Posts Tagged ‘Mel Brooks’

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

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

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.


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.

New FBI files: Was Sylvia Plath’s daddy “pro-Nazi”?

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Before "Daddy": Aurelia and Otto Plath with their daughter Sylvia

I thought not.  But that’s what the Poetry Foundation’s headline says:  “Newly Released FBI Files Corroborate Sylvia Plath’s Characterization of Her Father as Pro-Nazi.”

The files say no such thing – or at least not in the bits and pieces of them that have been described in The Guardian.  One problem with the screaming headline.  The poet’s father Otto Plath died in 1940.  He emigrated from Prussia to the U.S. in 1901, at age 16.  Which means that when he left the Germany, Adolf Hitler was a 12-year-old.  That won’t dissuade an eager reporter:

Scholars of Plath have expressed their astonishment at the newly discovered FBI files, as they were unaware that Otto, a scientist, had even been investigated over alleged “pro-German” sympathies. “My heart literally jumped in my chest,” one of them said.

Of course, “pro-German” is not the same as “pro-Nazi.”  Could it be that the Prussian simply missed the lost land of his childhood, the taste of its native foods and its smells, sights, customs, language?

The files also reveal that he lost a salesman job for not buying Liberty Bonds to aid the war effort, and it is implied that he had a less than wholehearted attitude towards the first world war and America.

Face of the Muse

Whoops!  This was the wrong war.  Could it be that he didn’t want to support the effort against his family and his ancestors in the futile bloodbath known as World War I?

Heather Clark, who is writing a Plath biography, offers a strain of common sense in an article that struggles to make 2 plus 2 equal 7: “She dismisses the suggestion that Otto had Nazi sympathies: ‘He was a pacifist … Maybe [Sylvia] was misremembering, or angry towards him.'”

A pacifist?  That knocks a whole out of the Nazi theory altogether.

If you read between the lines, however, a darker story emerges, and not about Otto:

The FBI files, headed “Pro-German”, recorded that, as an “alien enemy”, Otto lost teaching positions, having graduated from Northwestern College and the University of Washington, Seattle. Later however, he did obtain positions.

In one passage, they noted his “morbid disposition.” In another:

“He has stated … that he will return to Germany after the War, and seems to have assumed a rather pro-German attitude towards [it] on account of losing his positions.” But later they commented he had “a rather indifferent attitude” and mentioned a denial of saying he would go back to Germany after the war.

He also told investigators that his parents came to the US “because of the better conditions” but defended his homeland, saying: “Some things are rotten in Germany, but not all; that the German people and their character is not altogether rotten.”

FBI officers reported “his brooding over the bad luck he is having making a living” due to his nationality and that he felt persecuted.

So apparently he experienced some discrimination for his German heritage.  No wonder he was “brooding.”  We’ve seen a lot of such brooding given the high unemployment numbers today.

Mel Brooks's version in 1968

But Nazi?  This is a horse that won’t run.  It may, however, indicate that he was prone to depression, which may suggest that he did indeed pass on something of a curse to his brilliant daughter.

He was also, of course, posthumously stigmatized by her in “Daddy”:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You –

The critic A. Alvarez recalls that Sylvia Plath described this poem as ‘light verse’:

When she first read me this poem a few days after she wrote it, she called it a piece of ‘light verse’. It obviously isn’t, yet equally obviously it also isn’t the racking personal confession that a mere description or précis of it might make it sound.

Was it Alvarez or someone else who recalled visiting Plath and a friend, rolling on the floor with laughter as they read the acid verse, days after it was written?  Is it at least theoretically possible that she was angry, grief-stricken, abandoned, mortally wounded – but still found momentary release in black, black comedy?  Over-the-top?  Certainly. Offensive?  Undoubtedly.  It was years before Mel Brooks would make the same kind of material in The Producers.  In this, as in everything else, she seemed to be ahead of her time.

Postscript on 8/21:  Peter K. Steinberg wrote to the Book Haven to identify Clarissa Roche as the Plath pal in the paragraph above who was ROTFL.  Thanks!  And over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq., Russ Bowden of Poetry & Poets in Rags made this insightful comment: “Read in light of the Book Haven article, Plath’s poem Daddy seems to make light of and consciously use how her father was mis-characterized, the prejudices against him: Daddy.” Thanks, too!  And Andrew Shields writes to say that the episode reminds him of Franz Kafka reading his story to Max Brod and laughing … about which I know nothing.