Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
“Literature has more dogs than babies,” Rivka Galchen writes in Little Labors, “and also more abortions.”
Put like that, the observation is startling. And though the babies are definitely out there — Galchen finds them in Beloved, The Millstone, A Personal Matter, The Fifth Child, and Dept. of Speculation for starters — the search seems to leave her (playfully) grasping at straws. Perhaps Frankenstein’s monster is her favorite fictional baby, Galchen cheekily suggests. Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin is the metaphoric firstborn of the fairy tale, and his hijinks are merely sad attempts to gain his surrogate mother’s attention.
From my own bookshelf I’ll add to the list Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a vicious and spry chronicle of her daughter’s first year. Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” features a baby of sorts. (Though one centimeter over is “Hills like White Elephants,” in which there will soon be an abortion.) Trials of parenting, once a child has achieved a certain age, give us highs of tenderness and brushstrokes of true cruelty. See Mrs. Ramsey winding her shawl around a fright-giving pig skull in To the Lighthouse; or Jason’s attempts to corral his mutinous niece in The Sound and the Fury.
And yet between courtship and marriage, or between the searchings of early adulthood and the intrigues of family life, literature seems to draw a two-year blank. A survey of 1,000 novels might produce nuanced portraits of extramarital affairs, or descriptions of all-night benders, but scant answer to the questions: Where do people come from? Under what circumstances are we born?
Why the omission?
Galchen isn’t sure. Thankfully not. Her investigations shoot off from her subject like finely-pointed spokes from a hub. The book’s split-up structure fits her purpose well. On the one hand you can occasionally imagine these short chapters as the immediate and authentic jotting-downs of a new mother reporting from the front. (For instance, Galchen on iPhone videos of her daughter, a.k.a. the puma: “footage of the puma has the unfortunate quality of making it seem as if the puma has passed away and the watcher, me, is condemned to replaying the same scene again and again and again.”) On the other hand, the book’s loose form also gives room to Galchen’s commendable analytical mind. Here, as in her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, she is the type of writer who can show you in an outstretched arm one view of a sphere, then spin her subject in hand, and show you something quite different.
Unifying these chapters is a low-wattage but steadily glowing anxiety: that babies are not a subject of literature because babies are not interesting. To their parents and families in real life, yes, but not in general, not as a surface that will for the writer yield fruitful depths. Before she was a mother herself, Galchen confesses a nose-in-the-air dismissiveness toward a subject so patently and traditionally female. And her aloofness, she admits, didn’t stop at just babies: the authors she liked were all men (including Denis Johnson, whom she mistook for a French woman during an attempt to diversify her reading.) Two people with otherwise equal qualities would differentiate by gender: the man inevitably more magnetic in the pair. As for babies? The way Galchen tells it, you’d think it a prerequisite of youthful intellectualism to fall asleep at the mere mention of the word: God help you if you cared to go into particulars. Or put those particulars into writing.
But Galchen knows that’s not the whole story. Only recently have women begun writing with equal output of men, and with equal education to back them up. Only very recently have writers who are also women and also mothers had any significant spousal or institutional support to continue their work with children at home. Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, whose influence is apparent in passages, manages to write about children’s birthday parties, his wife’s labor, a child’s real-time soiling of a diaper, in a way that makes those moments tremble with cosmic meaning. (Of course in Knausgård everything trembles with cosmic meaning.) Perhaps, though, the subject matter isn’t really the problem. Perhaps the problem is that while you are taking care of a baby you often don’t have time to write about taking care of a baby. Or as Galchen describes life with a newborn:
The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.
And it isn’t just time that’s the problem. Despite the fertile ground that Galchen describes — and which other new parents must certainly feel — it seems remarkably difficult to see past the “dull” label that has been affixed to infant heads. And no wonder, given a literary tradition in which an erection can boast an established history of metaphoric usage, while a menstrual cycle, for instance — with exceptions such as in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love — is a detail that writers habitually leave out with trips to the bathroom and the buzzing of morning alarms.
Galchen, though, breathes decided life into her topic. And her writing is so good that her observations double as arguments for her choice of subject. Take, for example, this passage on a baby’s seemingly metaphysical essence:
We know babies are the only ones among us in alliance with time. They are the only incontestable assessors to power, or, at least, they are immeasurably more well-placed than their elder co-unequals. The way a baby, in a stroller, briefly resembles a fat potentate, for a moment unlovable, has something in it of the premonition. Even as to see a baby raise its chubby hand — to bow down before that random emperor can feel very right.
