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Your Story, My Story
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B : engaging and rich, and inevitably problematic, presentation of the Sylvia Plath-Ted Hughes story
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Your Story, My Story is the story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath -- narrated in this novel by Connie Palmen by Hughes himself.
It is not so much apologia -- though a strong strain of self-justification (as much to himself as to the reader) runs through it -- as (very lyrical) prose-report of their life together.
In an author's note Palmen explains that she: "drew primarily on the eighty-eight poems in Birthday Letters", but the book is closely researched well beyond that: Palmen sticks to what actually happened -- albeit reflected entirely through and interpreted by Hughes, as she sees him.
The Babylonian industry that grew up around my deified wife converted my secluded secret world into a village square, one with me standing pilloried at its center, naked and on show for a peanut-crunching, sensation hungry public.Hughes enjoyed early success as a poet, but from early on Palmen presents him as uncomfortable with being in any way a public figure:
Meanwhile my fame spread like a vine, tied me up like a snake in its greedy tentacles, elusive, mysterious; an uncontrollable, unprunable process of parasitism and appropriation. It was out of my hands, and I didn't realize right away how it was slowly suffocating me.Though Plath also enjoys some success, she is also presented as more desperate for public approbation, and Hughes' so easy-seeming success, compared to her struggles, weighs on her. Hughes, meanwhile, is presented as being leery of being any sort of public figure, even from before the days when notoriety became part of that package -- though given that he's writing from decades after notoriety became the dominant feature of his public renown, one has to wonder how much his attitude has been colored by experience. (Palmen has him whinge some about how unfair it all is, but doesn't have him wonder much about whether his suspicion and dislike of 'fame' isn't really more about the specific kind of fame he found himself encumbered with after separating from Plath, and then after her death.)
While, like the actual Hughes, Palmen has him remain publicly more or less silent on the subject until this point, she also has him following public reaction closely all this time -- "by then I had read one mendacious biography after another, seen my wife's martyrdom grow to iconic proportions, and found myself accused in the hagiographies of being the murderer of a genius". Palmen has him turn the other cheek, so to speak, knowing: "that nothing I said about my life with her would be believed" -- yet thus leaving the rather open question of why he is, for all intents and purposes, speaking now -- and why he kept such close tabs on what everyone else was saying all these years.
Your Story, My Story recounts the passionate, head-over-heels falling in love of the two young poets, and the stations of their relatively short life together. Palmen covers this quite well, including their travels -- to the United States, too -- and their devotion to their art. Hughes' focus here remains, however on Plath; his affair with Assia Wevill comes very suddenly, and even when he chooses Assia, the narrative still focuses on Plath. As to his post-Plath life, there's quite a bit of griping about how her legacy and fate affected him, but only the barest outline of what went on in his life; Assia's own head-in-the-oven suicide -- together with the child she'd had with Hughes -- gets what amounts to little more than a short nod, shockingly quickly dealt with: if Palmen wanted to present an introspective Hughes, then having him wonder a bit more how it came to this (and what his role in it might have been) would have been the least one could expect. (To lose one wife this way is tragic, to lose two surely suggests that something more problematic is going on here.)
While recognizing Plath's talent, Hughes see it as an entirely different one than his own; she is not a poet in the same sense he is (in his mind). Early on he already cuts to the heart of the matter as he sees it:
She had no imagination. She had paid with a personal experience for every image, symbol, and carefully unearthed metaphor -- always aided by the indispensable Roget's Thesaurus.As a consequence, too:
Writer's so closely connected to autobiography narrow their work to an individual fate, missing the universal and the sacred, the world where everything is connected from the beginning of time. They also miss literature, in which our forebears narratively shaped what it means for humans to live.For Hughes (and Palmen), Plath's art and life were determined by her biographical burdens -- notably the death of her father when she was a child. For him, her fate was pre-determined, the sole question being what she might accomplish until then. Attracted to her fiery character, he also sees it as too much for her -- a burden she perhaps did not even really want and certainly couldn't sustain. So also, for example, at one point:
Her subsequent poetry about her stay in hospital was what first made me realize her longing for death was not just the siren call of a dead father for whom she had to sacrifice her life, but was also a much more banal, regressive longing for a life without husband and child, without cares and responsibilities, and without the pressure to become famous.(Meanwhile, Hughes, who never felt pressure to achieve fame, can't help but do so -- even as he complains about what a burden it is .....)
The different approaches to poetry also mark their separation, Plath letting: "the pain of love's loss course through her pen" in two striking poems she confronts him with after it become clear that he has fallen for Wevill -- and yet his reaction:
Now that she had found her voice, and I needed to liberate mine from this form of worship, we were drifting apart. She wanted to go to the beloved father, and I wanted to return to reality, to nature, to my nature. Until the day she died, I believed that our estrangement was temporary, that -- reborn, sadder, and wiser -- we would find each other again.Even after the separation, they are in frequent contact, not least because of the children. Hughes is pleased to be able to continue to be a presence in her life -- helping her find a place to live in London for example. But as to her more fundamental needs, he remains fairly oblivious to those.
