The gifted Keith Corcoran has spent his life working towards the dream of becoming an astronaut. With a skill for mathematics, many years of dedicated training, and the support of a loving family, Keith at last succeeds. His life’s effort culminates in a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. Tragically, in the middle of his tour, his teenage daughter is involved in a car accident; and yet, Keith’s professionalism will not allow him to cut the mission short. When he does return to earth, he finds his family broken, his house empty, and himself adrift.
Forced to take a leave from work and struggling to cope with his grief, Keith mechanically prepares his house for sale. Almost immediately, he meets Jennifer, an attractive neighbour, and they embark on a confusing, misguided affair. In the sterility of suburban America, Keith sinks more deeply into a consuming depression. It’s only when he befriends Peter, an oddball Ukrainian immigrant with a passion for stargazing, that Keith has an opportunity transcend the loss that’s overtaken his life.
The Infinite Tides, Christian Kiefer’s debut novel, is beautifully written. The book is full of lyrical passages, poetic descriptions of space, time, and mathematics, and moving evocations of a grieving man’s inner life. But this is exactly the novel’s weakness. The narrative is often interrupted by these literary flights. More attention to developing the characters and deepening the interactions between them would have served Kiefer better. Still, The Infinite Tides is a worthy first effort, delicate, moving, and oddly tender.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in January 2013.
I can’t resist re-posting in full an article from The Independent (6/1/13) by Suzi Feay. Mad Girl’s Love Song, a major new biography by Andrew Wilson, is scheduled to appear at the end of the month, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Plath’s suicide this February.
What could be more thrilling than finally having your debut novel published after years of honing your craft? Especially if it has been your goal since childhood; and the book is set to become not merely a modern classic, but a rite-of-passage read for every morose, misunderstood and proto-feminist teenager for years to come.
But for one young writer, publication, respectful reviews and a growing reputation were not enough; which is why early 2013 sees both the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s sole novel, The Bell Jar, and of its author’s suicide, which followed a few weeks later. Plath folded a cloth, placed it in her gas oven, and laid her head inside early in the morning of 11 February 1963, having first sealed the door of her children’s bedroom. She was 30. “A doctor put her on very heavy sedatives – and in the gap between one pill & the next she turned on the oven, and gassed herself,” her anguished, estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, wrote to a friend. “A Nurse was to arrive at 9am – couldn’t get in, & it was 11am before they finally got to Sylvia. She was still warm.”
To celebrate the happier anniversary, at least, there is a sparkling new edition of The Bell Jar, which has never been out of print, a series of events are planned for later in the year, and this month sees the publication of a major new biography, Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson. In the past, Plath’s hotly contested life has been a minefield for those who attempted to interpret it. “I tried to be as objective as possible,” says Wilson. “I’ve got no agenda, I didn’t read the other biographies, I went to the archives completely fresh, trying to stand back and see what kind of evidence there was.”
He has conjured up a youthful, blonde and vibrant Plath, albeit one with a disturbing shadow side. But the dark fact of the suicide, on a bitter morning in one of the worst English winters on record, overshadows our understanding of the life and work of Sylvia Plath, and has cast something like a curse on the lives of those who survived her.
Hughes’s letters in the months before the tragedy show no foreboding. He was, it seems, taken in by Plath’s bright, capable manner, expressed in letters to her mother: “I am joyous, happier than I have been for ages,” she wrote in October 1962. Her husband had been unfaithful with another poet’s partner, Assia Wevill, and Plath had thrown him out with much drama and vituperation. Hughes was, if anything, relieved. “The one factor that nobody but quite close friends can comprehend, is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality,” he wrote to his elder brother, adding that she was “finally, impossible for me to live married to. Now we’re separated, we’re better friends…” However, he also wrote to his sister Olwyn: “[Plath]’s changed extraordinarily – become much more as she was when I first knew her, & much more like her mother, whom I detest. You’re right, she’ll have to grow up – it won’t do her any harm.”
Alas, Plath was never to “grow up”. “I was the only person who could have helped her, and the only person so jaded by her states & demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it,” Hughes wrote to Olwyn after his wife’s death. Crucially for the drama that was to unfold, the couple had only separated, not divorced. She was still Mrs Sylvia Hughes, and her literary estate was his to do with as he wished. He buried her in his native Yorkshire, under a slab that read “Sylvia Plath Hughes”, and began the laborious business of sorting out her unpublished writings.
So famous is Plath now that it is hard to remember that like another poet who died young, Keats, all her renown was posthumous. Now her celebrity fans include such diverse figures as Gwyneth Paltrow, who played her in the 2003 movie Sylvia, and David Walliams. The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, prefaced her recent selection of Plath poems with a fan-girl introduction, she has been name-checked in a Manic Street Preachers song, and copies of The Bell Jar featured in Natural Born Killers and The Simpsons.