Or consider this, a comment on a baby’s loss of intrigue with the acquisition of language:
It’s as if babies don’t grow larger but instead smaller, at least in our perception. It’s striking that in the canonical Gospels, we meet Jesus as a baby and as an adult, but as a child and teenager, he is unserviceable.
There are a few places in this book where the writing does make a dangerous shift from brightly analytical to willfully cryptic (e.g., an unnecessarily complex description of a movie poster and its surrounding geography.) But that is rare. In Little Labors Galchen is recognizably the writer of the masterful short story, “The Lost Order.” Language like “random emperor” and “unserviceable” are the brilliant norm.
In interviews, Galchen has cited Sei Shōnagon’s 11th-century The Pillow Book as an influence for her work’s fragmented and miscellanea-driven structure. Shōnagon’s text gets room here, in summary form, if not thanks to what it offers on motherhood than as good evidence for the artistic worth of daily domestic life. (If an empresses’s court indeed counts as daily domestic life.) But Little Labors might be too tightly wrought, too self-conscious to really call back the flowing, pure diary feel of that book. Observations here more frequently have the ring of Susan Sontag or William Vollmann than dashed-off notes-to-self. And even the vivid glimpses of quotidian life with a child — the comments provoked by a trendy orange snowsuit, the comical tribulations involved in obtaining a passport photo for an infant, a child’s eerily suspicious fall among playmates — give the cumulative effect of toes cautiously dipped into water. Does this count as literature? the book seems to be asking itself. And this?
The result is that this quietly revolutionary little book is extremely difficult to qualify. I found myself thinking of it as a metanarrative on the genre of parenting novels: a genre, in other words, that does not yet fully exist. That is not Galchen’s fault; nor does it detract from the book. The way she writes, you feel she is onto something, as if she were peering down a long pathway of New Yorker issues to a literature ahead.
Little Labors ends as inconspicuously as it began. The child’s grandmother totes her to a senior dinner at their synagogue, where the child charms the crowd, “carrying her winter pants here and there, offering them to diners, rescinding the offer.” Couldn’t you charge $1,000 a day to bring a baby to a nursing home? the grandmother jokes afterwards. Couldn’t a family charge 20 bucks an hour to babysitters, adds the father, for the privilege of being with the baby? “Everything they said was true,” Galchen concludes, “and yet also, we know, not the case.”
Given what’s come before, it’s nearly impossible not to read this final note as a mordant analogy to the ambivalent place that the baby occupies in literature at large. After all, if novels are investigations into the workings of human existence — shouldn’t a baby, and a baby’s arrival, provide a useful key? Isn’t a baby a good place to start? In life, in literature, to borrow Galchen’s phrase, a baby should be a goldmine. And yet we know it is not the case.
Ravensbrück concentration camp was built on a plain about 50 miles north of Berlin, in a wooded area near a lake. The largest concentration camp for women on German soil, Ravensbrück was a source of wartime slave labor for Siemens, and the site of some particularly cruel Nazi medical experiments. About 150,000 people, from over 30 countries, were registered as having passed through the camp. Tens of thousands perished within.
Today the memorial that occupies the site combines leafy serenity with an assortment of memorial fixtures: sculptures; stelae; refurbished buildings containing artifacts. But the memorial’s most arresting feature may be the grounds of the former main camp, which remain empty but for the foundations of the barracks, which have been excavated but recovered with cinders, preserving their floor plan in surface relief. The original plan, as envisioned by the architects who designed that portion of the memorial, was to have the excavation conducted by volunteers, gradually over decades, with the cinders coming from a large slag heap that would be visible to visitors. The intention, according to one commentator, was that the continual application of cinders from the heap would “layer” the “present over the past, encouraging us to reflect on the conundrum that this past cannot be brought to light without applying an arguably subjective language of representation.”
