In Elisa Gabbert’s new column Mess with a Classic, she revisits canonical works of literature and addresses the anxiety of confronting the art of the past (and the past in general).
When I heard that a previously unpublished Sylvia Plath short story would appear in January 2019, I requested an electronic galley and then let the file sit unopened in my inbox for several weeks. I felt apprehensive, even frightened of it. I love Plath’s poetry, but what if I didn’t like this story? I read The Bell Jar so long ago, when I was fourteen or so, that I couldn’t remember anything about it. But I read The Catcher in the Rye at around the same time, and I remember that book clearly. Had I only meant to read The Bell Jar, and never finished it? Oh God, I thought, what if none of Plath’s fiction is good?
I decided to read The Bell Jar again before addressing the new old short story. The first, striking sentence—already suffused with death—gave me hope: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” By the end of the first paragraph, I was nervous again: “It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.” Then, a hard return and a single-sentence paragraph: “I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.” Plath’s journals and letters are often unintentionally funny in their absurd dramatics—in 1956, after lending some books to a friend who returned them with underlining in pencil, she wrote in her journal, “I was furious, feeling my children had been raped, or beaten, by an alien.” (I actually threw back my head laughing, alone on my couch.) The silliness of calling being executed “the worst thing in the world,” a kind of understatement by overstatement, is rendered sillier by giving it its own paragraph. Oh God, I thought, Sylvia Plath doesn’t understand how paragraphs work.
Having read the whole novel, I can confirm that Sylvia Plath doesn’t understand how paragraphs work. Regardless, The Bell Jar is justifiably a classic. I had feared it would feel adolescent through and through. There are certainly plenty of cringe-y moments—Plath was very of her time, a sheltered WASP—and over and over she uses foreignness as a metaphor, to represent the exotic or dangerous or wrong. Esther Greenwood “collected men with interesting names.” For “interesting,” read not American. When she loses her tan, she looks “yellow as a Chinaman.” I cringe to even type that—it’s unforgivable by today’s standards, reminiscent of Mickey Rooney’s horrifying yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (released the year before Plath turned in her manuscript). But if you can get past that, The Bell Jar shimmers with insight, is very funny, and does those wonderful things that poets’ novels do—it moves unpredictably, with the kind of I’m-not-entirely-sure-what-I’m-doing quality that can make for very good dancing. At one point, a brute of a man forces Esther to tango, despite her protests that she doesn’t know how; he says, “You don’t have to dance. I’ll do the dancing … Pretend you are drowning.” And though the book can feel naive and sheltered, it’s about how women are sheltered, how their lives are so proscribed (or were, at least, in the fifties) that even making a choice is just choosing between different levels of passivity, between being dragged across the dance floor or remaining in your seat. (Later, the woman hater throws Esther into the mud and tries to rape her. “It’s happening,” she thinks. “If I just lie here and do nothing it will happen.”)
The Bell Jar is also not just autobiographical but meta, which may be the defining characteristic of the poet’s novel, a category I’ve been thinking about since reading Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, by the poet and translator Anna Moschovakis, early last year. The Bell Jar, like Eleanor, and like 10:04, the poet and critic Ben Lerner’s second novel, is about someone writing a novel. (Lerner’s begins with a young writer celebrating his massive advance.) Moschovakis said on a podcast that she likes only those novels that are aware they’re made of language. A meta-novel necessarily calls attention to the fact that it’s a written thing, constructed out of words, and not a rubric for something nonlinguistic, the way some novels feel like novelizations of the movies they hope to become. Meta-novels, like poetry, are always reminding you they’re made of language—a line break that creates an ambiguity, a non sequitur, an eye rhyme or even a regular rhyme that halts the way your brain tries to visualize the story and makes you look at words as symbols again. It may be, too, that poets are self-conscious about writing novels, and hide that self-consciousness by highlighting it (one train of self-consciousness may hide another).
