Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman (1994)

The annoying thing about non-fiction books is that reviewing them needs a lot more energy than fiction – or so I feel. So I’m gonna keep it brief for this one, because I already raved about it earlier: it’s one of my favourite books for this quarter, and I can’t seem to praise it high enough, because it’s so multi-layered that my review will only scratch the surface.

I’m not a big fan of biographies, and this book managed to explain to me why, while guiding me through a “sort of” biography, and a biography of biographers. She tells the story of Sylvia Plath together with the story of all those who have attempted to write this very story (including herself). This is a very subjective book, so people who have no prior knowledge of the poet and the myth around her perhaps need to look elsewhere first. And it reads so easily, that at times it almost felt like a gripping novel, further mixing facts and fiction together in my mind.

Of course, there’s plenty of choice when one wants to read anything about Sylvia Plath’s art, or life. Both seem closely intertwined in her case, so that critics of her art have ended up judging and prying over her life too. Malcolm shows how biography is transgression. We want to know everything about someone’s life just as in a fiction, where all is linear and explainable. But to achieve this, the biographer interprets, chooses to highlight some aspects over others and inevitably gets biased, depending on his/her own background and history.

In Plath case, biographers can’t avoid taking side between mythologized Sylvia (moody, mysterious poet immortalized by her suicide just in the midst of a marital mess) and the very alive (but just as silent) Ted Hughes and his sister who manages Plath estate and has a fierce personality. She herself doesn’t hide that she chose his side over Sylvia’s, mainly because she sees him as the victim: “Like Prometheus, whose ravaged liver was daily reconstituted so it could be daily reravaged, Hughes has had to watch his young self being picked over by biographers, scholars, critics, article writers and newspaper journalists.”

It is a strange book, because she accuses us readers of wanting always more gossips about the dead and the living, and she questions the ethics of biographers right as she judges and pokes around in other people’s lives. She doesn’t save herself from her own demonstration, being ingenuous about how ambiguous and conflicted she is about the enterprise. She means to be provocative and disturbing, and it brilliantly succeeds.

And to be completely ingenuous about it too, authors who have manage to infuriate Michiko Kakutani so much get all my sympathy, even when she might not deserve the whole of it.

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6 thoughts on “Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman (1994)

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