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Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

Book Cover

When things on the outside seem to be going well but they are actually not.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22616-0
First Published: 14th January 1963
Date Reviewed: 10th September 2018
Rating: N/A (4.5/5 in usual terms of literary enjoyment and study)

Esther has always been an A grade student. Now, working for a ladies’ magazine in New York during a break, she struggles to get things right, and when she leaves the magazine to go back home she finds she hasn’t been accepted onto the summer course she had planned her holiday around. Along with this, she has a perpetual problem with a set of parents who want her to marry their son; she dislikes the boy and his pompous attitude. Somewhat related to this, she is afraid of what sex can mean for a woman, as well as annoyed at the double standards for women and men. Lastly, she misses her father. This all comes to a head and she beings to feel that life isn’t worth living.

The Bell Jar, set in the 1950s when the author was at university, is Plath’s famous novel, a book that is highly autobiographical and succeeds in being both enjoyable on a literary level, and in giving you a lot of information about Plath and her struggles with clinical depression. (The title references the feeling the character has of living in a bell jar.) Published a month before her death, the book has inevitably been viewed not only in the context of itself and Plath’s younger years, but in the context of her death. And it is hard to write about it without referring to her. (It’s also difficult not to talk about the ‘plot’ extensively, though I have tried to leave as much as possible out of this review.)

This is a dark book. There are times when Plath is graphic in her descriptions of what Esther does in terms of self-harm, and the various ways she considers killing herself. There is a lot about the hospitals and treatments she undergoes, things we would now consider barbaric. Yet there is also a distinct lightness to the text, most prominent in the first handful of chapters but also eked out even until the end of the book, where Plath, whether consciously or not, lifts the text from the darkness. It is in these sections that her talent most often shines through, however the times in which you can see another reason for her depression rearing its head are also full of thoughts and the phrasing of those thoughts, that show further literary talent.

Two chief areas in this regard are female agency and sex. Plath writes her thoughts about the double standard that applied to men and women, using the story of her forced sort-of relationship with Buddy Willard (either largely or somewhat true to life) when he tells her he’s slept with women, and she later muses on the fact that society would expect her to be a virgin if/when she married but that that isn’t fair. Following this she looks at the way a woman would have a baby and her life would change forever but a man could be a father and be the same person as before.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

With these and other subjects, namely her potential change in career prospects and her memories of her father, The Bell Jar gives you a fair grounding in why Plath/Esther was depressed, and although it begins and ends at university, it shows the sorts of thoughts and feelings that would have taken Plath further in her writing career and added to the problems she found in her marriage.

It’s worth reading up about Plath’s life in context with what is in the book – for example the shock treatments included are actually taken from the work of Mary Jane Ward, whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit featured them1, as well as the relationships she had with Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon that influenced Buddy and Irwin.

Plath had the book published under a pseudonym as she didn’t want her mother to know she had written in, worrying about her reaction, but whilst there is dislike, there’s empathy there, too:

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon – my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’? – and from that day on my mother never had a minutes’ peace.

In terms of study, whilst most of the book relates directly to Plath, there is enough about society in general to take away from it, and due to Plath’s work and career, a fair amount about literature and poetry, albeit that names have been changed (they’re easy enough to find out). There’s also Plath’s use of terms we would now consider racist that set the book firmly in its time and show how terminology would be used even when there was no aim to be actively discriminatory.

As much as it’s an autobiography The Bell Jar is also a real work of literature, with so much attention to detail having been put into it. It is absolutely worth reading, just be cautious of timing – whilst there is a lot of true enjoyment to be had, and whilst it’s quite short, it can and will take a toll on you whilst you are reading it.

Footnotes

1 From Wikipedia, date unknown (a): ‘Plath later stated that she had seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see “mental health stuff,” so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book.’ (But it seems Plath experienced similar treatments herself – see Wikipedia n.d. b.)

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) The Bell Jar, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.

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Analyses Of First Lines #5

I’ve found myself becoming incredibly picky. I started composing this post quite a few weeks ago but didn’t complete it because I didn’t have enough first lines to make it worthwhile – there were many I could choose from within the limits I set myself for this series (books that are currently in my reading life whether already read and being looked at again, in progress, or recently finished) but none struck a chord. Sometimes it was because working out exactly what the first line was could be tricky, with books sporting those sort of prologue pages that might not actually be prologue pages, and others that just didn’t intrigue in any way. Usually this sort of pickiness takes a while – my thoughts on referencing… eight years late – but in this case it’s only taken 5 posts. I suppose I’m getting used to thinking about what I want to do earlier rather than later.

