Posts Tagged ‘Diane Middlebrook’

A morbid anniversary: two new books mark the half-century since Sylvia Plath’s suicide

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013
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plath6Gosh, Terry Castle is a brave writer.  And a bracing one.  She is still recovering from the bashing over her Susan Sontag piece of oh, a decade ago, and here she leaps into the fray with a fire-eating piece on the Sylvia Plath morass in this week’s New York Review of Books. The avalanche of letters she’s triggered may never, ever stop.  She begins:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and as one might expect given the sensational details of her short and appalling life, both her US and UK publishers are celebrating the occasion with a kind of vulpine festivity. Faber has just issued an “anniversary” edition of The Bell Jar (1963)—the harrowing autobiographical novel Plath had just published at the time of her death—and has been marketing it, distastefully enough, as “chick lit” avant la lettre. A clutch of new biographies … are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impaling by the tram rail.

Given this opening, it’s not hard to figure out that Terry is not a Plath fan, given the poet’s “shocking necrophilia and refusal of life.”  She claims “Plath’s verse lacks wisdom and humor and the power to console. She invariably scours away anything sane or good-natured.”  I wrote last year (here) about underestimating Plath’s over-the-top sense of the ridiculous – and that her “Daddy” was meant to be dark and above all fun, anticipating Mel Brooks‘s The Producers by five years.

I’m glad April Bernard took up the cry earlier this month in the New York Review of Books:

Plath can cause embarrassment through overstatement—going a little too far is her signature move. (One line from “Elm,” another late poem, that best captures her veer towards overstatement is, “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.”) But if we consider embarrassment as an aesthetic strategy rather than as a mistake, we begin to see how funny Plath often is. I confess I had read and admired Plath for several years before her humor struck me full-force—the first time I heard a now-famous BBC radio recording in which she reads “Daddy” with a discernible wave of laughter in her voice. (And yes, there is also rage, and profound sorrow.) I re-read the poem, and realized for the first time that her exaggerations and preposterous claims, which link the Holocaust with an American middle-class “family romance,” were meant to be an elaborate joke, one in extreme bad taste, right on the edge of kitsch.

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Not a fan.

Terry’s task at hand is two new additions to the Plath library:  Carl Rollysons “diverting, gossipy” American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, which “bounces along, jalopy-like, at a madcap pace. No slack metaphor, shameless cliché, or laughable anachronism can slow the authorial juggernaut.”  Curiously enough, she doesn’t mention that one of Rollyson’s more controversial efforts was a biography of Terry’s own bête noir, Sontag.) Andrew Wilson‘s more judicious work, Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, turns over a few new stones – he even had the partial cooperation of Plath’s so-far-silent lover Richard Sassoon.

Could it all have been different?  Counterfactuals abound. A chance meeting at a party Ted Hughes hadn’t planned on attending, interrupting a serious affair in Paris with Sassoon.  Terry writes:

plath5A striking effect of the chronology is to take away some of the fatal glamour one associates with Hughes. He seems less the craggy, carnal bogeyman of Plath mythology here and more just another contender for Plath’s widely broadcast sexual charms. It all could have gone a different way. “Plath’s feelings for Sassoon were so intense,” Wilson argues, “that, had Richard decided to stay in Paris, it’s highly probable that [Plath] would never have returned to England to marry Hughes. It was his rejection that catapulted Sylvia into Ted’s arms.” Waiting in vain for Sassoon to return to Paris, she wrote to a friend, “If he would come today I would stay here with him.”

And here once again, the fancy that Wilson’s book—a study at once stately and strange—so often elicits: how easily the “life before Ted” might have become the “life without Ted.” Would such a tweak in the course of destiny have meant more years—with or without poems—for Sylvia? Sanity, self-possession, and an escape from the prescribed doom? Or merely some other kind of agony and mental collapse?

She tips her hat to a former colleague: with about fifteen Plath biographies in English to date — “some adversarial in tone, others less so” – then rates Diane Middlebrook’s elegiac Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—A Marriage as “one of the more balanced and sensible.”  She also credits Eavan Boland for her kindly assessment of Plath’s legacy.  But she has limits to her charity.