But back then she wasn’t an in-demand genius; the critic Al Alvarez was bemused to find that the dowdy, skinny American wife of the up-and-coming poet Ted Hughes was also a writer; he hadn’t associated the housewife “Sylvia Hughes” with the Sylvia Plath whose poems were beginning to cause a small stir after her debut collection The Colossus (1960). There is a famous picture of Ted Hughes with Auden, Eliot and Spender at a Faber and Faber party in 1960; Plath was at the same gathering, but she was not invited to join the great men. She has since arguably eclipsed them all, except Eliot.
Perhaps, given the position he found himself in, there is nothing Hughes could have done to forestall the criticism that was to trickle, then flood, in his direction. But giving his sister Olwyn the job of running the Plath estate on behalf of the two motherless children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, was not one of his smarter notions, given that the sisters-in-law had heartily disliked one another.
Literary estates are frequently contentious, as family members, sometimes not all that close to the deceased, attempt to control or even stifle biographers, critics and academics. Those who handle estates, and therefore permissions, are feared, needed and despised by biographers unless everything is handled with the greatest impartiality and transparency. The Plath estate was to generate huge revenues for the family. The Bell Jar alone has sold 400,000 copies worldwide over the past decade, and even today, Plath’s publishers get five requests a week for permission to quote from her writing.
Hughes set to work. Instead of promptly compiling a Collected Poems, he constructed a new, slim volume of poems entitled Ariel, published in 1965. It was a masterpiece; but it did not exactly resemble the collection of the same name that Plath left behind. Understandably, Hughes removed several poems that were vengeful and critical about himself, and reordered the poems to suggest a narrative that made the suicide seem inevitable. (Plath’s own ordering began with the word “Love” and ended with “Spring”, giving a rather more optimistic flavour to the book.) Meanwhile, Plath became a heroine, or martyr, for the nascent feminist movement. Her gravestone was attacked, the offending “Hughes” hacked off more than once. Hughes, it was angrily put about, had as good as murdered St Sylvia.
Nevertheless, more material was appearing. Gradual revelation was also canny monetising. Uneasy about the autobiographical elements of The Bell Jar, Plath had published it under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. In 1965, it came out in the UK under her own name. In 1971, it came out in America, and in 1975, Plath’s mother Aurelia brought out Letters Home, partly to counteract the harsh portrait of the mother in the novel. In 1977 came a selection of uneven but revealing short stories and prose pieces, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Hughes brought out another slender selection of poems, Crossing the Water, and it was 1981 before the Collected Poems finally appeared, winning a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Hughes also allowed the publication of Plath’s Journals in 2000, although they do not cover her final breakdown. He confessed to having destroyed one journal and having “lost” another. Hughes did not want her children to have to read the last journal, he said. He retained the habit of talking about “the children” when they were well into their thirties, as though they remained frozen in time, forever crying in their upstairs room while below, the gas seeped out.
The biographers also set to work. The first, Edward Butscher, offended the family with unseemly speculations and revelations in Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976), followed by Linda Wagner-Martin’s feminist account, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987). In a preface, Wagner-Martin related how Olwyn Hughes, acting for Ted, demanded cuts of 15,000 words in exchange for permission to quote from Plath’s poems. Wagner-Martin ditched the quotations rather than have her book gutted. Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic (1991) was seen as even more objectionable.
The estate commissioned its own biography, authorised and overseen by Olwyn Hughes. It was a disastrous miscalculation. Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (1989) was harshly debunking, hostile to Plath and favourable to Hughes in all questions of the marriage. It was an extraordinary document to emerge from an estate that handled Plath’s revenues. Bizarrely, three negative personal testimonies were added in appendices, one by Dido Merwin, a bitchy ex-friend eager to relate decades-old tittle-tattle. Reviewers howled and Stevenson confessed she had lost control of her own book, although the feminist critic Lorna Sage described Bitter Fame as “a good revisionist biography”.
In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), literary critic Jacqueline Rose also recounted textual horror stories. Ted Hughes informed Rose that her speculation about the sexual subtexts of some of the poems would not only upset the children (again), but in some cultures, be “grounds for homicide”, a shock tactic that, he later claimed, was not intended to threaten but to awaken.
As a result of all this, Janet Malcolm was moved to write a fascinating book-length essay on Plath, Hughes and biography, The Silent Woman (1994), landing broadly on the side of the Hugheses (although Olwyn comes across as a very strange person). Stevenson told Malcolm a tale of woe: Olwyn’s constant revisions and comments had scuppered Bitter Fame. “Please respect my wish to be left in peace,” Stevenson pleaded with Olwyn during the writing of the book. “No letters, no phone calls. You have brought me to the edge of breakdown many times in the past year.” Another letter read: “A person can take just so much of being … kicked, insulted, threatened, bulldozed into submission…”
It’s not surprising that people talked in terms of a Plath curse, and not just on biographers. No one suffered more than Assia Wevill, the beautiful and gifted woman for whom Hughes had left Plath. Fay Weldon, a friend of Wevill’s, recounted in her autobiography, Auto da Fay: “Ted took up with Assia and made her pregnant, and Sylvia killed herself, and five years later Assia was to kill herself and her child, out of guilt from which Ted declined to save her.” Appallingly, Assia also gassed her young daughter, Shura Hughes. The “Ted-Sylvia-Assia saga”, Weldon wrote, “was I think one of those seminal events which brought forth the fruit of 1970s feminism. That such talented women should die for what – for love? Because that’s what they died of, not depression, let alone ‘born to suicide’ as is so often said of Sylvia.”
