominique Swain. But in the end—Nabokov wins and makes a fool of me.

The same with any writer—like Capote, Plath, Kafka, Nabokov and even what’s his name: James Frey. We suspend belief—to enter Fiction. The same with Biography—we suspend belief because we believe in the biographer. You know, like Talese and Oprah did—or didn’t do; whichever you believe when you don’t believe anymore.

Truman Capote—more stylish than most. He knew on the Santa Fe Super Chief—traveling into the American Wild West with Harper Lee. He knew he needed Harper Lee—as his Madam Heurtebise to guide him through the liquid mirror into the Orphée Land of the Dead. And what, my dear, could be deader than Western Kansas—some lonely railroad tracks, some tall white Greek grain elevators, lots of flatness and silence from horizon to horizon.

After Harper Lee got him going—into the good graces of the conservative Republican wheat-farmers and stoic locals with raised-eyebrows—can you imagine cosmopolitan chatty campy Capote stuck for a couple of years in some dumpy motel room in Garden City? Writing his “nonfiction novel”—even before Perry Smith and Dick Hickock showed up. The dead Clutter family? A tragic headline—in The New York Times. What made Capote go Bingo—and give Dick Shawn of The New Yorker a call? Hmmmm?

Naturally, a mere biography wasn’t good enough for Truman Capote—he wanted another best seller. And another movie. Asking a trick after sex the next morning—Capote asked the boy-toy where he’d like to have breakfast. To Capote’s exquisite amazement—the young hopelessly dumb naïve hustler said he’d like have breakfast at Tiffany’s!!! That’s how flashes of intuition—get things going in the mind of a writer. Purely chance—often spoken from the mouths of babes. Preferably Boss Cupids—if you know what I mean?

To invent a new literary genre—isn’t an easy thing to do. But it can be done—just look at Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. One little thin book—everything changed. Even a book tainted with abridgement—and a jealous husband’s guilt, rage & adultery. Isn’t that how it works—a poetic paradigm shift? It’s more like a Dark Star—imploding on itself. A Super Bitch Nova like Plath—suddenly turning into a Brilliant Black Hole? Sucking everything—even light and gravity—down into Heart of Darkness?

How to describe—what Plath was working with? Janet Malcolm in Silent Woman—well, to me she seems to be imitating Capote’s nonfiction novel style. But she and Jacqueline Rose call it “post-structuralism”—with a little dash of de rigeur deconstructive commentary. She alludes to herself and others—Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, the families and poets, even her fellow biographers—as “textual entities” embedded in the writing of Plath’s life-story.

Thus, Janet Malcolm is more self-conscious than—Anne Stevenson in Bitter Fame. The tiresome travails—the Estate put that poor woman through. The same with many of the other biographers—molding themselves to the politically correct views of TPTB. Much of what’s fascinating about Silent Woman—is how the art of biography changes over time. Getting more realistic—is that what I mean by nonfiction novel? More real—by being more fictional? By being skeptical—about reliable narrators and omniscient “textual entities”?

Perhaps—but time moves on. Layer after layer—the Ariel story concatenates itself like a pearl over some tiny irritation. Two movie versions of In Cold Blood plus two Capote bio-flicks—and what do you get? An “intertextual entity"—worthy of driving your palimpsest sweaty palms simply mad.

The same with the Plath cottage-industry—which shows no hint of abating only accelerating. One lousy movie so far—but there will be more. I predict one about Ted Hughes—called The Killer (2010). Based on a pirated copy—of Plath’s Secret Journal… Did I say that? Surely not—after all I’m simply another literary entity. The lowest of the low—a mere poet.

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