At times, Terry seems to be judging the person rather than the poet, even blaming Plath for “creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave,” with the suicide of her son a few years ago, after a largely lonely life.  She hints that he lacked a mother’s love.  It is a great misfortune to lose one’s mother so young.  But … didn’t he also have a dad somewhere?

Read all of Terry Castle’s piece here. It’s better than coffee for a jolt.  Really.

Ovid: Middlebrook’s last passion comes to light

Monday, November 26th, 2012
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Mama’s boy.

When the legendary biographer Diane Middlebrook died of cancer in 2007, she left behind an unfinished manuscript about the Roman poet who had been her lifelong passion. Had death not halted her progress, Ovid: A Biography would almost certainly be in print by now.

In her last months, she tried to radically revamp her book into a study of Ovid’s early years, Young Ovid. Finally she had to abandon the project altogether, leaving as her completed legacy Anne Sexton: A Biography (1992), Suits Me: The Double Life of Billie Tipton (1999), and Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, A Marriage (2003).

Her executors, her daughter Leah Middlebrook and literary scholar Nancy K. Miller, are working to publish the completed sections of the book. The first of their efforts has been published in the current edition of Feminist Studies as “20 March, 43 BCE: Ovid is Born.”

Her work cut short.

The piece describes childbirth practices in ancient Rome as well as the role of Ovid’s family – particularly his mother – in his writing and his life.

“Was it in childhood that Ovid’s imagination was captivated by what went on among women sitting together over their spindles and their looms?” Middlebrook asks. “If Ovid’s poetry is original in its treatment of fathers, it is unique in ancient literature in its representation of the social world that women created for themselves within the household, a world largely concealed from the attention of men. Women of all ages and kinds appear and interact with one another in Ovid’s tales, enriching the world of the poem and broadening its emotional and social reach. If an unwelcome man should arrive on the scene, interrupting the women, this world would immediately fold itself up and away out of sight. A male child of less than 7 years, however, might have been a tolerated exception.”

Stanford colleague and friend Terry Castle said of the article (which can be ordered online here), “It’s a lovely memorial to Diane, but also a marvelously interesting essay on Ovid and the nature of childbirth in ancient Rome: a feminist topic if ever there were one.”

(By the by, I just discovered Diane Middlebrook’s 1998 lecture on Ovid online here.)

When your GPS warns that you’re nowhere, you’ve arrived at the Djerassi artists’ colony. It’s all very zen.

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012
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I’ve visited Djerassi Resident Artists colony before – and described it here and here.  This year, however, I had an out-of-town engagement and couldn’t make it to the open house last weekend, so I had to read about it instead in the San Jose Mercury:

When he arrived at the Djerassi Resident Artists colony from Portugal, composer José Pereira Valente – whose home is in a bustling European city center – became enchanted with the fevered courting song of the male crickets outside his studio. “I got into this cricket stuff!” he says, his voice rising with excitement. “So I recorded the crickets. And then I started composing etudes around the crickets.”

Andrew Demirjian, who seeks to upend the linear quality of time in his video installations, settled into the media lab on the 582-acre Djerassi compound, and soon decided that summering in the Santa Cruz Mountains was for the birds. No, really. Since June, when he came to the former cattle ranch from New Jersey, he’s been recording the birds. In keeping with the time-shifting theme of his work, he plans to play back the songs of birds recorded at 5 p.m. one day to the 5 p.m. birds at the same spot the next.

“So they can have a conversation with their former selves,” Demirjian explains.

I didn’t know that the colony, modeled on such famous predecessors as Yaddo, is the oldest and largest one of its kind in the West.  It was founded in 1979 by the renowned chemist, novelist, and playwright Carl Djerassi, the so-called “father of the pill” (I know… I know… it’s a contradiction), and its most recent residences have been dedicated to the memory of his wife, the biographer extraordinaire, Diane Middlebrook.