Says the poet and translator Elaine Feinstein, Ted Hughes’s friend and biographer: “I think [Sylvia] and Ted were incredibly happy together, funnily enough, until she had her second child, and then she got rather tired and worn down. It doesn’t help to have someone like Assia cross the path.” The novelist Alan Sillitoe, a friend of the couple, once said vehemently to me: “I think Ted was a saint!”
I asked Andrew Wilson, Plath’s latest biographer, whether time is finally healing all these wounds. After all, Plath’s contemporaries are now in their eighties. Ted Hughes died in 1998, loaded with honours, finally redeemed by his heartfelt collection Birthday Letters – poems of love and contrition, addressed to Plath.
“I think it’s still very, very raw actually,” Wilson contends. “Understandably so. The latest thing is that Nicholas Hughes died.” Tragically, in 2009, Nicholas Hughes, the baby Plath left behind on that freezing morning, killed himself in Alaska, aged 47.
“Anybody who’s writing on Plath knows there are potential problems and difficulties. You have to be very careful,” Wilson goes on. Although he encountered no problems with Olwyn Hughes. “She wrote me some wonderfully spiky letters,” he laughs. “Obviously, she’s one of the figures you come across many, many times in Plath studies, but I found her really easy to deal with. Very straightforward.” Yes, I think Anne Stevenson would agree she’s certainly straightforward…
Wilson focuses on Plath before she ever met Hughes, using vast archives held in the States. Wilson has noticed an odd thing: Hughes firmly insisted that everything she wrote before 1956 counts as juvenilia. “And it’s when they first met! Nothing existed before in his eyes. I came across 200 poems that she wrote before then that have never been published, and lots of other items of archival material that have never been seen, and I’ve talked to friends and lovers who’ve never talked before, so it is an opportunity for a new, fresh approach.”
His quest was urgent. A couple of his interviewees died shortly after he met them. “[Sylvia’s friends] have reached an age when they think, actually, I would like to say something before I die. So it is a key moment, I think.”
The cover of Wilson’s book shows another side to a writer more often seen as death-struck than glamorous. “There’s a huge archive of colour pictures that I discovered, taken by one of her boyfriends,” he relates. “We picture her in black and white, don’t we? We haven’t really seen her in colour. We’re used to seeing her with lank hair looking miserable! There are lovely pictures of her with blonde hair looking very vibrant.”
Wilson found that he liked Plath and could empathise with her. “I know she was probably a very difficult person to be around but she had great charm, a great sense of fun. A lot of people who just read Ariel, which is terribly bleak, miss out on that. She was a very, very tortured individual and that’s the source of her creativity, but I did grow to like her and I hope that comes across in the book.”
Plath also reminded him of Patricia Highsmith, the subject of his previous biography. “Highsmith had similar symptoms to Plath – I don’t know how you want to categorise it, but some sort of personality disorder or mental illness. Both of them were alive before people talked about those things, before anybody could classify exactly what they had. They both went through a great deal of soul-searching, both had therapy, which they wrote about in their journals, so it’s fascinating to compare them. They both had very dark visions. But a crazy sense of humour at the same time.”
One thing is certain: fascination with Plath’s tortured life and magnificent poetry will continue, even as time heals the wounds left by a tragedy that has reverberated down half a century. “You couldn’t help but feel sorry for Ted, because he wasn’t the only man in London to commit adultery,” says Elaine Feinstein wryly. “It’s a great mistake to betray a poet.”
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson is published on 31 January by Simon & Schuster.
“Witty, wise and wonderful”
Sincerely: Further adventures in the art of correspondence from Women of Letters
Try as I might, I just couldn’t read this book cover to cover. It’s designed to be dipped into, and this is but one of the many joys Sincerely has to offer. Sincerely is the second collection by Women of Letters, a literary salon with the aim of celebrating the lost art of letter writing while also raising funds for the Victorian animal rescue shelter, Edgar’s Mission.
There are love letters, complaints, apologies, letters to treasured possessions, to songs, to white lies and to good decisions, to lives that could have been lived— themes that are diverse and intriguing, that give readers an intimate look into the hearts of some of Australia’s finest literary, political, and theatrical figures. Helen Garner writes to a primary school teacher she misjudged, looking back on childhood experience with adult eyes. Alice Pung’s exploration of cross-cultural misunderstanding in online dating had me laughing out loud.
Sincerely also includes letters from men writing to the woman who changed their lives, with a range of offerings from Julian Burnside, Shaun Micallef, David Williamson, and Robert Manne, to name only a few.
Though the entries in this collection were first performed at the Women of Letters salon events, nothing is lost in the written word. In fact, the individual voices of the authors shine through, sometimes lighthearted and whimsical, sometimes poignant and nostalgic. Sincerely is a potent tribute to an art that is shown to be not only a lot of fun but also very much alive.
