Veils, shimmering like curtains

Ariel
by Sylvia Plath

A still life for Easter

This was Plath’s final volume of poetry, published two years after her death, and I could not separate the knowledge of what shortly followed these writings from the words themselves. It was not an easy read.

Death is everywhere in these poems. I got shivers down my spine on almost every page. Yet these are not obvious musings on death but rather word collages. For the most part the poems are constructed of a series of images, with no clear story or scene, but there are a few exceptions. “Gulliver” describes Swift’s character in the scene in Lilliput when he is tied to the ground:

“You there on your back,
Eyes to the sky.
The spider-men have caught you,”

“Daddy” explores her feelings about her father, a complex relationship despite his death early in her life (“I was ten when they buried you”). And “Wintering” is actually the last part of a series of four poems about her new-found vocation of beekeeping:

“Now they ball in a mass,
Black
Mind against all that white.”

But these are exceptions in-between the darker poems (and even those were not entirely free from comment on death). Her depression is ever present:

“I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” [from “Elm”]

She refers to her previous suicide attempt many times over, making it clear her only regret about it is that she didn’t succeed:

“After all I am alive only by accident.
I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.
Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains” [from “A birthday present”]

But the poem that moved me most was “Years”, where Plath’s pain and anger seem to be at their peak:

“O God, I am not like you
In your vacuous black,
Stars stuck all over, bright stupid confetti.
Eternity bores me,
I never wanted it.”

First published 1965 by Faber & Faber.

Under the skin

Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin

This is the book that turned Murakami from successful author to superstar and sent him running into hiding in the US. It’s certainly a more “straightforward”, accessible narrative than he is generally known for, but it is still undeniably, brilliantly him.

Toru tells us the story of his student days in Tokyo, from 1968 to 1970, and the friends and lovers who mattered to him and even changed him in those formative years. Against a backdrop of free love, student protests and Beatles songs, we learn how Toru’s best friend Kizuki killed himself when they were 17. A year later, completely by chance, Toru bumps into Naoko who had been Kizuki’s girlfriend since they were small children. Unsure of what to say to each other but united by their grief that holds them apart from the rest of the world, they start spending time together. Toru falls headlong in love with Naoko even while he knows she can never love him.

While Naoko’s difficulty in dealing with life gets worse and worse, Toru meets another woman, one who could not be more different. Where Naoko is delicate, feminine and non-communicative, Midori is a blaze of talkative modernity, with short hair and a tendency to get way-too-open about sex. She also has a boyfriend, albeit one Toru never meets, just as she never meets Naoko.

A large chunk of the start of this novel was a short story in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which I read quite recently, and this threw me at first. The language is beautiful, the characters so very detailed and real, the setting vividly alive but as Naoko and Toru held themselves apart, so I found myself at arm’s length from the story – observing rather than drawn in. It was really only with the introduction of Midori that this book came to life for me. I really loved her character. She is no more “ordinary” or run-of-the-mill than Toru or Naoko, but she has a joy and spirit that uplifted the story, even when terrible things were happening.

While there’s no surrealism or magical story twists here, what there is plenty of is Murakami’s uncanny ability to get under the skin of people and everyday life. Even when nothing much is happening, I was thoroughly enjoying every word. A simple description of daily life in a student dorm could have me laughing out loud, a casual conversation over a noodle lunch have me grinning in recognition. But there is also a lot of pain – the ordinary pain of growing up and facing adulthood plus the added pain of death, loss, unrequited love, psychological trauma. It’s a beautiful and moving story.

First published as Noruwei no mori in 1987 by Kodansha Ltd, Tokyo.
This translation published 2000 by the Harvill Press.

Warmth behind the sadness

The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

I have been putting off reading this book for years because I expected a very dark, heavygoing affair. In fact, though it’s hardly light reading, it was much more readable and warm than anticipated. And, of course, the language is exquisite.

Plath had clearly borrowed heavily from her own life in this tale of New England college girl Esther Greenwood who is winning writing prizes and attracting men and has the world at her feet but somehow feels distant from it all, as though she doesn’t fit in, as if the rest of the life stretching out before her is terrifying and dull. As she recedes into herself her depression worsens and a long series of doctors and potential cures are tried.

So it goes to some dark places, certainly. Esther develops an obsession with methods of suicide, collecting press cuttings and secretly reading the scandal sheets. But her tone throughout is chatty and open, with amusingly catty descriptions of the people around her and a sense of humour even when she’s talking about death or when she’s confused and hallucinating due to drugs or lack of sleep.

I should have thought, considering the real life of the author, that this is a very genuine, realistic account of depression and I find it interesting that, while there are moments of melancholia and sadness, that isn’t the overriding theme or tone of the narrative. It’s more about loneliness, being somehow different, not understanding and being convinced that everyone else does understand and is together and fits in. Though of course the realisation that that isn’t true isn’t a cure for Esther, it is a step forward.

Knowing a little about the author from newspaper articles, excerpts of her journals and the film Sylvia (which I loved) I did find it a little creepy reading the parts that I knew were closely if not directly autobiographical. Chills down the spine may be a good effect for some books to achieve but here it was horror tinged with deep sorrow.

I definitely recommend this to everyone. The language is beautiful and yet straightforward. It’s not a hard read but it does effectively cover a hard subject.

First published 1963 by William Heinemann.

See also: reviews by Novel Insights and Farm Lane Books.