Worth a visit – but at your peril.  Bruce Newman writes about it accurately in the Mercury:

To get to the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, you must drive to a point likely to make the usually soothing voice of a GPS device nervously warn that you have reached the middle of nowhere. If you come to rocker Neil Young’s gate, you’ve gone too far. As many as 10 artists make this journey for each of seven rotations that begin in spring and end in the fall. No children or spouses are permitted, and there is no TV. The artists who arrive for the next session will miss most of the 2012 London Olympics.

Not much to miss.  I wrote about the Olympics of the spirit here.  Read the rest of the San Jose Mercury article here.

Carl Djerassi at 88: hitting the road – with champagne, too

Saturday, October 1st, 2011
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Not slowing down ... not much, anyway (Photo: Isabella Gregor)

Stanford celebrated its 120th anniversary last Thursday in Paris, at the Hôtel de Talleyrand overlooking the Place de la Concorde.  The 18th century hotel, purchased by the U.S. after the war, was the site of the administration of the Marshall Plan.

Normally, I wouldn’t know or note such an occasion – except that the weekend gala featured champagne (always a topic of interest), but more importantly, it spotlighted noted chemist and writer Carl Djerassi, one of my correspondents.

The man known as “the father of the pill” (isn’t that a contradiction in terms?) participated on a panel, “At the Cutting Edge of Thinking.”  Following that – a champagne tasting from the latest crus of my favorite Veuve Clicquot.  The artist Kristin Eager Killion was scheduled to speak on “What are the links between Art, Sustainability and Champagne?”

Home of the Marshall Plan

That’s to the point:  the evening hosted a reading of Carl’s newest play, Insufficiency – on the subject of (you guessed it) champagne.  Or rather the chemical makeup of champagne and its bubbles, with a few digs along the way at the foibles of academic publishing, academic snobbery, and academic tenure.  A pleasant coincidence for Carl that the subject of his “play in nine scenes” matched the bubbly theme of the event.  (Karol Berger and Laurence Yansouni were slated to be the actors for the reading.)

Carl has been in the news lately, for several other reasons.  Le Monde wrote a lengthy profile last month, opening him with these words:

Sufficiency

“A shoe with a luminous red heel, bright as desire or a flash of wit, holds open the door to the living room in Carl Djerassi’s Vienna apartment. This is not the kind of thing one would expect to find in the home of an internationally renowned chemist, the author of 1,245 articles in scientific journals, and one of the world’s leading experts on steroids, who synthesized the cortisone and progesterone, thus contributing to a crucial invention for women: the contraceptive pill.”

“But Djerassi isn’t a chemist like others. Little known in France, except by his scientific peers, the naturalized American is the incarnation of the cultured man who once was the European ideal from the Renaissance to the twentieth century: scientist, musician and music lover, collector and arts patron, sports enthusiast. Finally he is a writer, the ultimate self-conquest in a workaholic who admitted that ‘the pressure of ambition can be a poison.’ He nevertheless manages, at 87 years old, a cosmopolitan existence between San Francisco, Vienna and London, at a pace that would exhaust many people in their forties.”

Les Lavoisiers (par Jacques-Louis David)

The article explains that Carl has renewed the tradition of Wednesday soirees in his apartment, as Sigmund Freud once did in his own apartment in the Berggasse (now a museum – we wrote about that here).  The controversial theme of one of Carl’s evening discussions: Can literary self-analysis replace psychoanalysis?

The evening was, of course, a pretext to bring in a reading of another of his plays, Foreplay, based on the letters of chemist Gretel Adorno, her husband, philosopher Theodore Adorno, and writer Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis.

Recent events picked up scenes from Carl’s own life:  he attended the same high school as Freud, and also fled the Nazis with his mother, arriving nearly penniless in New York City in 1939.

Kind of a classmate

Foreplay continues an earlier theme, in his play Oxygen, which described the role of women in the history of science through the prickly personality of chemist Madame Lavoisier.