Sincerely: Further adventures in the art of
correspondence from Women of Letters
curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in November 2012.
In odd ways my life ran parallel to that of David Foster Wallace. And to that of DT Max, the author of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the first biography of a man many have named the voice of his (our) generation. Like Wallace, I had the midwestern childhood, the years in New York, and a consuming passion for language and literature.
Early in Wallace’s career, I attended a reading in New York, compelled by friends to tag along, having no idea who the shaggy, unconventional writer on stage was. But I was impressed. He was clearly brilliant. And earnest–deadly earnest. He spoke of wanting to find a new language to express an ever shifting, fast paced, increasingly fragmented experience.
My head was full of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot, and James. Narrative continuity. At that time, contemporary writing was ‘not my thing’. At bookstores, I dipped into Wallace’s books, but never purchased one. They were too cartoonish for my taste, too clever and recursive, too ironic. Having never been seduced by postmodernism (though I read my share of theory in grad school), Wallace’s ‘maximalist’ response to it was like reading a foreign language. And there were too many other wonderful books in towers around me.
Still, Wallace remained in the corner of my consciousness. Now and then, I read something about him. Occasionally, I’d stumble across one of his books in a used bookstore. I knew he resided in the literary firmament, the recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ award, friends with DeLillo and Franzen and many others, but that he eschewed fame, something he referred to as the ‘red eye of Sauron’*. I respected that. And maybe because he managed to maintain humility and earnestness and a scathing work ethic in spite of his success, when I heard about his suicide in 2008, I felt as though I lost someone I knew.
Max’s biography of Wallace does credit to his subject. He never met Wallace. Like me, the closest he got was a literary party in New York in the ’90s. But one senses he knew Wallace the way I felt I knew him. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story is a tightly packed, straightforward account of one writer’s life, but it has something to say to all writers. Max exhaustively details the depressions, the battle with substance abuse, the hospitalisations, antidepressants, and electroconvulsive therapy. He recounts the affairs, the recoveries, Wallace’s insecurities, rages, even his murderous thoughts. We learn about his dogs, the TV shows he liked, and his penchant for wallpapering his bathroom with pages from his manuscripts.
And yet, this is a biography not only of the writer but of the writing. We are given an intimate view of the creative process in all its highs and lows. When Wallace was working well, he was prolific. He claimed to have written 750,000 words on Infinite Jest alone. Wallace’s energy and the constant whirring in his brain jump off the page. In fallow periods, when Wallace produced nothing, he worried about his lack of output through every drawn out, painful moment of the day. Max details Wallace’s commitment to the writing process in such a way that it becomes a masterclass for writers of all kinds.
There is something unnerving about Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, an ever-present note of sadness that hangs over the biography from the first page, from the title itself, looming like the red eye of Sauron, in this case not Wallace’s growing fame but the chilling fact of his suicide. This makes for a painful life to read. To his credit, Max resists sensationalising Wallace’s fate. Even in the final pages, when we know the act is not far off, Max recounts Wallace’s last days and moments in a hushed, understated way.
The tragedy is a heavy one. After years of sobriety and meditation, after finding happiness with Karen Green, a woman to whom he was singularly well-suited, Wallace felt emboldened to get off the antidepressants he’d been taking for two decades. Nardil is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor that has problematic interactions with certain foods. But this wasn’t the only reason Wallace wanted to try life without it. He was struggling to write The Pale King, the novel he’d been battling for years, and wondered if he would be more inspired and energetic off his meds.
It was an act of hope rather than desperation. Finally calm, mellowed, contented, believing his demons were behind him, Wallace wondered if another way of being was possible. Sadly, it proved not to be.
* From Tolkien.
D.T. Max is a graduate of Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. His new book, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, was published by Viking Penguin on August 30, 2012. He is also the author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, their two young children, and a rescued beagle who came to them named Max.
By Jeanie Riess
Smithsonian.com, September 13, 2012
Writers are often told to write what they know, so it should come as no surprise that many of the most famous characters in literary history are based on real people. Whether drawing inspiration from their spouses, friends and family, or finally, after decades worth of work, inserting themselves into the text, authors pull nearly every word and sentence from some element of reality, and most often, that element is people. Many characters, like Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (based on real-life beatnik Neal Cassady), come to mind as obvious, but this list is for the real-life literary characters that do not get recognized enough, and who deserve as much credit as their fictional counterparts.
Prospero (The Tempest, 1611)/William Shakespeare
Considered Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest is the artist’s farewell to the theater. Prospero is the island’s great magician, and with his powers he controls the tortoise-like character of Caliban and the sprite, spry Ariel. Prospero’s magic is in his books, and he decides when the Tempest should arrive, and who should come along with it. Sounds an awful lot like a playwright, doesn’t it? Prospero writes the script and wonders, like Shakespeare understandably would, what the future will be without him and his power. With frequent allusions to “the Globe” (the world, but also the name of Shakespeare’s theater), it is difficult to miss Prospero’s likeness to his great creator. Shakespeare critic and scholar Stephen Greenblatt says that the play brings up all of the “issues that haunted Shakespeare’s imagination throughout his career.” By writing himself into his final play, Shakespeare reminded the world of his own immortality as a public literary figure.
Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe, 1719)/Alexander Selkirk
The real Robinson Crusoe, whose memoir Daniel Defoe adapted for his own novel, was the original “bad seed” of the modern nuclear family. After his brother forced him to drink seawater, Selkirk started a fight, and was summoned by the Kirk Session in Scotland to explain himself. Fearing he would not be granted clemency, Selkirk ran away to the sea and fought against the Spanish as a privateer. A brilliant navigator, Selkirk was eventually made sailing master. The captain of his ship, however, was a tyrant, and after many close calls with the Spanish, Selkirk feared that the ship would sink and decided to call it quits, demanding to be dropped off at the nearest piece of land. Unfortunately for Selkirk (but fortunately for Defoe), the nearest piece of land was the desert island 400 miles off the coast of Chile called Más a Tierra, and now referred to as Robinson Crusoe Island. After four years and four months with nothing but a musket, a Bible, a few articles of clothing and some tobacco, Selkirk was rescued. It turns out he was right to have fled his troubled ship; it sunk shortly after he abandoned it, with only one survivor. Selkirk made a fortune privateering before eventually returning home to England, dressed in silk and lace, but he could never get used to land and yearned for the open sea. He published a memoir of his adventures, but died on a privateering mission before he could read Defoe’s adaption of his little-noticed book.
Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)/ John Gray
A member of Oscar Wilde’s lively literary circle, John Gray was a lovely, boyish poet who could pass for a 15-year-old at age 25. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde describes the youth as a “young Adonis,” and judging by a black-and-white photo of John Gray, we can only suggest that he was not far off. Wilde met Gray in London at the home of a fellow artist, and, for a while was one of the author’s many romantic affairs. The similarities between Gray the character and Gray the poet were striking. Like Dorian, John Gray found himself easily corrupted by the city and the title character’s first name came from an ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians, who were famous for perpetuating love among men. After the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray people began to call John Gray Dorian, which made him so uncomfortable that he went so far as to sue a London publication for libel for making the association. The fate of this real-life hero was more dramatic than Wilde could have ever written: John Gray moved to Rome and studied for the priesthood.
Antonia (My Ántonia, 1918)/ Annie Sadilek Pavelka
“Every story I have ever written,” said Willa Cather “… has been the recollection of some childhood experience, of something that touched me as a youngster.” My Ántonia, Cather’s bildungsroman masterpiece, embodies that sentiment, detailing a young boy’s relationship with Bohemian immigrant Antonia Shimerdas and her acclimation to life on the western plains of the United States. Like her narrator in My Ántonia, Jim Burden, Willa Cather was born in Virginia. Then, like Jim Burden, at age 9 she moved with her family to the untamed plains of Red Cloud, Nebraska. In Red Cloud, Cather became friends with Annie Pavelka, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants recently transplanted there. Many years after leaving, Cather returned to Red Cloud and renewed her friendship with Annie in 1916. She published My Ántonia just two years later. Of her childhood acquaintance, Cather said, “One of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains.”
Molly Bloom (Ulysses, 1922)/Nora Barnacle
When asked if she was, in fact, the inspiration for the character of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s first wife, answered simply, “No. She was much fatter.” Joyce eyed the tall brunette in the street one afternoon, and set all of Ulysses to take place on the same date as his first date with Nora. Molly Bloom is a sensual, unfaithful woman in the novel, a part that Nora pretended to play more than she actually carried out. She and Joyce wrote intensely longing letters to one another when they were apart, and often she mentioned the attractions of various other men, though she never indulged in them. Joyce stuck to Barnacle, writing one of his most memorable characters after her, although his father warned him that the opposite would happen, given his daughter-in-law’s extraordinary name.
Emily Grierson (A Rose for Emily, 1930)/ Maud Faulkner
Although “Miss Maud” Faulkner did not dress and primp the corpse of her deceased betrothed from day to day, it is quite clear that William Faulkner’s mother did share much common ground with Miss Emily, the protagonist of the author’s eerie A Rose for Emily. The story is based on a young girl who, in Faulkner’s words, “just wanted to be loved and to love and to have a husband and a family.” Besides these aspirations, however, Miss Emily took after Miss Maud in an even more compelling way: As an artist. Emily’s living room displays a crayon portrait of her father, just as Maud’s home displayed original portraits of family members, both living and deceased. Miss Maud fancied herself a realist, and Miss Emily could be called that (preserving a dead body does seem like a facet of realism, after all). In New Albany, Mississippi, William Faulkner’s birthplace, Miss Maud was considered standoffish and guarded by the neighbors, just as Emily is spoken of by the close-knit, gossip-ridden fictional town of Jefferson.