With Angel of Oblivion, Maja Haderlap achieves something very similar. The present described by the novel’s nameless first-person narrator is that of a girl growing up in the Slovenian minority community in the Austrian province of Carinthia in the late-1960s or early-1970s. Her subjective experiences — initially, the vivid sensory impressions of childhood, and later the ambivalent observations of a young adult — provide the story’s premise, and its structure, its texture. But beneath this surface layer, as far as the eye can see, lies the war with all of its various forms of devastation, trauma, and loss. And by the story’s end, Haderlap has succeeded in bringing into sharp relief some powerful truths about the war’s continued grip on those who survived it, and its impact, even decades later, upon their descendants. “The war is a devious fisher of men,” says her narrator. “It has cast out its net for the adults and traps them with its fragments of death, its debris of memory. Just one careless act, one brief moment of inattention, and it pulls in its net.”
Angel of Oblivion’s first word, and the most prominent character of its early chapters, is “Grandmother.” The narrator’s grandmother is tough; spirited; opinionated. Her forehead is “as wrinkled as the shingled roof of the grain silo,” and her force of will provides the centripetal force that keeps the family’s farm from chaos. She cooks with authority, tossing around pork schmaltz and scraping mold off of preserves, and “even the eggs smell like earth, smoke and yeasty air.” She believes in God and ghosts equally. Her dishes “can connect the here and now with the hereafter, heal visible and invisible wounds, [but] they can make you ill.” If she suspects a chicken is not laying, she “pounces” on it and jams two fingers in its behind. Grandmother may be the only family member who bothers to pay attention to her granddaughter, our narrator, and the girl follows her around as if Grandmother is a “queen bee” and her granddaughter “her drone.” Grandmother lets her have barley coffee, their little secret. Sometimes they dance together. Grandmother is a survivor of Ravensbrück, and dance, we are told, is one of her survival skills. She leaves food out for the dead, so they will leave her alone.
Grandmother is the family’s keeper of artifacts. She has saved her late husband’s Deutsches Reich Employment Record Book, inside which are recorded the dates of important family events, such as when they acquired the farm. She still has her diary from Ravensbrück, as well as her too-thin winter coat from the camp, which she keeps but does not wear. In her room she has squirreled away extra provisions, just in case.
Grandmother is also the keeper of stories: about how the Nazis killed their neighbors and pursued the Slovenian-speaking partisans into the hills; about the dog-bites and the experiments in the camps; about those who were arrested with her and did not come back; about the humiliation of begging for bits of grain upon her return. Here, she is shown a book about Ravensbrück:
It was this guard, Grandmother says, laying her index finger on the woman’s face, which disappeared beneath it. She was very young and very evil, very depraved. Good Lord, what people won’t do, Grandmother exclaims and spits on the photograph. Then she wipes the pages with her sleeve so they won’t stick together.
Sometimes she spits at the photograph of the SS camp doctor as a substitute for the SS doctors she came across when she was brought into the infirmary. The things these doctors did to the women, čudno, čudno, Grandmother says and, again, means “terrible” when she says “strange.”
She believes that, because of these books, no one will be able to accuse her of making up stories anymore. No one can call me a liar anymore, she says.
“She was saved, yes,” our narrator reminds us, “but whether or not she’s glad she’s alive, that she can’t say.”
The other major storytelling presence in our young narrator’s world is her father, who has also been scarred by the war. Unlike Grandmother, Father did not spend time in a concentration camp, but as a young boy he was tortured by the police, hanged on a tree until he lost consciousness, then taken to the police station and whipped. Turned into a resistance partisan at the tender age of 12, he ran for his life into the mountains, only to be later flushed out by his hunger:
The day our provisions ran out and the commando came, it was up and out, down the mountain, through the German soldiers, over, out, Father recalled. That was some kind of noise. At two in the morning they slid down the mountainside in deep snow, down a chute that was used to send tree trunks into the valley below. The Germans trained searchlights up from Kamnik. It was so bright, every movement was visible. There was shooting in the valley, and all you could see were red and blue streaks. Leaves and branches rained down from the trees and one partisan was lying on the ground yelling help me, help me, Father tells us, but he just ran as if the devil were on his heels…Because in war it’s like being hares in a hunt, only much worse, Father says.
In our narrator’s present day, the war is years in the past, and yet Father is still running for his life: drinking too much cider, crashing his motorcycle, lying down in the snow and refusing to move. He allows his daughter to accompany him into the forest, where he shares with her the celebratory rituals of hunting and shows her how to cross the border illegally from Austria into Slovenia. The forest was his refuge, but its silence always threatens to get the upper hand. The best thing to do when you are afraid in the forest, Father instructs her, is to sing partisan fighting songs.
