The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath by Sylvia Plath

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath by Sylvia Plath

“So it all moves in a pageant towards the ending, it’s own ending. Everywhere, imperceptibly or otherwise, things are passing, ending, going. And there will be other summers, other band concerts, but never this one, never again, never as now. Next year I will not be the self of this year now. And that is why I laugh at the transient, the ephemeral; laugh, while clutching, holding, tenderly, like a fool his toy, cracked glass, water through fingers. For all the writing, for all the invention of engines to express & convey & capture life, it is the living of it that is the gimmick. It goes by, and whatevere dream you use to dope up the pains and hurts, it goes. Delude yourself about printed islands of permanence. You’ve only got so long to live. You’re getting your dream. Things are working, blind forces, no personal spiritual beneficent ones except your own intelligence and the good will of a few other fools and fellow humans. So hit it while it’s hot.”

Jesus. My college diaries don’t sound like that, let me tell you. But of course, Sylvia Plath has always operated on another level entirely, and her journals prove nothing else, it’s that Plath was in a category by herself.

The newly-unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath are a fascinating and intimate look into her life and her mind – and at the same time, the reader is kept mostly at arm’s length. For every page where we see Plath grappling with her depression, or her anxieties about writing, or her complex relationship with Ted Hughes, we have to wade through hundreds of pages that are nothing but Plath describing who she spent the afternoon with and what they wore and what the room looked like (As a writing exercise, she would record everyone’s outfits and physical details of the places she visited – I’m sure it helped her as a writer, but for a reader, it’s a maddening slog). And even though this book contains hundreds of pages’ worth of journal entries that were previously kept out of the public eye (thanks, Ted), this is far from a no-holds-barred tell-all. Many of Plath’s journals have been destroyed, and Plath went through long periods where she didn’t do any diary-keeping at all. So we get to read her college journals up until July 1953, and then there’s nothing until 1955 – so anyone going into this book expecting raw, emotional entries written after Plath’s suicide attempt in August 1953, and her last year at Smith following her hospitalization, will be disappointed. (I freely admit that I’m one of these ghouls – the first time I read The Diary of Anne Frank in elementary school, I was genuinely disappointed that the final entry wasn’t written as the Gestapo were raiding the attic)

At over seven hundred pages, this book requires a lot of commitment. Even die-hard Plath fans will find themselves struggling to stay invested – the downside of reading real diaries is that there’s never anything resembling a plot to keep the reader interested, unless that plot is “we’re hiding from the Nazis” or something like that. But if you stick with it, there’s a lot to discover. I identified very strongly with the college entries, because it’s a lot of “what am I supposed to do with my life/am I actually talented/when am I going to get a boyfriend” that will be very, very familiar to anyone who remembers that period of their lives. Plath also writes frankly about what it’s really like to make a living as a writer – once she and Ted are married, they’re both constantly sending stories to magazines, working on their books, and applying for writing fellowships. Plath is always reminding herself to write more in her entries, setting goals for herself like “write for two hours every day” or “finish ten poems and send them to publishers.” It’s a very realistic depiction of what it actually means to be a writer.

The most interesting part, for many people, will be after Plath marries Ted Hughes. I didn’t know much about their married life, aside from the fact that Ted was responsible for fucking up a lot of Plath’s poetry collections after her death, and the way Plath writes about their marriage is really interesting. She fucking adored Hughes, and she seemed to really love her role as a housewife – she’s always baking cakes and throwing dinner parties, and at times it seems like she enjoyed being an author’s wife more than being an author herself. She believed that Ted was the real talent, and seemed very happy to play second fiddle to him (so it’s a delightful irony that Plath is now the more famous name, while Ted Hughes is known primarily as “Sylvia Plath’s jealous husband”). As I said earlier, their relationship was complex. Plath freely acknowledges in her diaries that Ted is a surrogate father figure for her, and there’s a section where she realizes Ted is cheating on her and is devastated.

Throughout the book, you can see Plath struggling with her own personal demons, and trying to push back at the depression and anxiety that eventually killed her. In a way, I appreciated how long this volume is, because it allows you to see that Sylvia Plath was more than just a writer who killed herself. She had good days and bad days, she was complicated, she was happy and sad and scared and angry, and she was alive.

“I must reject the grovelling image of the fearful beast in myself, which is an elaborate escape image, and face, force, days into line. I have an inner fight that won’t be conquered by a motto or one night’s resolution. My demon of negation will tempt me day by day, and I’ll fight it, as something other than my essential self, which I am fighting to save: each day will have something to recommend it…Minute by minute to fight upward. Out from under that black cloud which would annihilate my whole being with its demand for perfection and measure, not of what I am, but of what I am not. I am what I am, and have written, lived, and travelled: I have been worth what I have won, but must work to be worth more. I shall not be more by wishful thinking.”

Verdict: three out of five stars

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