Willie Stark (All the King’s Men, 1946)/ Huey P. Long
Huey P. Long, Louisiana governor and senator, famously declared after the gunshot that fatally wounded him, “Lord don’t let me die. I have too much left to do.” Whether he meant shaking Ramos gin fizzes or securing the future for the everyman, Robert Penn Warren was impressed. The author based his masterpiece on Long, also known as “The Kingfish.” Willie Stark may now be one of the most famous characters in American literary history, but his many eccentricities will never outshine the legacy of his real-life counterpart. Long could not live without that favorite cocktail and, taxpayers be damned, he flew the top bartender from the New Orleans Hotel Roosevelt wherever he went so that he would have the drink on hand at any moment. Willie Stark may be a bit less formal, but the sentiment is the same: Political corruption and unnecessary government spending are fine as long as you’re a man of the people.
Dill Harris (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960/ Truman Capote
Idabel Tompkins (Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1948)/ Harper Lee
“I’m Charles Baker Harris. I can read. I can read anything you’ve got.” Dill Harris’s introduction in To Kill a Mockingbird is true to the character of his real-life inspiration, Truman Capote, who taught himself to read when he was just 5 years old. Capote, who lived next door to Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, and was her best childhood friend, first put Lee into two of his own novels before becoming the inspiration for Dill Harris, Scout’s precocious, wise-beyond-his-years best friend and neighbor. Capote’s most notable Lee stand-in was Idabel Tompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms. We can only guess that Lee the tomboy lived up to her Idabel’s crackling dialogue: “Son,” she said, and spit between her fingers, “what you’ve got in your britches is no news to me, and no concern of mine: Hell, I’ve fooled around with nobody but boys since first grade. I never think like I’m a girl; you’ve got to remember that, or we can’t never be friends.”
Gary Lambert (The Corrections, 2001)/Bob Franzen
Before Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published, the author called his brother, Bob, to give him fair warning: “You might hate the book,” he said. “You might hate me.” Bob Franzen, with the unconditional love of any good big brother, responded, “Hating you is not an option.” Any writer with good sense would have been wise to warn him; Gary Lambert, whose character is based on Jonathan Franzen’s brother, is the only character in the book who never seems to learn anything. He is money-crazed and insensitive, with all the arrogance of the oldest family member and little of that position’s requisite compassion.
Searching for marriage in literature is like holding a kaleidoscope to the world—at the slightest movement the arrangement, colours, shapes, angles, relationships, and mood are altered. In literature as in life, there are good marriages and bad, good marriages that turn bad, and marriages that on any one day one shift from blissful to hellish and back. Compiling a list of representations of marriage in literature is a daunting task—so much is devoted to the theme. It goes without saying that the list you compile today wouldn’t necessarily be the one you’d put together tomorrow. Here is but one view from the kaleidoscope:
Epithalamium (Greek and Roman times)
Among the Greeks, the epithalamium is a song in praise of bride and bridegroom, sung by boys and girls at the door of the nuptial chamber. Among the Romans a similar custom was in vogue, but the song was sung by girls only, after the marriage guests had gone, and it contained much more of what modern attitudes would identify as obscenity.
Orpheus and Eurydice, 6th century BCE
While walking in tall grass at her wedding, Eurydice falls into a nest of vipers and suffers a fatal bite. Her body is discovered by Orpheus who plays such sad and mournful songs in his grief that even the gods weep. On their advice, Orpheus travels to the underworld, softens the heart of Hades with his beautiful music, and Eurydice is given permission to return with him to earth. All Orpheus has to do is walk in front and not look back until they both reach the upper world. Even with the best of intentions and at the risk of the most severe consequences, Orpheus loses focus. Or perhaps his love is just not powerful enough. He turns to look at Eurydice and she vanishes for the second time, this time forever. (Those who know me will understand why this story resonates so deeply—from the snakebite to the backward glance to the second death.)
The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare, 1591
I’ll attend her here,
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why, then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown; I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.
Say she be mute, and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility,
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.
–Taming of the Shrew II.i.1013
Middlemarch, George Eliot, 1872
Each of the central characters of this novel builds castles in the air and then attempts to live in them. Because they are idealistic, self-absorbed, or otherwise out of touch with reality, they make serious mistakes that cause great unhappiness and eventually shatter their lofty illusions. Some characters learn from this process and others do not. The Chinese-fortune-cookie-moral of the story seems to be that those who learn not to build castles in the air generally end up happy, while those who persist are miserable.
The Egoist, George Meredith, 1879
Sir Willoughby Patterne, self-absorbed and arrogant, is jilted by his bride-to-be. Determined to marry, nonetheless, he vacillates between the sentimental Laetitia Dale and the strong-willed Clara Middleton before eventually deciding upon Clara. The thrust of the novel follows Clara’s attempts to escape from this engagement when she realises that Sir Willoughby desires nothing more than that she serve as a mirror for him. The Egoist dramatizes the difficulty contingent upon being a woman in a society in which women’s bodies and minds are trafficked between fathers and husbands in order to cement male bonds.
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, 1927
Mr Ramsay is a typical Edwardian gentleman, well-educated, slightly supercilious and endowed with a strong sense of his own primacy. When Mrs Ramsey dies, he’s adrift. Without his wife to praise and comfort him during his crushing bouts of anxiety and customary anguish regarding the longevity of his philosophical work, he suffers. However, he still fails to acknowledge her lifelong support of his efforts.
