Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is one of those books that is always on those “Books You Must Read Before You Die” lists along with the bible, War and Peace and something by Orwell. Now, I may just be an uncultured and ignorant pleb, but I had no real idea what it was actually about. I knew it was semi-autobiographical but I’ve never heard a conversation that started: “Remember when [X Y or Z] happened in The Bell Jar? Wasn’t it exciting!?”. I know Jesus rises from the dead and says a bunch of hippy sounding stuff, there’s a war in War and Peace and Orwell talks about dystopian societies…a lot. Those are exciting things. All I know about The Bell Jar is that Plath killed herself a few weeks after it was published. A cynical and hard-hearted person might say that it was foolish to upstage the publication of her own book. Thankfully I don’t know any hard-hearted cynics. The book is notorious by association with Plath’s tragic demise rather than any of the plot is what I’m driving at. At least in my sheltered little world it is.
It must be a closely guarded secret (or my ignorance is more profound than I first imagined) because there isn’t even a blurb on the cover. There are just about 50 words of praise for Plath and a sentence describing who she was and when she published the book. I’m going to risk breaking some kind of secret literary protocol by telling you what the book is about. Esther Greenwood, the protagonist, is a college student. When the story begins she is on an internship at a magazine in New York. The story follows the gradual decline of her mental health and personal relationships. There. I wonder if I’ll be set upon in the night for revealing a well-guarded secret that you definitely cannot get off Wikipedia.
Another strange thing about The Bell Jar’s notoriety is that there aren’t any of those “buy me now!” reviews on the cover. I had to go and consult the oracle in order to find copies with those snippy little reviews on them. Of which there is exactly one, and that isn’t even about the book.
This copy says:
“Sylvia Plath’s attention has the quality of ruthlessness…imagery and rhetoric is disciplined by an unwinking intelligence.” Observer
I do love Plath’s writing. I was afraid that, having been a huge fan of her poetry and short stories since I was about 14, I’d be disappointed by her book because she couldn’t sustain the style I love for a few hundred pages. I wasn’t disappointed at all. What I’ve always loved most are her descriptions and imagery that cut straight to the bone of what she’s getting at. An English teacher of mine once said something to the effect of: “she has this knack of just pinning people with a word or two,” and that’s exactly right. She doesn’t just describe somebody, she fuckin’ eviscerates them. Her writing is extra concentrated too, so it’s just a blast of THIS IS WHAT THIS PERSON WAS LIKE and then you’re moving on with an exact picture of them in your head, even if she’s only used two words. Plath describes somebody at one point as being “mushroomy”, and sums up the whole of his being perfectly with that one word. It’s something she does better than anybody I’ve ever read.
The Bell Jar is a strange and difficult read, because it’s upfront and intimate about the workings of Esther Greenwood's slowly unravelling mind. It feels like an intrusion into this woman’s life. Especially with the knowledge that it’s semi-autobiographical, written by somebody I very much admire. The intimacy is, I think, the biggest “problem” when reading it. Not because I dislike it, but because it has the effect of making the reader feel low as well. I can see it being an enormous comfort to those who identify with what Esther is going through, but it was hard to read having been in a good mood for a few weeks. It’s a personal, idiosyncratic and detailed account that there’s something in there with which everybody can identify. There’s the confusion and self doubt that choosing a career inevitably brings and then the kind of obsessive curiosity about sex you go through before you’ve ever actually had any. The downside to this incredibly personal and identifiable account of a mental breakdown is that you find yourself slipping into memories of your lowest point, whatever it may be. That’s a testament to the power of the writing but it certainly sucked to be dropped into icy depressed mode in the middle of a perfectly lovely day.
The other hard thing about reading this book is that Esther Greenwood seems 100% real. She actually reminded me a lot of my friend Emily, which was weird because Emily is not having a mental breakdown. This familiarity is a product of the intimacy of the reader's relationship with Esther and the obvious fact that a lot of it is autobiographical. It’s a sort of double-whammy heartbreak. You feel awful for Esther and awful because she reminds you of times when you’ve felt as rotten about life as she does. And then an extra whammy when you remember that the pain Path describes so keenly is exactly what she felt before her suicide.
I’m not sure I can say I enjoyed The Bell Jar, but I love it. It's been hard to review it because I can feel myself in this maddening sink of bad mood and it's entirely down to the crappy mindset this sodding book has put me in. It’s gorgeous and touching and heartbreaking, but it’s not something I personally could just pick up and re-read when I felt like it. Possibly when I was feeling shit and wanted somebody to empathise with me, or if I was for some reason too happy and wanted to feel bad I’d pick it up. Otherwise I’ll leave it alone.

I give it 4 Mell-Heads. The other one was destroyed in a fit of Plath-induced despondency.