Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Used or new @ SecondSale.com), by Heather Clark
Now she is flying
More terrible than she ever was, red
Scar in the sky, red comet
Over the engine that killed her—
The mausoleum, the wax house
The book I most surprised myself by reading last year was Red Comet, the 1000+ page biography of Sylvia Plath. Not because I’m uninterested in her life, but I wasn’t sure I was more than a thousand pages interested. (That much material for someone who died at 31!)
But I’d also read Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz and The Barbizon earlier in the year, and both offered fascinating partial biographies of Plath, enough to make me realize that what I knew of her life was really only the outline and bigger facts, not the little biographical details, which were completely fascinating.
I couldn’t believe how page-turning it was from the get-go. Author Heather Clark sets out her goals in writing this, the most comprehensive biography of the poet, stating that she “tried to recover what Plath gave to us rather than what she gave up.” She shows in startling detail the true breadth of Plath’s accomplishments — underscored by the shockingly short time in which she produced them — and emphasizes how monumental they were considering the extremely sexist standards and norms of Plath’s era.
The foundations of Plath’s life were laid with German/Austrian immigrant parents, leading to a rigidity in her upbringing and personal beliefs and approaches to everything from her work ethic to her child-rearing tendencies. Her parents’ (and other relatives’) lives are explored in connection to major themes and events in Sylvia’s.
And Clark sets this all up so masterfully, weaving in Sylvia’s early poems, letters, and interviews with those who knew her that this really becomes an immersion into her world. I’m not the biggest biography reader, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read one that felt like this — it’s common to hear biographers or historians talk about the years they spent working on a project as really feeling like they were living with their subject, almost inside their heads along with them, but this might have been the first time that as a reader I really felt that connected too.
This is thanks in part to Sylvia’s own voluminous communications and writings, which make her voice so clear ang strong, but also to Clark’s skill as a biographer and understanding of her subject and the atmosphere she lived and worked in. The way she applies this to the present is similarly deft, and she truly achieves her goal of showing the importance of Plath’s contribution to American literature, and not simply a written-off reputation as a “suicide goddess” whose shrine angry young women worship at, a concept also debunked in Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz.
When we see a female character reading The Bell Jar in a movie, we know she will make trouble.
Of course, living in Sylvia’s world, where depression reared its ugly head sadly early, is not always pleasant. As I remember learning in those other books, she’s a stormy and tumultuous personality. I also felt fairly exhausted at the pace of her work and submissions — contests, literary grants and scholarships, publishers, etc. — although it’s testament to her extraordinary ambition.
Clark also makes clear the links to Plath’s inspirations: T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, W.H. Auden (whose former London home would be Plath’s last home) and maybe this seems too obvious but I understood Plath’s work better having these influences and connections made explicit.
If there was any drawback it was that there was a great amount of focus and text dedicated to when a poem or story was published where, often big lists of this. Obviously these are important, this was her life’s work and her burgeoning successes, but it made for duller reading when the rest of this felt so vibrant.
Otherwise brilliant, well deserved, and long overdue but well worth the wait and scholarship that went into it.