Like Grandmother, Father is ambivalent about having survived the war. Our narrator’s childhood is punctuated with Father’s drunken threats to kill himself, to go out to the apiary with his rifle and end it all, perhaps taking with him any family members who try to stop him. They wait until he passes out, then pry his fingers from the gun.
At wakes and burials the stories come freely. Father and Grandmother don’t always agree on the details, but their stories merge into each other, forming a thicket of violence and loss. The accumulation of stories overwhelms our narrator:
As I listen, something collapses in my chest, as if a stack of logs were rolling away behind me, into the time before my time, and that time reaches out to grab me and I start to give in out of fascination and fear. It’s got hold of me, I think, now it’s here with me.
Angel of Oblivion is, among other things, a book about the power of stories and storytelling. One aspect of this is its exploration of how stories shape personal identity. We witness this with our narrator, who has been hearing stories about the war, from Grandmother and others, all of her childhood, and by adolescence has come to resent their omnipresence in her life. She harbors conflicting impulses: on one hand, she wants to collect and preserve all the stories, conscious of their importance to her family and their broader community. But she also seeks to distance herself from the past, to be free of the ghosts that haunt Grandmother and Father. She goes to Vienna to get an education and begin a career, but she returns. “The hills of my home region have turned into a trap that reaches for me and snaps shut every summer,” she asserts; “The war invades my internal space.” Later, she reads Grandmother’s diary and is “afraid of being overrun by the past, of being crushed by its weight.” In the end she makes a conscious decision to write about her family’s stories, allowing them to become part of her even if it means that they will change her.
So, too, do stories shape the narrator’s mother, a complicated character who is perhaps unfortunately overshadowed by Grandmother and Father:
When Grandmother was alive, Mother was almost never able to talk about herself. She sat next to those telling stories from the past and was never asked for her own. Her family’s stories were considered insignificant, nothing very bad happened to her mother during the war, it was said, of course she’d had to raise her children alone as a day laborer, but that was nothing unusual. In the Slovenian convent school where Mother completed a one-year home economics course, they drummed into her head that she must only read chaste, pious books and never pick up the works of depraved writers.
The other point about storytelling that Haderlap makes is its importance for community identity, particularly in a minority community, where stories may offer important counter-narratives to those promulgated by the majority community that surrounds them. This is a particularly salient point in the case of the Slovenian-speaking Austrians, a tight-knit minority community that offered the only sustained partisan resistance to the Nazis but has also historically been a target of discrimination by the German-speaking majority:
The memories of the residents of these valleys begin to revolt, they rise up and take over. After the end of Nazism, they still knew their stories, they told each other what they had lived through, they could recognize themselves in another’s suffering. But then the fear sets in that they’d be excluded because of their stories and seen as alien in a country that wanted to hear other stories and dismissed theirs as unimportant. They know their history is not mentioned in Austrian history books, certainly not in Carinthian history books in which the region’s history begins with the end of the First World War, is interrupted and taken up again at the end of the Second World War. Those with stories to tell know this and they have learned to stay quiet.
Along with everything else she accomplishes with this powerful work — a work of historical witness, a Sebaldian descent into the depths of memory, and a brave and innovative hybrid of fiction and memoir — Haderlap (and her English translator) deserve praise for breaking the silence to bring the stories of Slovenian-speaking Austrians to a much broader audience.