Life After Marriage: Love in an Age of Divorce, A. Alvarez, 1981
Mutual assistance pacts can last a lifetime. They are not necessarily happy marriages in the accepted sense of the term—on the contrary, they are founded on hatred or contempt or distaste—but they may be the only way the partners can get through life without crumpling under the pressure of urges they will not recognise as their own, like a stunt man whose wife is frightened to cross the road: he takes the risks she secretly yearns for, while she personifies the fears he feels driven continually to conquer. The same coin, different faces.
There’s more, so much more…
Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes, 1998
This slim volume of poems was published only months before Hughes died. However, his honesty is called into question in Birthday Letters for several reasons: the poems were published after the lapse of thirty five years and, when read in conjunction with Plath’s own poems, letters and diaries, differ markedly from her perspective. Questions remain: Was Plath a gifted but deeply troubled and mentally unstable woman who could not free herself from the past? Or was she the victim of Hughes’s serial infidelities and indifference? Is Birthday Letters a celebration of marriage or a last-stab defense of Hughes’ betrayal?
Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust without Reason, Anne Roiphe, 2011
This sudden and overwhelming desire to bring coffee to the side of a writer, to wash his socks, to stare down his enemies, internal or external, seems inexplicable in the light of the following turns of history, but at the time it was adaptive, the way the leopard got his spots and the snake his nasty rattle.
Describing her life as a young woman in the 1950s, Roiphe must reduce her own ambitions to only the faintest stirrings, make herself unaware that women’s lives are on the brink of drastic change and ditch the disillusionment that her freewheeling sexual abandon eventually creates. The standout moment? When a man refuses to sleep with her until he breaks up with the woman he’s been dating. Roiphe is so stunned by his sense of honour and integrity, something she had not previously encountered in a man, she marries him.
Aftermath, Rachel Cusk, 2012
It may be overstating things to illustrate Cusk’s deeply sad memoir of her marriage and it’s failure with a photograph of a victim of Hiroshima. Then again, maybe not.
Walter Benjamin, in his great essay “The Storyteller,” written in the nineteen-thirties, argues that classic storytelling is structured around death. It is the fire at which listeners warm their hands. But these days, he suggests, that hearth is cold and empty. Benjamin notes that death has disappeared from contemporary life, safely shuffled away to the hospital, the morgue, the undertaker. Instead of the news of death, there is just news—the “information” that we get so easily in newspapers. “If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs,” Benjamin writes. I sometimes think that the old leather couch Tolstoy kept in his study would be a good symbol of the mortal pulse that Benjamin was talking about. Tolstoy’s mother had given birth to him on this couch. She died when he was nearly two years old. Most of his thirteen children—five of whom died in childhood—were born on it, too. Was it not possible that one day he might lie on that same piece of furniture, and die there? It would be hard to write in such a study while oblivious of death as a life rhythm, of life as a death cycle.
more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.
This piece appeared in The New Yorker’s blog ‘Page Turner‘ on 20 July 2012. It is a beautifully written essay on a subject I love–worth sharing in it’s entirety. I adore the idea of a private library being an insolent form of riches. I’ve just spent half an hour rummaging around the volumes of my own bookshelves. I am rich indeed.
As Anthony Burgess once commented, there is no better reason for not reading a book than having it, but an exception should be made for Jacques Bonnet’s “Phantoms on the Bookshelves,” just out this month. It appears at a time when books and literature as we have known them are undergoing a great and perhaps catastrophic change. A tide is coming in and the kingdom of books, with their white pages and endpapers, their promise of solitude and discovery, is in danger, after an existence of five hundred years, of being washed away. The physical possession of a book may become of little significance. Access to it will be what matters, and when the book is closed, so to speak, it will disappear into the cyber. It will be like the genie—summonable but unreal. Bonnet’s private library, however, comprised of more than forty thousand volumes, is utterly real. Assembled according to his own interests, idiosyncratic, it came into being more or less incidentally over some four decades through a love of reading and a disinclination to part with a book after it was acquired. Among other things, he might need it some day.
Under the pretense of writing about this library—its origins, contents, and organization—he has written instead this often witty tribute to and perhaps requiem for a life built around reading that summons up all the magical and seductive power of books. You recognize, with a kind of terrible joy, all that you haven’t read and that you would like to read. Titles and names strike what can only be called chords of desire. In these pages, as at a fabulous party, you are introduced to writers who have not been translated into English, or barely. Hugues Rebell, Milan Fust, Anders Nygren, Kafu Nagai, the Japanese writer of the floating world about whom Edward Seidensticker wrote “Kafu the Scribbler,” or Osamu Dazai, “tubercular and desperate,” who attempted suicide three or four times, the last time successfully with his mistress. To these as well as to writers more famous, and to incredible characters: Count Serlon de Savigny and his beautiful fencing-champion mistress, Hauteclaire Stassin, who together murder the count’s wife and live happily ever after in Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s “Happiness in Crime,” or Edvarda, the trader’s daughter in Knut Hamsun’s “Pan,” who sometimes came to the cabin where Lieutenant Thomas Glahn lived near the forest with his dog, Aesop.