My favorite meta-moment in The Bell Jar is in chapter 10, when Esther sits in her mother’s breezeway with a typewriter and endeavors to begin her novel: “From another, distanced mind, I saw myself sitting on the breezeway, surrounded by two white clapboard walls, a mock orange bush and a clump of birches and a box hedge, small as a doll in a doll’s house.” She creates a “heroine” (“My heroine would be myself, only in disguise”), names her Elaine, and makes of Elaine her own doll, as Plath has done with Esther—nested dolls. “Elaine sat on the breezeway in an old yellow nightgown of her mother’s waiting for something to happen,” Esther types. She notes that Elaine has six letters, like Esther—and, of course, like Sylvia, although Plath originally published the novel, because of its potentially hurtful nature, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. My other favorite moment seems almost accidentally meta. Esther goes skiing with her annoying boyfriend Buddy Willard, and she knows she’s not ready to go down the big slope yet, but Buddy insists; “It never occurred to me to say no.” She hasn’t learned how to “zigzag,” so she aims “straight down.” She, as her real-life doppelgänger did, is about to break her leg in two places: “I plummeted down past the zigzaggers, the students, the experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and compromise, into my own past.” This so beautifully encapsulates Plath’s whole life it stabs me in the heart.
By this point I was excited about the short story, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.” And then my expectations were subverted again—it’s disappointing. At the level of the action, there’s not much going on: a girl gets on a train, she meets a woman, the woman is mysterious, the train is mysterious. Eventually we, and Mary, understand that it’s a train toward death, if not literal then metaphorical: the bleak, non-chosen future. At the level of the prose, too, there’s not much going on: a lot of flat descriptions, a lot of ROYGBIV: “She took the seat by the window, slipping out of her red coat first and hanging it on the brass hook next to the windowframe … A lady in a blue jacket, carrying a baby wrapped in a soiled white blanket, paused at Mary’s seat for a minute, but then continued to the back of the car.” Then comes another woman “lurching down the aisle,” “an earth-colored brown satchel in her hand,” “her blue eyes crinkled up in a mass of wrinkles.” The two walk to the dining car and order ginger ale and coffee. The older woman warms her hands with “the cup of steaming brown liquid.” They go back to their seats and the woman buys a bar of chocolate; Mary helps herself to “the flat brown candy.” All these color words do create a fantastical atmosphere, like that of a children’s book (Plath described the story as a “vague symbolic tale”), but it’s boring, and just bad writing. It was written in 1952, ten years before The Bell Jar, while Plath was at Smith, and it reads like an unpublished story that someone wrote in college.
It’s curious to read her journals from the same period in which she wrote the story, in the late fall and early winter of 1952. She exhibits the wild mood swings of the depressive. In one entry she describes a luscious meal in detail (“Swordfish and sour cream broiled … Hollandaise and broccoli. Grape pie and ice cream, rich, warm. And port, sharp, sweet … Good scalding black coffee”); she loved food. She’s so optimistic and impatient for the future that “a lifetime is not long enough.” In the very next entry, she despairs: “If ever I have come close to wanting to commit suicide, it is now.” In mid-November, she’s writing images that reappear in “Mary Ventura”:
I had lost all perspective; I was wandering in a desperate purgatory (with a gray man in a gray boat in a gray river: an apathetic Charon drawing upon a passionless phlegmatic River Styx … and a petulant Christ child bawling on the train …). The orange sun was a flat pasted disc on an [sic] smoky, acrid sky. Hell was the Grand Central subway on Sunday morning.
The next paragraph begins, “Tomorrow I will finish my science, start my creative writing story.” In that story, Mary Ventura, a name Plath borrowed from a real friend, rides a train to hell; outside the air is “thick and smoky” from forest fires: “The train had shot into the somber gray afternoon, and the bleak autumn fields stretched away on either side of the tracks beyond the cinder beds. In the sky hung a flat orange disc that was the sun.” She’s the same writer as in her journals, but the writing is totally different.
I’ve always thought of some writers as“cold” and others as “hot,” my classic examples being Plath versus Anne Sexton, Plath the controlled ice queen and Sexton the sexy, messy one. But it’s only Plath’s poetry that’s chilly; her journals and letters are lusty and overabundant with feeling, with overabundance. (In a funny but mean review of her recently published volume of letters, Jeffrey Meyers describes the “awkward” size and binding of the “massive volume,” just one of two, the second of which will appear “to stupefied readers next fall.”) It’s hard to square Plath’s prose with her poetry, the way it is hard to square her image in photographs—the beaming, teacher’s-pet cuteness—with her deep, resonant voice on those spellbinding BBC recordings, where she sounds absolutely merciless, a dark sorceress. But her icy poetry is still intense, still burns to the touch—“black and glittering,” as she writes in “Burning the Letters,” from Ariel; “My veins glow like trees.” In comparison, “Mary Ventura” feels lifeless, lukewarm.
