What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Janet Malcolm on Ted Hughes: Defending the Indefensible?

Ted Hughes, 1978 (Photo by Bill Brandt)

The case for literary criticism as art is easy to make. Simply adduce Janet Malcolm’s brilliant The Silent Woman (1993), a mesmerizing exploration of “the labyrinth of the Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes story,” and rest your case. No further submissions are necessary. The Silent Woman originally appeared in The New Yorker (August 23, 1993). One of my favorite lines in it is “When Bitter Fame appeared, and raised the stakes of the game, I decided to become a player.” Twenty-three years later, Malcolm is back at the table with her " 'A Very Sadistic Man' " (The New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016), a scathing review of Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life. She says of Bate’s book,

Bate’s malice is the glue that holds his incoherent book together—malice directed at other peripheral characters but chiefly directed at its subject. Bate wants to cut Hughes down to size and does so, interestingly, by blowing him up into a kind of extra-large sex maniac.

Malcolm is a staunch defender of Hughes. Her support is based largely on his letters, which she admires immensely. In The Silent Woman, she says, “The letters from Hughes immediately drew me, as if they were the electrically attractive man himself,” and “Reading the letter giving Hughes’s response to the chapters Anne had sent him of her short biography, I felt my identification with its typing swell into a feeling of intense sympathy and affection for the writer.”

In “ ‘A Very Sadistic Man,’ ” she writes,

He emerges from his letters as a man blessed with a brilliant mind and a warm and open nature, who seemed to take a deeper interest in other people’s feelings and wishes than the rest of us are able to do and who never said anything trite or obvious or pious or self-serving. Of course, this is Hughes’s epistolary persona, the persona he created the way novelists create characters. The question of what he was “really” like remains unanswered, as it should. If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self. Biographers, in their pride, think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence. Surely Hughes’s family, if not his shade, deserve better than Bate’s squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life and priggish theories about his psychology.

Is that why we read literary biographies – to see what writers are “really” like? Maybe. The literary biographies I most enjoy explore the relationship between the life and the work. Perhaps the greatest of them is George D. Painter’s Marcel Proust. A recent example is Adam Begley’s excellent Updike. Bate’s book is not that kind of biography. It dishes the dirt. Malcolm rightly dismisses it. But it seems to me her defense of Hughes has at least one hole in it. It fails to adequately explain his destruction of Plath’s last journal, the one she wrote during the months leading up to her suicide when she was composing her great Ariel poems. That action strikes me as seriously self-incriminating. It puts Hughes’s character in issue.

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