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Fixed Star: Sylvia Plath's Novel at 50

Written by Kari Larsen, Community blogger | Feb 6, 2013 8:10 PM

Sometimes, the interactive splendor of writing - talking to people in order to write about them, writing about books the people in my life are writing - overwhelms the pleasure of reading. As it is, I allocate most of my reading time to new writing on the internet. If I don't read the Paris Review Daily and the Beheld in the morning, I am a nightmare. Otherwise, there is so much astonishing contemporary writing being published, I appreciate that it's impossible to keep up with it all - I'm grateful for what parts of the current splash my way.

To wit, rereading has become a guilty pleasure. Nothing provokes an attack of rereading like unassailable stress. When I'm in such a mood as I've been since the New Year, no matter how taken I am with whatever book I'm in the middle of, I'll put it aside and forget about it. I'll reread the Bell Jar until my eyes give, then I'll listen to the audiobook.

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Sylvia Plath's only novel turned 50 in January. To commemorate its British release by Faber and Faber, the publisher drove the internet crazy. Its new cover, featuring a woman applying makeup in a compact mirror, exposes a lot of points worth fighting about: if a great work of literature is packaged as "chick lit," is that diminishing because literature for women is still perceived as a lesser literature? If a book packaged like this is more likely to be purchased in a supermarket, is that still doing wrong by the title? Of all the titles, at least the Bell Jar has enjoyed so many varied cover designs since 1963, a trip to Wonderbook or Cupboard Maker will probably yield the discovery of several copies from which to choose. I admire Shirley Tucker's 1966 edition*, the first for Faber, immensely, and if you can't locate a copy, you can hang a poster of it where it can most disorient visitors.

The 50th anniversary cover debacle has been covered so thoroughly, I forgot all about the new biography of Plath that came out in January. As it happens, three books on Sylvia Plath will be out by the middle of the year!

Carl Rollyson's American Isis: the Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, occasioned by unprecedented access to her archives, came out in January. This week saw the release of Andrew Wilson's Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath's Life Before Ted (and if you, Harrisburg-area resident, want to stop by Barnes & Noble in Camp Hill and order it from them, you'll have to order it for home delivery, but members get free shipping and the book is half-off). According to its description, it's the first biography of Plath to focus exclusively on her young life. The first it may remain, but by April it won't be the only one. Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder is the one I'm looking forward to the most since it deals exclusively with the events of Plath's guest editorship at Mademoiselle.

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Since her creative output has been so important to my development as a writer, I don't like to endorse books about her more than her own books. It just so happens that in addition to the Bell Jar and her Ariel poems, Paul Alexander's 1991 Plath biography, Rough Magic, is one of my favorite books of all time. Throughout the book, Alexander catalogs as comprehensively as Plath did at every turn the minutae of her triumphs and defeats. Every grade, every rejection is logged and made organically part of the narrative. By the time I read Rough Magic, I was familiar with the circumstances of Plath's life. I knew she briefly assumed a teaching post at her alma mater, Smith College, when she and husband Ted Hughes settled for a time in the US, but I didn't know about the New Yorker rejection, for instance, that came amidst seeing old friends. Those specific moments - that juxtaposition of the small with the large - impact her story enormously. Rough Magic is worthy of unabashed admiration as a piece of writing not only because of Alexander's use of such details but because of something Plath's mother recognized in the biographer:

...she was struck by the fact that it was her daughter's work - not her life or, as was often the case with fans, her suicide - that caused me to phone her in the first place.

I hope these new biographies inspire new readers to overlook whatever ridiculous cover the Bell Jar might have in coming years and love it.


* - Tucker discussed her experience designing the Bell Jar for Faber's blog, the Though Fox. About Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, being a Faber author: "So, one was really aware of all that."

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