The Hughes of this narrative writes how he is now, so many years later: "trying to fill the void left by her suicide with poetry, carrying out a posthumous dialogue instead of a discussion that's no longer possible" -- by working on Birthday Letters. This account is, of course, neither dialogue nor discussion; it's a monologue. Plath occasionally comes to voice, but there's practically no dialogue -- it's almost invariably single statements that Hughes quotes. He tries to give her the benefit of some doubt, but ultimately his is, for better and worse, a blinkered perspective. (That seems fair enough: Palmen has chosen to have him tell his (side of the) story, and readers should have no reason to expect Plath to get what they might think is 'fair' treatment; certainly part of what interests Palmen is exploring how a man in this position sees and deals with it, regardless of his own fault in it --- though this is certainly also something she could have focused on to an even greater degree than she does.)
Interestingly, too, Your Story, My Story is almost devoid of poetry -- the one time verses are quoted, they are Yeats' -- or even descriptions of their work, even as the work, the writing itself, is so central, in different ways, to their being. Hughes' and Plath's poetry (and prose) remain almost entirely in the background; there's more of a focus on what publication, and the reviews and reception of the work, meant than the works themselves.
Presenting it essentially step by step, Palmen does tell the Hughes-and-Plath story quite well -- helped, of course, by its inherent high drama. Their day-to-day lives are vividly presented, and Palmen does the obsessed-poets act very well. A few of the other relationships do get handled quite well too -- brief mentions of W.S. Merwin and wife Dido, for example, and the complicated relationship with Al Alvarez. Some are underdeveloped -- Plath is presented as very jealous, but Hughes is cagey about just how much reason she has to be, acknowledging some womanizing but keeping mentions of it very casual. One awkward relationship that is presented in greater depth is between Plath and Hughes' sister Olwyn, who do not get along at all -- but after all the clear displays of Olwyn's aversion to Plath, the mention that after her death: "Olwyn managed the literary estate with me" is just slipped in without further explanation; how on earth that could happen is surely worth a bit more discussion or speculation.
A prose narrative, Your Story, My Story drips with poetic expression -- mostly quite effectively, if somewhat overheated (but that helps keep the story going). The excess is often excessive -- "our mood as dark as the blackened wall, her fruit juice stale and musty, my Guinness cheerlessly cold" -- but generally paced well enough that it doesn't get too immediately wearing: it's a fairly short book, and a lot is covered here, briskly and generally quite to the point.
There are some very nice revealing scenes, such as of their life together early on, where:
Everything I wrote was struggle against the impossibility of writing, attempts to preserve something of myself or perhaps to rediscover who I was. When I first heard her sobbing in the next room, I went over to calm and comfort her, but it happened so often I gave up, put in earplugs, and only embraced her in bed at night, when wemade dreary love and tried briefly to mislead death with our passion.The trajectory of the relationship is known from the get-go. At the time, Hughes may not have known exactly what fate held -- and by describing their love as so intense seems to try to get away with the blinded-by-passion excuse -- but Plath is presented from the first as a deeply troubled and difficult character. In Palmen's telling, Hughes presents himself as understanding, adapting as best he can to be supportive, but that only gets him, and her, so far.
The Plath of this novel is certainly more the (controversial) Anne Stevenson-biography, Bitter Fame-Plath than that of the hagiographies Hughes complains about. The Stevenson-biography does get a mention here -- Hughes admitting, too, that: "Stevenson was the first biographer to receive my sister's approval" (though Palmen does not go so far as to acknowledge that he, too, might have influenced the shaping of that particular Plath-portrait). Again, the Olwyn-issue arises: while Palmen only notes Hughes' acknowledging his sister's "approval" of the biography, Stevenson after all had gone so far as to acknowledge in the book: "Ms. Hughes's contributions to the text have made it almost a work of dual authorship". Given how Palmen had been at pains to paint a very strained relationship between Olwyn and Plath, this portrait must be considered, at the very least, as suspect (as indeed it was by many reviewers at the time and since), but Palmen not only elides over this, she seems to base her own portrait of Plath very much on this source-material. (Again: fair enough, given that she is writing as Hughes, and Hughes may well have helped shape that portrait, whether directly or indirectly, through his sister -- but it seems something that should be made clearer to readers.)
Your Story, My Story is certainly a very readable version of a story of extremes that has fascinated many. Palmen's ventriloquism-act comes off quite well -- her Hughes knows how to tell a story, and, even if defensive, doesn't wallow annoyingly in self-pity. Certainly, he doesn't say nearly enough -- especially about his own actions, towards the end of their marriage, and then about much that came later -- and the novel can hardly be said to offer new insights into the well-known story, but it's a solid (if not necessarily reliable) version of what happened.
It still all seems a somewhat odd exercise. If Plath portrait, it calls its credibility into question from the start with its narrator; its wholesale embrace of the Stevenson-Plath and relying entirely on Hughes' perspective make for a version that has to be seen as one-sided. If Hughes portrait, then it falls short in failing to provide almost any sense of Hughes-beyond-Plath. For heaven's sake, his second wife also was an oven-suicide, and that barely even rates more than a casual mention ..... And finally the absence of their work, and even any real close discussion of it, makes for an odd artists-tale, full of both personal and professional passion, but conveying little about what that poetry-passion really resulted in on the page. (Perhaps Palmen assumes readers' familiarity with it -- but even so, it feels missing.)
Your Story, My Story is a solid enough novel, but also almost overwhelmed, in any impact it might have, by its real-life basis, a story so familiar and powerful, and about which many readers have such strong feelings, that it drowns out almost anything Palmen might have to add to it.
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 February 2021
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Dutch author Connie Palmen was born in 1955.
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