Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sylvia — lifting a bell jar

It's been nigh on a month that I hosted a breakfast salon at the 15th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, in which we discussed Sylvia Plath and her work, and The Bell Jar in particular.

It was an intimate group of people with very different relationships to Plath — from the gentleman with a mental illness who had a broad interest in how authors addressed depression et cetera in their writing, to the woman who'd been a fan of Plath throughout the 1950s and onwards, collecting a file folder of newspaper clippings about her and corresponding with Sylvia's mother after her death.

I'd spent a couple months refamiliarizing myself with The Bell Jar and sifting my way through her published Journals and other related work. (I've quoted this bit before, but:)

Life was not to be sitting in hot amorphic leisure in my backyard idly writing or not-writing, as the spirit moved me. It was, instead, running madly, in a crowded schedule, in a squirrel cage of busy people. Working, living, dancing, dreaming, talking, kissing — singing, laughing, learning. The responsibility, the awful responsibility of managing (profitably) 12 hours a day for 10 weeks is rather overwhelming when there is nothing, noone, to insert an exact routine into the large unfenced acres of time — which it is so easy to let drift by in soporific idling and luxurious relaxing. It is like lifting a bell jar off a securely clockwork-like functioning community, and seeing all the little busy people stop, gasp, blow up and float in the inrush, (or rather outrush,) of the rarified scheduled atmosphere — poor little frightened people, flailing impotent arms in the aimless air. That's what it feels like: getting shed of a routine. Even though one had rebelled terribly against it, even then, one feels uncomfortable when jounced out of the repetitive rut. And so with me.

— from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. July 11, Wellesley & Cape Cod, Massachusetts (summer 1952);
Journal July 1950 – July 1953.

Unsurprisingly, on closer inspection The Bell Jar turns out to be much more complicated than the easy, breezy voice of Esther Greenwood might lead you to believe. I mean, even the symbol of the bell jar — stifling, yet protective. Esther/Sylvia reveals mixed feelings toward almost every situation she finds herself in.

Why are mopey teenage girls drawn to Sylvia Plath?
I came to Sylvia Plath relatively late in life. And I'm glad that I did. I can't imagine myself as a teenage properly appreciating something like this:

Once when I visited Buddy I found Mrs Willard braiding a rug out of strips of wool from Mr Willards's old suits. She's spent weeks on that rug, and I had admired the tweedy browns and greens and blues patterning the braid, but after Mrs Willard was through, instead of hanging the rug on the wall the way I would have done, she put it down in place of her kitchen mat, and in a few days it was soiled and dull and indistinguishable from and mat you could buy for under a dollar in the Five and Ten.

And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs Willard's kitchen mat.

So what do teenage girls get out of this? A warning? A prophecy? Sylvia was near 30 when she wrote this — with two small children and a troubled marriage (and I put forward that the maturity or experience level of a 30-year-old woman circa 1960 is near that of today's 40-year-old).

It's been said there's essentially no such thing as an innocent reading of The Bell Jar. Everyone knows it to be quasi-autobiographical, and everyone knows the tragic end Sylvia came to. She killed herself mere weeks after the novel was published.

The romance of the doom and gloom is the attraction to younger readers, I think; the material takes on significance secondarily.

Prose that transports
One salon attendee was particularly taken with one excerpt I'd selected:

I knew I should be grateful to Mrs Guinea, only I couldn't feel a thing. If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn't have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street cafĂ© in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

"In one sentence she takes you around the world," she said. Unleashed and recaptured, brought still under that bell jar.

Let us not forget that, despite the grim subject matter, The Bell Jar is poetic and funny.

I'm struck by the Sylvia's expressed desire, and it recurs in her Journals, to write fiction, that she found writing fiction harder than writing poetry, because poetry at least had rigid structure to fall back on. Poetry is its own kind of bell jar, I think.

Further reading
A few of the articles et cetera I've been perusing these last few months...

On Sylvia Plath, by Elizabeth Hardwick. New York Review of Books, May 23, 2013.
For all the drama of her biography, there is a peculiar remoteness about Sylvia Plath. A destiny of such violent self-definition does not always bring the real person nearer; it tends, rather, to invite iconography, to freeze our assumptions and responses.

Sylvia Plath's Joy, by Dan Chiasson. The New Yorker, Feb 12, 2013.
The feeling that "Ariel" is a discovery, a revelation, has never really faded.

There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath, The Atlantic, Feb 11, 2013.

"Daddy" Is Mommy, by Katie Roiphe. Slate, Feb 11, 2013.
Feminist critics have always had a soft spot for women driven to madness or suicidal despair by the patriarchy, but the story of Plath’s mental illness resists the simplicity of that or any explanation.

Sylvia Plath: reflections on her legacy. The Guardian, Feb 8, 2013.
"The Bell Jar was a call to action because it is a diary of despair." — Jeanette Winterson.

Sylvia Plath’s secrets are hidden in plain sight, by Jane Shilling. The Telegraph, Feb 2, 2013.
Of course, Plath is not unique in having acquired a dense carapace of romantic myth after her death. The history of literature is littered with wayward geniuses whose talent was prematurely cut off. Yet something sets Plath apart from the melancholy roll-call of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Brooke, Rimbaud, Radiguet, Woolf, Sexton, and latterly the young playwright Sarah Kane. However powerful the myths of their deaths, these writers are still known mainly by their works. In Plath’s case, her writing began, soon after her death, to be relegated to a supporting role in a seductive, but intensely misleading, narrative of victimhood.

Don't judge The Bell Jar by its cover, by Sam Jordison. The Guardian, Feb 1, 2013.
I even quite like the idea of someone mistaking the book for a sexy summer beach read and falling headlong into Esther Greenwood's cruel world.

Out of the ash, Sylvia Plath's legend rises anew, by Emma Garman. Salon, Jan 27, 2013.
What no one can dispute, though, is that Plath would be thrilled to witness the intricacies of her life still drawing fascination 50 years on: More than anything else, she longed to be famous, immortal, celebrated.

Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar still haunts me, by Kirsty Grocott. The Guardian, Jan 11, 2013.
The Bell Jar is so carefully constructed and considered. Despite the messy tangle of subject matter, Plath never rambles; and for all it's flowery and poetic language there is not an unconsidered word in the entire book.

Sylvia, a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, 2003.

Lady Lazarus, a film by Sandra Lahire, 1991.

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