I.A man is condemned to a small room in a castle in a land that is not his own. A thousand typewritten pages cover the desk before him. Each of the thousand pages recounts two hundred murders. The man will not be released until he has read every word of every cold-blooded killing, and has made sure that every comma and period is in place.For the average North American, this scenario probably reads like a Kafkan parable, or one of Stanislav Lem’s thought-experiments. In Central America, however (where, the joke goes, “magical realism” is just called “realism”), it might pass for a news item. Indeed, in the cathedral of Guatemala City in 1998, a thousand-page document very much like the one above was presented to the public. It was the work of the church-backed Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (REMHI) project, and it recorded in meticulous detail the Guatemalan Army’s reign of terror during a 30-year Civil War. Two days after its release, Bishop Juan Gerardi, who spearheaded the effort, was found beaten to death in his own garage.Now two of our most talented writers – the Guatemalan-American Francisco Goldman and the Salvadoran Horacio Castellanos Moya – have trained their sights on this singular event. The resulting books are, in many ways, a study in contrasts: one is long where the other is short; one is factual where the other is fictional. Taken together, though, they offer a contour map of Central American politics, a shadowland where the borders between the state and the individual, between the nightmarish and the quotidian, and between narrative and truth threaten to disappear entirely.II.Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed The Bishop? takes a journalistic approach to the slaying of Bishop Gerardi. Through eight years of painstaking reporting, Goldman confirms that Gerardi’s murder was in fact an assassination, and he reconstructs the plot in forensic detail. Unlike Goldman’s three novels, The Art of Political Murder takes a meat-and-potatoes approach to language; the book’s real art lies in its narrative structure. It builds its case in widening circles, implicating layer upon layer of bureaucracy. The cumulative effect is like Rashomon – every time we return to the central murder, we see it from a new angle – except that, with each reiteration, Goldman is bringing us closer to the truth.He is also, not incidentally, taking us on a tour of Guatemalan history. It turns out that the horrors documented in the REMHI report were not as remote from the metropole as they seem. They were facilitated, like parallel campaigns in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras, by funds and personnel from the U.S. government. We learn here of the United Fruit Company’s machinations in the Kennedy cabinet, and of the double-dealing of later presidents. We learn of the bureaucratic intricacies of Guatemala’s security apparatus, which persisted even after the negotiated peace of 1996. Really, Goldman concludes, the military campaign never ended.In many ways, the legal battle over the Gerardi case turns out to be a proxy war, a struggle for control of the historical record that pits the people of Guatemala against the Army’s powerful officer corps. Goldman’s political sympathies are clear: he stands with the supporters of REMHI; the military men who plot against them are portrayed as soulless killers. But confined to the hothouse of Guatemalan politics, this struggle between good and evil takes on the urgency of a thriller, and the moral grandeur of opera.III.Like Goldman, Horacio Castellanos Moya writes about the REMHI report from first-hand experience; unlike Goldman’s, his experience predates the Gerardi murder. The months he spent editing human rights documents in Guatemala might have made for an interesting memoir, but in Senselessness, Castellanos Moya is apparently after something more. In 140 trenchant pages, he crafts an intimate first-person account of the psychological toll state-sponsored terror exacts on witnesses as well as victims.Like the late Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard (at least in Castellanos Moya’s memorable formulation), the narrator of Senselessness “is a snake. He has rattles. He has poison.” But here Castellanos Moya bends the long Bernhardian prose line to his own purposes. His sentences (in Katharine Silver’s sinuous translation) coil through registers and tenses:Life is marvelous, I exclaimed to myself, about three hours later, marveling at the sight of [a girl]… about whom I knew so little until that moment and who was about to become the object of my attentions but also those of half a dozen indolent beasts drinking beer in the Modelo Cevichería, a kind of food kiosk with a few plastic chairs squeezed onto one side of the small plaza in front of the Conservatory, half a dozen beasts among whom I ought to include myself a bit shamefacedly and who were stupefied and drooling as they stared at the two girls crossing the street in front of the Conservatory and approaching down the sidewalk toward the cevichería. It also registers the uncertainty and insecurity (“a bit shamefacedly”) behind the imperious voice.The narrator’s emotional and syntactical excesses are in constant tension with the novel’s spare architecture: we get a setting scrubbed of identifying markers – it could be any Central American capital – and very few actual characters. In place of any real plot, Castellanos Moya gives us a growing sense that the narrator is losing his mind.The proximate cause of his breakdown is the haunting language of the report he is editing. Phrases from the testimony of the war’s survivors lodge in his mind like burrs, but he is unable to communicate their poetic power to the Guatemalans around him, who appear inured to horror. As he meditates privately on his lines of found poetry – “That is my brother, he’s gone crazy from all the fear he has said“; “For me remembering, it feels like I am living it once more” – his sexual frustration, misanthropy, and paranoia converge and threaten to engulf him. And then, in an unnerving conclusion we come to see that the narrator’s blackest intimations may in fact be evidence of sanity.North of the border, we now tend to confuse literary gravity with literal weight. Our most serious novels are doorstoppers. But Senselessness, like Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star (or, from the 1980s, Humberto Constantini’s The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis), reminds us that the short novel has a heft of its own. It will be interesting to see in the coming years what North American writers can learn from their colleagues south of the border. The region’s recent history may be a kind of charnel-house, but it has forged a generation of writers who synthesize political conviction and aesthetic bravura, on canvases small and large.
