Where to start: Sylvia Plath | Books

ODuring Sylvia Plath’s short life, she produced works that decades later are still read and studied around the world. Known for her confessional poetry, which won her a Pulitzer Prize, awarded posthumously in 1982, she has also written outstanding fiction and memoirs. In honor of the 90th anniversary of his birth, Elin Cullhed, whose novel Euphoria is a fictionalized depiction of Plath’s final year, has put together an insightful guide to the works of the great American writer.


The classic

All her life as a writer, Sylvia Plath blamed herself for not having succeeded in writing a novel. Still, she wrote one, and it’s great. The Bell Jar is an autobiographical account of being a young woman in 1950s USA, who transports a Trojan horse onto the stage when the reader least expects it and unleashes an entire cavalry of taboo subjects of the era. . It’s about depression, suicide, female sexual liberation, mother hatred, and electroshock trauma treatment in a world that doesn’t have the language for what a girl is going through. Esther Greenwood wants to go against the worldview that aims to label her against her will; she wants to get out of the window, to grow bigger, to become more, to undress and throw her clothes into the New York night, not as a gesture of self-annihilation but of omnipotence: “I am, I am, I am “. Esther Greenwood’s heart beats, in a perfect picture of self-fulfilment through writing. The Bell Jar is a novel full of the contempt and self-loathing that blooms in the heart of an oppressed girl.


Essential reading

Aside from the glass bell, the news, and the dense prose of the newspapers, Plath was first and foremost a poetess. Poetry was where she expanded her imagery, address, philosophy, and dramatic self. His poems use language to pierce the deepest layers of consciousness and sometimes make the reader uncertain: what is the poem really about, what is really going on in its sphere? The Collected Poems offers a unique opportunity to spot the writer’s growth into a daring poet who, step by step, pushed the boundaries of what is possible in the realms of literature.


The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 2: 1956-1963, edited by Karen V Kukil and Peter K Steinberg

It’s worth persevering

Unassailable are the 14 letters Plath sent to his psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher in the last six months of his life, from 1962 to 1963, which were discovered in 2017 (having previously been private property). They were published in 2018 under the title The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 2: 1956-1963, edited by Karen V Kukil and Peter K Steinberg. In these dispatches, Plath is insightful about life as an abandoned mother with young children in a vulnerable situation, and she explains the series of events in clear, self-aware, vivid prose. Plath and Ted Hughes’ daughter, Frieda Hughes, wrote a lovely foreword to this edition that details what it was like to read her mother’s last letters for the first time.


The one you will learn from

Plath wrote the essay America! America! just weeks before she committed suicide at the age of 30. It was first published in Punch, two months after his death, and was later included in the Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams collection. In it, Plath describes his conservative upbringing in the United States in the 1940s and 50s, writing about the devastating conformity that came to stifle his talents. “Maybe I was too weird to begin with,” she wrote, pointing to the inner and outer frameworks of creation that she has worked her entire artistic life to upend. America! America! is for anyone who wants to understand what it’s like to have a restrictive childhood.


The hidden gem

Heather Clark suggests in her biography Red Comet that Plath went to the cinema in London in 1961, saw Ingmar Bergman’s film So Close to Life, scripted by Ulla Isaksson, and was inspired by their portrayal of corporeality and the vulnerability of the different forms. of motherhood. The film shows how close one is to death and life as a mother, which probably activated all of Plath’s literary impulses.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on their honeymoon in Paris.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on their honeymoon in Paris in 1956. Photograph: Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

The radio play Three Women, which she wrote a year later, shortly after the birth of her own son, is inspired by the film and is based on three women’s starkly different perspectives on miscarriage, birth and abandonment of her child. Here the ambivalence of motherhood is violently put into words. But some of the most tender verses in literature are also found in this piece-poem. Plath was clearly influenced by the raw miracle of becoming a mother, as evidenced by the way the mother speaks to her son. She decides he can’t become an exception, because “it’s the exception that interests the devil”. She wants him to be common, to love her, as she loves him. There is also a fascinating alienation from the masculine in this text – masculinity is described as ‘That flat, flat, flatness from which proceed the ideas, the destructions, the Bulldozers, the guillotines, the white chambers of screams’. Three Women is an amazing piece of world literature that deserves to be read much more widely.


The one who will change you

“I believe there are people who think like me, who have thought like me, who will think like me.” The Journals of Sylvia Plath (edited by Karen V Kukil) is a read that changes you. In his diaries, Plath lets his literary register appear in all its breadth, which is not always the case in his fictions of the same period. Diaries give voice to Plath’s authentic self: in them she dares to fail, to be contradictory, and to make room for forbidden thoughts and feelings. She samples life as material – a literary method she would later develop in The Bell Jar and her poetry collection Ariel.


Once you’ve read all the rest

The wonderful short story Mothers is worth reading solely because of the reappearance of Esther from The Bell Jar. She has become a mother and resides in the English countryside where she tries to fit in with the other villagers. To me, it feels like the seed of another novel, a sequel to his first. It’s a bittersweet glimpse of what could have been.

Euphoria by Elin Cullhed, translated by Jennifer Hayashida, is published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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