lundi 1 août 2011

‘Now the room is a-hiss…’

I have recently been re-reading ‘Lover of Unreason’, the biography of Assia Wevill, who was Ted Hughes’ girlfriend (during and) after his marriage to Sylvia Plath.  Despite my reading everything I have ever been able to get my hands on about Plath and Hughes, until this book was published Assia had always been an enigma, my perception based solely on the cryptic references to her in other tenuously related books and poetry (such as the line from one of Plath’s in this title) – so it was a revelation to be able to look beyond the archetype, and to learn more about the mysterious Assia and her poor little daughter Shura.

It is a tragic tale, but absolutely mesmerising.  Whenever I’ve read it, the thing that has really struck me most is that it is such a gift – possibly one of the greatest – to be really good at something, or at least to feel passionate about one thing.  I believe that if Assia had been great at writing or art or music, she would have been just fine – she would have used her powers for good, rather than for destruction and then finally turned inward on herself.  As it was, she was an intelligent woman who desperately wanted to make her mark at something; she was OK at lots of things – wrote a few mediocre poems, was quite good at painting and moderately musical – but she didn’t have the great talent or the determination to excel at any one of them.  Instead, she wasted her time attaching herself to men who did excel at these things, and complaining about her own shortcomings, laziness and merely ‘decorative intelligence’.

Which is why she became kind of obsessed with Sylvia Plath – who was not only almost-supernaturally talented, but so driven that she made herself (through sheer force of will) the best at everything from dressmaking to cooking to beekeeping.  Sylvia was just as beautiful as Assia, in an entirely different way, but in every other respect they were polar opposites.  ‘I conjured her up’, Sylvia said – in one of my favourite lines of all time – when Assia basically started to steal her life.

It didn’t end well for any of them, as we know.  I have to admit that I find it endlessly fascinating, and the whole thing has been an obsession of mine for nearly twenty years.  It is sadly fitting that Assia is basically a glamorous bit player, while I adore the meaty work of Ted Hughes and think he was one of the most attractive men that ever lived, but the greatest portion of my reverence is reserved for Sylvia Plath.  I know – this is so embarrassingly typical for a certain sort of girl.

Still, I think The Bell Jar is one of the most perfect novels ever written, one of those rare works that genuinely does not have a word out of place.  I devour her poetry and short stories, and was thrilled to see the first stage production of Three Women.  Most importantly for me, whenever I am in need of inspiration and motivation, all I need to do is sit down for an hour with a volume of her journals or her Letters Home, and I am suddenly compelled to work my arse off and aspire to do the greatest things imaginable.

It probably helps that the life Ted and Sylvia briefly carved out for themselves is the life that I want – revolving as it did around writing, Devon, the harmony of perfect domesticity and artistic fulfillment.  These are the most important things in my life, that I am working all the time to make happen, and for a little while they actually managed it.

I have been thinking about this a lot since I turned 30.  I have, since the age of 12, measured my life, my work and myself in Sylvia Plath’s journals.  I am now the same age that she was when she died.  Equally strange, it occasionally occurs to me that, had she lived, she would be the exact same age as my Nan.  It’s a funny feeling that I have never had for any of the other people I’ve greatly admired who died young.

Perhaps it’s because a.) she’s a woman; and b.) my aspirations are in exactly the same realm as hers.  A male musician friend of mine recently made a similar comment about his feelings on turning 28 and, for the first time, being older than Kurt Cobain ever was.

In this case, though – because in so many ways Sylvia always was and always will be light years ahead of me, I think I actually have enough ammunition to last me a lifetime.

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