BOOK REVIEW / In the biographer's laboratory: 'The Silent Woman' - Janet Malcolm: Picador, 14.99 pounds

TOWARDS the end of The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Janet Malcolm describes the mood in which we habitually read biography as one of 'bovine equanimity'. One thing that can be said about her intensely compelling, intensely uncomfortable book is that she makes damn sure we can't read it in this complacent state of mind.

As a study of the 'afterlife' of Sylvia Plath, it is less a biography than a book about biography. It focuses on the various lives of Plath which have been published since her suicide, and on the fraught relationship between the writers of these lives and the Plath estate, as represented by the poet's estranged husband Ted Hughes and his indefatigable sister Olwyn.

Malcolm remarks perceptively that the circumstances of Plath's death have a lot to do with the legacy of fraught emotions and distrustful allegiances which has been bequeathed not only to her family but to her biographers: a person who kills herself at 30 'in the middle of a messy separation remains forever fixed in the mess'. She describes the world of Plath biography as an ensnaring 'web'. In another extended metaphor, it becomes a poker game played in an oppressively darkened room. The main building blocks of Macolm's narrative are her interviews with the players at the table. But she is also highly aware of her own ambivalent role as a participant in the game.

Malcolm is as calculating as any poker player. What she is gambling with is the reader's sympathy. Will she seduce us with her brilliantly compulsive narrative, or will she be branded, like the biographer Anne Stevenson, as the author of a 'bad' or 'bitchy' book? The answer is probably both, but she goes out of her way to play with our conflicting responses. One of the most fascinating but disconcerting things about her book is the fact that it consciously enacts the very tensions and contradictions it discusses in relation to the ethics of biography.

Near the beginning, when she discourses on biography's dubious morals, we are tempted by her authoritative tone to accept her as the objective voice of reason. Yes, we say, you're quite right. Biography is a nasty nosey-parkerish intrusion into other people's lives. But later, when she visits the home of Anne Stevenson (who was much criticised for supposedly being in cahoots with the 'censoring' Hugheses and presenting a 'negative' image of Plath), we join her snooping round the house, making judgements on her hostess's lasagna, and poking her nose into the dog's bowl. And we are fascinated. We are enthralled. Despite the earlier health warning about invasion of privacy, we read on as Malcolm pushes us further and further into the dubious business of inspecting the most private aspects of Stevenson's personal life.

Malcolm is right, though, when she says that there is a difference between an interview and a biography. The interviewee has at least agreed to the interview, whereas biographical subjects - and, in the case of Ted Hughes, their estranged husbands - are written about whether they want it or not. In the battle between Ted and Olwyn and the biographers, Malcolm has decided to take the Hugheses side. She tries to imagine how it must feel for Hughes to be 'buried alive' each time Plath's remains are disinterred in a new book, and she shrewdly suggests that what he finds most unbearable is being treated as though he too were dead and on the anatomist's table. Yet even here, there is a nagging paradox. For she is doing exactly what Hughes can't stand: 'reading' his mind on a speculative basis.

Significantly, Malcolm never gets to meet Hughes. In a book full of interviews he is conspicuously the Silent Man, though he looms large in her imagination and haunts the narrative like a hulking ghost. People keep telling her about his enormous sex appeal, and Malcolm reports how this affects her response to his letters, which become hugely attractive in her eyes. Drawn by his magnetism, she hangs around sheepishly in the road outside his house like an unrequited lover. If this attitude seems less than dispassionate, Malcolm would argue that it just goes to illustrate her belief in the 'psychological impossibility of not taking sides'. She not only tells us, but shows us, how our sympathies and antipathies - even, or perhaps especially, those of biographers and journalists - boil down in the end not to logic but to prejudice and emotion.

The Silent Woman is a book that sets out to be provocative and succeeds. It is superbly written, flowing like a piece of music from theme to theme, recapitulating here, changing key there, always disguising the complexity of its underlying construction. Malcolm has a particulary intriguing way of using metaphors to help her make connections. But at the end of the day, she leaves her readers feeling uneasy, as if she has somehow implicated them in the mess too.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The 44-year-old insisted there had been “no fallings out” with the other members of the band
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style