It’s true that Carl is still going strong – when I saw him at the dedication of the Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence last month, he had just arrived back from somewhere in Europe – London, perhaps.  He was using a cane to walk – he assured me that it was the result of a sports injury, not infirmity.

In any case, he’s off next week to the 14th century University of Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest university, for an honorary doctorate, and an encore of his Insufficiency, which he will read with the president of the Humboldt Foundation.  The week after that he heads for the University of Porto, which is celebrating its 100th birthday.  The university is giving Carl an honorary doctorate, and premiering his play, Phallacy, in Portuguese.  It will be just in time for Carl’s 88th, too, on October 29.

 

 

 

Voilà! Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence

Saturday, August 27th, 2011
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Voilà!  The Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence has been launched.  I attended the dedication ceremony this afternoon, way up in  forested hills around LaHonda, Skyline, and Woodside.  (I wrote about the venture earlier, here.)  Got mightily lost, too.

"Above all, radiant" (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Renowned chemist, novelist, and playwright Carl Djerassi, Diane Middlebrook‘s husband, assured the 50 or 60 gathered in the brilliant August day about the “green” nature of the four new domiciles built in memory of the gifted and groundbreaking biographer, who died in 2007.  The Djerassi Resident Artists Program currently hosts about 60 artists a year.  The spare new residences, overlooking the hills, will add a few more.

The 87-year-old Djerassi read a poem written by the person who had been the second oldest resident ever – Janet Lewis, the wife (and by then widow) of legendary Yvor Winters.  She was 90 at the time – two years younger than the composer who holds the record in the program. The poem Carl read,  “Landscape near Bear Gulch Road,” had been written during her residency.

Carl recalled his wife worked only on ambitious projects.  When her cancer diagnosis gave her only months to live, she turned to her personal brand of therapy, he said – that is, “to immerse yourself totally in intellectual work.”  Middlebrook tackled a biography of Ovid,  which, “though unfinished, has been published posthumously in portions as ‘A Roman in his Prime’ in the Norton Critical edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and as ‘Ovid Is Born,’ in Feminist Studies,” according to the program’s website. I had wondered what happened to it.

Until today, I wasn’t aware that Dana Gioia, Diane’s student, had published the author’s only collection of poems, Gin Considered as a Demon, in 1983, when he was editing a series of chapbooks for Elysian Press.  He waved the volume at the gathering.  He also waved the battered paperback of Wallace Stevens‘s poems that he had studied with Diane way back in 1971.

He described Diane Middlebrook as “above all, radiant.”  Such people are rare, he said: “in the warmth, enlightenment, and clarity of their presence we discover ourselves.”

Dana read Stevens’s “Final Soliloquy.”  But Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, read a rapt and haunting poem that Dana had composed at the Djerassi home-in-the-hills, “Becoming a Redwood.”  It concludes:

Something moves nearby. Coyotes hunt
these hills and packs of feral dogs.
But standing here at night accepts all that.

You are your own pale shadow in the quarter moon,
moving more slowly than the crippled stars,
part of the moonlight as the moonlight falls,

Part of the grass that answers the wind,
part of the midnight’s watchfulness that knows
there is no silence but when danger comes.

Diane Middlebrook: “It’s all been delicious. Every minute.”

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010
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Salonnière Diane (Photo: Amanda Lane)

“You felt smarter and more talented and more capable in her presence.”

Such was Kate Moses’s summary of the late biographer Diane Middlebrook’s “genius for friendship” – or at least, that was part of it.

Salonnière Kate read from her “Chocolate Cake for Diane” — featured right now, here, at the online Narrative Magazine — to a roomful of women assembled in her memory last August.  Diane organized several literary salons for women: first in London and San Francisco, and later in New York.  According to Moses, “she admitted without apology that she wouldn’t schedule a salon event in one city while she was in the other because she didn’t want to miss anything.”  The Middlebrook salons continue – a place for women to gather, celebrate their achievements, discuss their work, and network.