Over dinner the night I read the story, I told my husband regretfully that I hadn’t liked it. He reminded me of The Original of Laura, the unfinished work that Nabokov wanted destroyed but that his son published anyway. Dmitri Nabokov claimed that his father appeared to him as an apparition and “said, with an ironic grin, ‘You’re stuck in a right old mess—just go ahead and publish!’ ” The “manuscript” was actually a stack of 138 handwritten index cards, so they subtitled it A Novel in Fragments. Nobody liked it. In a review for the Guardian, Martin Amis wrote, “Writers lead a double life. And they die doubly, too. This is modern literature’s dirty little secret. Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” In the Wall Street Journal, Alexander Theroux wrote, “It is a pity that [Nabokov’s] instructions were ignored and the novel survived in such a form. English professors may assign The Original of Laura to their students someday, but it is really better suited to a college ethics class.” One thinks, of course, of the hated Go Tell a Watchman, too. I saw an article about a couple who had named their child Atticus and were considering changing it, although he was five or six.
I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds of the ethics of posthumous publishing here—most of Plath’s work was published after her death. (I’m not sure what should happen to our desires after we die. I’d like my corpse to be plundered for organ donations and the rest of it cremated, but if I die before my mother and she wants me buried, fine—grant her that measure of happiness.) In the introduction to Plath’s Collected Poems, Ted Hughes notes that toward the end of her life, she was in the habit of saving and dating her drafts:
I have resisted the temptation to reproduce the drafts of these last poems in variorum completeness. These drafts are arguably an important part of Sylvia Plath’s complete works. Some of the handwritten pages are aswarm with startling, beautiful phrases and lines, crowding all over the place, many of them in no way less remarkable than the ones she eventually picked out to make her final poem. But printing them all would have made a huge volume.
We now have huge volumes of Plath’s life output, both what was intended for publication and what was not. I don’t mind that it exists, but I don’t want to read it, not all of it. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is over seven hundred pages, including a twenty-five-page index, an index that renders it useful, accessible. I would never read the book from cover to cover, but I love to dip into the index and scan for compelling entries, of which there are many. What did Plath think of tarot cards, tattooing, Elizabeth Taylor (which one, the writer or the actress?), Dylan Thomas, To Catch a Thief (“Motion picture”), Leo Tolstoy, the Eiffel Tower, Harry Truman? Thanks to this index I can read everything she wrote in her journals about her father, about her mother, about Jane Baltzell, later Jane Baltzell Kopp—an old classmate of Plath’s when she was at Cambridge on a Fulbright. She’s the one who wrote in Plath’s books so enragingly, and she’s “the blond one” at the fateful party where Plath gets “very very beautifully drunk” and meets Hughes and bites him on the cheek. I can read everything she wrote about the real Mary Ventura: “I knew I would never have a friend quite like her … I love Mary … Mary is me.”
There are eight citations for Marianne Moore, but just one for Marilyn Monroe. I don’t know what Plath thought of Moore yet. (In his review of the letters, Meyers writes that Plath went from “hero-worshipping” “almost every published author” in college, calling Auden “the perfect poet,” to “trashing the competition” while at Cambridge, including “her hated and more successful rival” Adrienne Rich—I guess this is supposed to reflect badly on her, but it sounds like every poet I know.) But I read the one entry on Monroe, who, in October 1959, came to Plath “in a dream, as a kind of fairy godmother”: “I spoke, almost in tears, of how much she and Arthur Miller meant to us, although they could, of course, not know us at all. She gave me an expert manicure … She invited me to visit her during the Christmas holidays, promising a new, flowering life.” Monroe killed herself, overdosing on barbiturates, in August 1962, while Plath was finishing The Bell Jar. That Plath felt connected to Marilyn Monroe—as I’m sure Monroe would have felt connected to Plath, if she’d had a chance to read her—has magic. This dream sparkles, like Pinocchio’s blue fairy godmother, floating in through the window. This is the magic that’s missing from “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.”
I don’t read Plath’s journals in full because I don’t want to exhaust these discoveries—a protective gesture. I’m saving something of her for myself, but also from myself.
Elisa Gabbert, a poet and essayist, is the author, most recently, of The Word Pretty (Black Ocean).