Bonnet did not resist these books. They became, in a way, part of him, and he manages to bring up the question of what one has read, what one should read, what one remembers, and, in a paradoxical way, what is the use of it. This last question can be dealt with more easily: reading has the power not only to demolish time and span the ages, but also the capacity to make one feel more human—human meaning at one with humanity—and possibly less savage. Bonnet admits that he has not read all his books, which, even at the rate of two or three a week, would take the better part of a century. Some he has read and forgotten, others he remembers, although not always perfectly—indelible, however, are “the two wild duck feathers which the lieutenant, Thomas Glahn, with the blazing eyes of a wild beast would receive two years later folded into a sheet of paper embossed with a coat of arms”—and a great number of books he has only glanced at or not read at all. As he describes it himself, books that he has acquired, that is, has bought rather than received because of his occupation as a writer and editor, can end up in one of three ways:
They may be read immediately, or pretty soon; they may be put off for reading later (and that could mean weeks, months and even years, if circumstances are particularly unfavourable, or the number of incoming books is too great—what I call my “to read” pile). Or they may go straight on to the shelf.
He goes on to say that even these books immediately shelved have, in a sense, been “read.” He knows what they are and where they are; they can be of use one day. He is able, of course, to read quickly since this has long been his work. But some books should not be read quickly. One often hears the expression “I couldn’t put it down,” but there are books that you have to put down. Books should be read at the speed they deserve, he properly notes. There are books that can be skimmed and fully grasped and others that only yield themselves, so to speak, on the second or even third reading.
All of this is normal, and you have probably formed an image of a pallid bookworm, serious and solitary. Bonnet is not like this. He is, to the contrary, convivial, good-natured, even jaunty. He has spent his life as an editor, as a journalist for Le Monde and L’Express, and as an art historian, writing a book on the life and paintings of Lorenzo Lotto. These are what might be called the visible occupations. At the same time, and much of the time, he has read. He has always read. He likes to read, as he says, “anywhere and in any position” although for him—and he is a voluptuary in this regard—the ideal is lying down or, as he elsewhere mentions, in the bath. I have never seen him reading, although I remember that the one visit I made to his Paris apartment was like walking into La Hune; the walls were completely covered with bookshelves and the shelves were filled with books. This was fifteen or twenty years ago, and I don’t know if there was then the full complement of books, nor do I know what forty thousand books would look like; but it was an apartment dedicated to them. I didn’t wonder at the time how they were arranged, and I did not consider what, after the joy of acquisition, must be an overwhelming reality for the owner of a large library: that it is almost impossible to move, both from the point of view of finding another place large enough, as well as actually moving all the books, packing, transporting, and reshelving them.
A private library of good size is an insolent form of riches, and the desire to have more books is difficult to rationalize, especially in view of the fact that you do not or cannot read them all but, as Bonnet makes clear, still you might. The bibliophile is, after all, like a sultan or khan who has countless wives already but another two or three are always irresistible. Reading is a pastime and can be regarded as such, but it can also be supremely important. Walter Benjamin expressed it off-handedly; he read, he said, “just to get in touch.” I take this to mean in touch with things otherwise impossible to embrace rather than merely stay abreast of, although a certain ambiguity is the mark of accomplished writers. Benjamin’s life ended tragically. He fled from the Nazis but was trapped, unable to cross into Spain, and he committed suicide. But that was the end only of his mortal life. He exists still with a kind of shy radiance and the continued interest and esteem of readers. He is dead like everyone else, except that he is not. You might say the same of a movie star except that it seems to me that stars are viewed years after with a kindly curiosity. They are antique and perhaps still charming. A writer does not age in the same way. He or she is not imprisoned in a performance.
Books, as Bonnet comments, are expensive to buy and worth very little if you try to sell them. The fate of a private library after the death of its owner is almost always to be scattered. There are exceptions, like the library assembled in Hamburg by Aby Warburg that was moved to London, in 1933, to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis, and that became the heart of an institute for Renaissance studies. But even great libraries, those of schools and cities, have come to ruin, destroyed by fire, war, or decree: Alexandria’s famous library, Dresden’s in 1945, others. An emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, you will learn, the builder of the Great Wall, also ordered the destruction of all books that did not concern themselves with medicine, agriculture, or divination. There were a number of sages who preferred to die rather than destroy their libraries.
The love of books, the possession of them, can be thought of as an extension of one’s self or being, not separate from a love of life but rather as an extra dimension of it, and even of what comes after. “Paradise is a library,” as Borges said.
The writers of books are companions in one’s life and as such are often more interesting than other companions. Men on their way to execution are sometimes consoled by passages from the Bible, which is really a book written by great, if unknown writers. There are many writers and many of some magnitude, like the stars in the heavens, some visible and some not, but they shed glory, as Bonnet makes clear without the least attempt at persuasion.
Photograph by Maurizio Cogliandro/Contrasto/Redux.
This essay is drawn from Salter’s introduction to “Phantoms on the Bookshelves” © 2012 by Jacques Bonnet; translated from French by Siân Reynolds and published by The Overlook Press.