In Irv and Marilyn Yalom‘s Palo Alto home tucked away in wooded seclusion off the main streets, one wondered if perhaps the spirit of Diane is contagious.  We were all feeling smarter and more capable in the Bay Area writer’s salon – and boy, there are times we need to.

Kate’s “fertile creative partnership” with Diane flourished as Kate was writing her fictional story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Wintering, while Middlebrook was working on her biographical account, Her Husband. “By sharing all of our research, we made twice as much progress in half the time.”

I wrote Diane Middlebrook’s obituary here.  At the time, I found the most arresting part of Diane’s story to be her absolute determination to finish her biography of Ovid, even in the face of a rare and ultimately deadly liposarcoma.

Diane had been reading and studying Ovid since graduate school, and later taught him and lectured on him.

“‘I am not ready to die,’ she said again and again, her voice brisk and emphatic, that elegant index finger aloft,” Kate recalled.  “From the last days of January 2004, when Diane learned that her tumor had returned with a vengeance, she never took her eyes off Ovid.  Through those surreal years her book was her anchor, as the life of her elegant mind had always been.  She was single-minded in her concentration, hoarding away time from successive chemotherapies and monthly dendritic cell treatments and surgeries and the repetitive struggle to recover from every onslaught her body had to withstand.”

She returned to San Francisco to dazzle the salon with a reading from her Ovid manuscript “and an animated talk on the challenge of writing a biography without primary sources.”

Moses recalled the last visit in London:  “We left the Athenaeum arm in arm, descending into the Tube together and kissing goodbye at Leicester Square, Diane calling ’till December!’ as her train pulled away.”

“Nothing, after that, happened the way any of us had planned or hoped or thought possible.” By September, she could no longer keep down solid food.  The doctors turned to palliative care, and she could no longer continue the book on her own.

Salonnière Kate Moses (Photo: Ramona Pedersen)

“She was so weak and in such constant pain she was sometimes not able to hold a pencil, and her pain medications were disorienting: timed-release doses that periodically submerged her mind like a carnival dunking machine.  But she might, with great concentration and will, be able to talk about Ovid, to dictate the blueprint for her book’s final form, and she wanted to try…”

The experiment involved Kate making digital recordings of Middlebrook’s ideas for the books, interviewing her, teasing out ideas and taking notes, with hopes of assembling the book later.

To that end, “Diane asked her doctor to adjust her medications, so that she would have more control over her thoughts and her ability to articulate them.  This meant, in practice, that she would have to withstand more pain in order to work on Ovid, a price she was willing to pay for as long as she could stand it. … it was downright superhuman most of the time, a heroic and determined effort on her part to stay focused and acute when her body was impatiently tugging her in the other direction.  It was often like watching a great, dignified actor remain in character and deliver his staggering final soliloquy as the theater is being dismantled board by board all around him.”

Eventually, Kate was joined by a few other insiders, including Diane’s daughter Leah Middlebrook, to work as a team to shape the manuscript with the notes, recordings, outlines, and Diane’s help.  “Diane was in noticeable pain, but when [we] would ask if she wanted to stop, Diane would grimace, shaking her head no.  ‘Let’s keep going,’ she’d say.  Eventually, they covered it all.  “‘Good,” Middlebrook said, holding her daughter’s hand.  “Because the rest is unthought.” Kate meant to come back for more sorting out, but that was the last time she was able to speak to Diane, who died a week later.

Listening to Kate read in front of a large picture window glowing with the late-afternoon, late-summer sun, its remarkable how many women (and, for the annual August event, men were invited too) were touched by Diane’s life – enough so that a memorial residence for writers is planned by the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

Salonnière Kate described a more personal goodbye had happened a week earlier, at the hospital, when Kate suddenly felt Diane’s hand on her wrist:

“Every minute has been delicious,” she said dreamily, not knowing if she was truly dreaming or tumbling in the surf of her mind, her focus turned inward. “Every minute with you, Kate,” she said then, holding my gaze, squeezing my wrist.  “It’s all been delicious.  Every minute.  How many relationships can we say that about?”