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Mining for the Nature of 'Truth'in Writing

August 26, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN

On Feb. 11, 1963, poet Sylvia Plath, then 30, put her head in a gas oven and achieved literary immortality.

Poet Ted Hughes, who had left Plath for another woman, soon found himself struggling for his life with his dead wife's biographers.

One after another, they still come, wanting to define Hughes as they examine his years with Plath. But Hughes, England's poet laureate, would really, really, really rather define himself.

Now the New Yorker has turned author Janet Malcolm loose not only on Plath, but on the writers who have attempted to understand her too-short life.

Malcolm's book-length (63,000 words), three-part-in-one-double-issue (Aug. 23 & 30) article is remarkable both for what she discovers about the problematic nature of biography and for how that resonates with events in Malcolm's controversy-rich career.

It's interesting, for instance, that Malcolm should choose this moment to grapple with the nature of "truth" in writing, since in June, a federal court jury found she had libeled psychiatrist Jeffrey Masson, the subject of her previous book and a New Yorker piece she authored.

It's also intriguing that this story appears just as Joe McGinniss' much maligned biography of Ted Kennedy, "The Last Brother," shoves into the literary spotlight the question of how authors depict their subjects. (Remember that Malcolm used McGinniss' book on Green Beret surgeon-turned-murderer Jeffrey MacDonald to springboard into a savagely skeptical look at journalism: "The Journalist and the Murderer.")

Inevitably, readers will be distracted by the external issues raised. For example, does Malcolm's "tenderness" for the attractive, sexually charismatic Hughes (who some simple-minded critics blame for his wife's suicide) have psychological parallels to her soft spot for the suave Dr. MacDonald, who brutally killed his wife and children?

Those and other tantalizing questions, however, would better be left to a book-length study of Malcolm, an intriguing piece of work herself.

"Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman," meanwhile, stands alone as a wondrously intricate, engagingly written, occasionally maddening tour de force.

Following her habit, Malcolm wastes little time rankling the readers who will prove most interested. Much as she once dismissed journalism as "morally indefensible" Malcolm here writes off biography as gossip in tweed.

"The voyeurism and busybody-ism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity," she says.

Malcolm's glibness, however, belies the sincerity of her epistemology.

Hughes, Malcolm says, believed that toward the end of Plath's life, the poet's "real self" had finally conquered her warring "false selves."

"When a real self finds language, and manages to speak, it is surely a dazzling event," he wrote.

But as she looks at Plath's life, Malcolm decides that even autobiography hinges on the fiction "that the person writing and the person being written about are a single seamless entity."

And biography, which biased writers cobble together from the accounts of subjective witnesses and from writings that may or may not reflect the person's true feelings at that moment, is even less likely to arrive at any definitive "truth," she says.

Malcolm's multilayered exploration is most invigorating when she encounters people in whom she sees aspects of herself--when autobiography and biography intersect.

For example, Anne Stevenson, who wrote the controversial Plath biography "Bitter Fame," had been a student with Malcolm at the University of Michigan.

Malcolm identifies with Stevenson who, in turn, identifies with Plath, because both matured in the 1950s, when middle-class teen-agers "subscribed to an amazing code of sexual frustration."

Stevenson's discussion of those times in Plath's life, Malcolm writes, "pulled me back into a period that I still find troubling to recall, precisely because duplicity was so closely woven into its fabric. . . . We were an uneasy, shifty-eyed generation. . . . When Ted Hughes writes about the struggle of Plath's 'true self' to emerge from her false one, he is surely writing about a historical as well as a personal crisis."

Malcolm's portrayal of her characters lends credence to her notion that biography is woefully tricky stuff. For instance, despite her efforts to portray Hughes as a beleaguered hero fighting to save his identity, he comes across as a crybaby bully who should get over himself, already.

That raises one point Malcolm fails to confront. It would seem, after all, that despite her loathing of biography and journalism, they do serve a purpose. They may not pin down Truth, but without those imperfect disciplines, Mohammed Farah Aidid and Mother Teresa remain indistinguishable.

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