Long before its publication, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of the English poet Ted Hughes was being circled by crows. This is fitting, since the crow was one of Hughes’s favorite animals and most recurrent images. In his 1971 collection Crow, written after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the bird-protagonist is questioned at the gates of Hell: “…who is stronger than death?” Crow replies, “me, evidently,” and is allowed to pass. Hughes’s story is so calcified with rumour and controversy that any biographer, even one of Jonathan Bate’s caliber, was doomed to wade through a mire. The monumental book he has given us, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, is at the very least the story of a man who was stronger than death, capable of turning death into startling and important art. Whether his biographer has such strength is a critical question.
Bate certainly spent his time in the mud: almost as soon as The Unauthorized Life hit the shelves, Hughes’s widow publically defamed the book via a solicitor as “inaccurate” and “offensive,” going so far as to comment that “[t]he number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts,” and demanding a public apology for insinuating that on the way to his burial, casket in tow, Hughes’s family stopped for “a good meal.”
But the relationship between Bate and the Hughes estate, controlled almost solely by Hughes’s widow Carol, was not always so strained. As Bate reported to The Guardian last year, Carol Hughes began as an “enthusiastic” supporter of the project, providing the Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar with unprecedented access to the seemingly limitless Hughes archives, held in substantial private collections as well as at Atlanta’s Emory University and the British Library. But after four years of digging, Bate reportedly received a letter from the estate, terminating the offer of an authorized biography with “no reason” given.
Bate determined to go on with the work, and his guess about the reasoning behind the estate’s abrupt renunciation was that his project was becoming too biographical: what had started out as a “literary life” was developing into a more invasive, and potentially damaging, wholesale examination of a man as famous for his promiscuity as he was for his power with a poetic line. In his preface to the biography, perhaps anticipating the storm to come, Bate goes out of his way to keep things civil. He writes that “[t]he cardinal rule” he will apply to the project is that “…the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected.” In other words, the literature, not the life, will be his primary concern.
But even in the short distance it has already traversed by this passage, Bate’s biography has gone a long way toward proving that such a distinction is impossible to maintain. Though Ted Hughes was famously allergic to biographers (who could blame someone who spent so much time protecting his children from the vendetta-mongering paparazzi that haunted him, as the executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate?), Bate summarizes “[t]he argument of this biography” as the assertion “that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency…” “The tragedy of his career,” Bate adds, “is that it took so long for his elegiac voice to be unlocked.”
By the elegiac, Bate means the confessional. The argument here is that Hughes’s greatest poems were written when he allowed his biography to fully penetrate his art. The explicitly autobiographical collection Birthday Letters is the iconic example of this style from Hughes’s career, but as his published legacy expands, collections like Capriccio (a series of elegies to the woman for whom he left Plath) and even the much less erotic River take on clear biographical overtones in retrospect.
In his exquisite interview for The Paris Review, Hughes once answered a question about the confessional element in poetry by asserting that “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry.” By this stage in his life, looking back on a volume of output that even the most prolific competitor would find intimidating, Hughes was willing to label it all “confessional,” to guess that an element of biography is what gives all poetry its vitality. Though during the exhausting legal battle surrounding her novel The Bell Jar, Hughes tried to escape ridicule from Plath’s admirers by insisting that hers was the work of “a symbolic artist” — in the open air he felt free to observe that what a true poet always works into symbols are the passions and events of his or her own life.
Why, then, Bate’s insistence on the lifelong tension between Hughes’s “symbolic” and “confessional” sides? None of his readings of Hughes’s poems hinge on this polarity. In fact, the most energized sections of The Unauthorized Life are those that cover the two poets’ life together. In these, Bate is able to intersperse lines from Birthday Letters to illuminate biographical details. His scan of Hughes’s signature poem “The Thought Fox” similarly treats the piece exclusively for its autobiographical significance, barely quoting the poem itself, and giving extensive space to Hughes’s reflective commentary about it. As often as Bate insists that his book is about Hughes’s “work and how it came into being,” he rarely pauses for detailed analysis of that work. Few lines are dissected for their technical elements. It is the story of Hughes’s life, not the content of his poetry, that dominates the narrative.
