In the High Peaks

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Janet Malcolm & Sylvia Plath

Today: My Home Book Tour. (See Friday's post.) I knocked over a pile of CDs in the process, but quickly latched onto the "Grab Me and Read Me Now!" book to get me back to reading books again.

The book is The Gathering Night, the one by Margaret Elphinstone that I purchased for my Scottish Literature challenge. Early this morning, the temperature outdoors a mere 40 degrees F, I snuggled into the couch in front of the gas fire with Elphinstone's tale of Mesolithic Scotland--an era set between the end of the last Ice Age and the advent of the agricultural revolution, sometime between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago. I have much to say about it, but today it suffices to say I'm back in the saddle, as engaged in a book as ever.

Janet Malcolm: As I wrote yesterday, she is an incredibly skilled writer and, if I may say so, a mesmerizingly manipulative journalist. But she is so good at what she does! That's what I admire about her work. She is tough and unyielding, and holds fast to her odd analyses and conclusions, without a care about anybody else. If I had to choose one adjective, I'd call her writing "provocative" with a capital P.

This week I devoured Malcolm's latest article, a very long manifesto in The New Yorker issue of May 3, 2010, entitled "The Iphigeneia of Forest Hills," the true story of a murder trial in Queens that pitted two warring Burkhan Jewish families against each other, and which exposed the injustices of our criminal justice and social welfare systems.

All week, I remembered Malcolm's 1994 book, a combo of biography and literary criticism (sounds dull, but it's HOT), The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. When I read it in 1995, Malcolm's work provoked me to rage on multiple occasions; so much so, that I composed many venomous letters to her in my head.

You see, I grew up in the town where Plath grew up, close to Boston. I attended the same high school she did, the high-school English teacher she wrote about in The Bell Jar was my English teacher, Plath's mother and my mother were members of the same Unitarian Universalist congregation, a close friend of mine from both high school and college wrote a biography of Plath that was picked up by Little, Brown. This friend told me EVERYTHING she uncovered about Hughes & Plath over the course of two years traveling around England. [Little, Brown tried for many years to publish the book, but Hughes threatened to sue if it were. LB attorneys tried for years to negotiate, to no avail, and the book was never published.]

So, I was not a neutral reader on the subject, not by a long shot. But I admired the way Malcolm skewered Plath (ouch!) and Hughes and especially his sister, Olwyn. What a great piece of writing! I had never read a writer who could press so many buttons and do it so well. She wields an uncanny scalpel.

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