And as Bate delves again and again into Hughes’s tangled and often abusive sexual relationships — these sections are certainly his most electrifying and detailed — an uncomfortable, though understandable, reason for his lingering insistence that Hughes was “torn between the symbolic and the confessional” presents itself: Bate felt the need to keep things civilized. With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.”
This compulsion blunts Bate’s criticism especially when he describes Hughes’s volatility towards women: the shadow of a living wife and family understandably makes him waiver. In his chapter about Hughes’s infidelity to Plath, he reflects that one of the poet’s “most tasteless lines” falls in his Birthday Letters poem about Assia Wevill, where he describes his mistress as “Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” Yet any serious reader knows that in the Hughes canon, this line is nowhere close to the most tasteless. My personal pick would be the line from his poem “Crow’s First Lesson,” where Crow, asked by God to pronounce the word “love,” instead regurgitates a “woman’s vulva” which drops “over man’s neck” and “tightens.”
In fact, almost any passage from Crow more than equals Bate’s choice for “tastelessness.” We can infer that the problem with this line was not its imagery, but how it showcased Hughes’s potential for vitriol against the women he most loved, some of whom are still living. This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth.
But there were other methods available to him — precedents already set by great biographers. Beyond their shared surname, Jonathan Bate’s work on a poet so frequently compared to John Keats invites comparison between The Unauthorized Life and another heavy-hitter: the Harvard scholar W. Jackson Bate’s 1963 biography John Keats.
A look at the two texts side by side makes for a striking contrast. W.J. Bate’s prose is muscular and unsentimental, and though he captures Keats’s personal struggles with sympathy, his scholarship of the poetry is just as excellent. His work on Keats’s vowel interplay in “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Hyperion” remains groundbreaking, and is conveyed with crisp clarity: The frequency of Keats’s complex assonance, W.J. Bate writes, “far exceeds that in any other major poet,” and is not found anywhere in English poetry except in “poets whom we should assume to have other pressing concerns in mind: Shakespeare…and Milton.” His conclusion is that genius in form and content reinforce each other; an observation that could just as easily apply to Hughes, though Jonathan Bate seldom ventures deep enough into his versification to resurface with such conclusions.
Instead, his commentary keeps a strange distance from mechanical analysis of the lines, though his syntax sometimes gives in to the temptation to mimic the staccato voice of his subject, with strained results: “The words of [Hughes’s] poems — which he obsessively refined, revised, rewrote — are complicated, freighted with meaning, sometimes darkly opaque, sometimes cut like jewels of crystal clarity.” A “jewel of clarity” sounds almost Hughesian, but only almost: converting nouns to verbs was one of the poet’s habitual gestures, but to end lines with an abstracted noun phrase like “crystal clarity” was something he got beyond early in his writing life, knowing that abstractions make weak images.
Still, to hold Bate’s Unauthorized Life of Hughes in your hand is to experience something as hefty and monumental as a good Hughes poem. Hughes’s enormous Collected Poems has been compared to “a hunk of Stonehenge” for both its magical overtones and its sheer physical weight. Bate’s book is undeniably important, just as hefty, and often movingly written. His last passages about Sylvia Plath’s undying importance to Hughes are instantly memorable; his last flourish like poetry itself: “Before him stands yesterday.”
If only every line of it were so good. But Bate was torn between his own rival muses: the personal and the symbolic strains of Hughes’s work, which he pitted against each other in the preface, turn out to be two sides of the same coin, the same monolith viewed from two angles. The intriguing rivalry he suggests between them turns out to be a false one. They were the same stone goddess that ruled all of Hughes’s work. Better to affirm, with the poet himself, that all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say.” That to write is to confess in symbols. That the poetry is the biography. To have tracked this line of thinking directly through Hughes’s work would have made for a true “literary life.” Instead, Bate has given us a life informed by literature, where the most scandalizing moments are diffused by claims that they are important to a deep analysis that never occurs. Yet if what Bate gave us is not what it could have been, it is a riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps the best literary life of Hughes will have to wait until there is no one living left to hurt. In the meantime, the page is printed.