Looking at what I’ve got below, I’ve noticed it’s full of doom, gloom, and hospitals, so I apologise if you’re reading this when you’ve a spring in your step. My reading hasn’t been all angst, I guess it’s just that the books that include it think more about their first lines. There may be something in that.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

The attendants came for him as a pair, as always.

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He’s been there a long time, and he’s a big problem if two people are needed. We can estimate length of time but the amount of difficulty he’s causing really depends on what this is about. If historical there are a few possibilities – a simple thing of two people arriving; they may need to lift him head and foot; he may be causing them a lot of issues whether truly or in that depraved asylum fashion. If contemporary, it’s most likely to be a necessary thing but hopefully practiced with the comfort of the patient in mind in the context of a much better idea of what he is suffering from. It could be a hospital or a prison, a care home or in-home care, perhaps. Of course the cover gives you a hint as to what time we’re talking about, but on its own the line could be set in any time.

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

They must think I don’t have long left, because today they allow the vicar in.

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Surprising open, everything is set up, and there’s something quite literary about the way this is a short sentence – the end is possibly near, and so there is little to say on that exact front. Looking at ‘they’, either ‘they’ are wrong and this will be a story in which the narrator gets better, or we’re going to be looking at the past.

The Theatre Of Dreams by Rosie Travers

I met the man who orchestrated my downfall in a Soho nightclub.

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The use of alliteration, and ‘orchestrated’ when another might use a different word – the start of this story, if not the whole, is going to have quite a lot of drama in it and not necessarily anything involving acting. The use of ‘Soho’ alone, without ‘nightclub’, sets the scene: a downfall – which may well have happened in London if the narrator is there to go clubbing – and the likelihood of their residence there, points to the title – fame.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

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I love this line. I completely looked it over when I first read it, because nothing particularly jumps out at you during a regular read unless the Rosenbergs are a new story to you. But this line is absolutely perfect – everything is provided. You’ve got the season, mood, exact time and year, place, and even the state of mind, shown by what she chooses to focus on. You’ve also got repetition there to draw the reader to the sunny days, and the use of ‘queer’ (as a synonym for ‘odd’), and the way Plath chooses to highlight an electrocution, says straight away that the book may be a strange and/or difficult one. Of course difficult is what The Bell Jar is, but Plath’s bluntness, warning, lets you know straight away what you need to know if you’re just flicking through books and looking for something to read – unlike many books that take a while to show what they are about, Plath’s is immediate. And you’ve got to be thankful for that – her tale is morbid, dark, but she’s giving you an out if you wish to take it.

Whistle In The Dark by Emma Healey

‘This has been the worst week of my life,’ Jen said.

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Interesting is the chapter heading, ‘the end’ – are we going to be reading the book back to front? And with this first line Healey shows us we’re going to look into the near past, and something that has been bad or gone wrong. Whether or not ‘of my life’ is dramatising things is something we don’t yet know, and we don’t yet know. We also don’t know how old the person is and thus whether or not it is indeed likely to be dramatic or not.

Missing Pieces by Laura Pearson

The coffin was too small.

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This is rather like the flash fiction piece, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”1 – Pearson sets a very similar scene. Though what is left out that the famous fiction piece included is a reference to time; we don’t yet know how long the child lived for, and thus we don’t know how much, if any, pages moving forward will include references to a life lived. The title of this book and certainly the cover give an idea as to what the book is about, but if you were in any doubt, there’s the first line.

Reading these through again I think there’s definitely something to be said about darker books more often (potentially more often?) having strong first lines. I suppose that when you’re writing about a difficult subject in long form and wanting to get details across to the reader, it’s second nature to start as you mean to go on.

Then there is the fact that sometimes it takes a few lines for the stage to be set, and often these are short sentences where you look at a first line like Christina Stead’s – ‘One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad.’ – and wonder if they couldn’t have just created a long sentence, no matter how old-fashioned they seem to now be considered. But then of course short sentences have merits of their own.

With The Bell Jar soon to be behind me I’m thinking again of the idea of close reading ending lines. I think I’d want to retrace my steps and include the books that I’d used in these first lines posts. I’ll have to ponder that undertaking for a bit!

Footnotes

1 I was intrigued to discover that this six-word story is commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although there is no hard evidence to suggest it was his. O’Toole (2013) says, ‘a literary agent named Peter Miller stated that he was told the anecdote about Hemingway and baby shoes by a “well-established newspaper syndicator” circa 1974.’ He quotes Miller’s book: ‘Apparently, Ernest Hemingway was lunching at Luchow’s with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end!’ (Miller 1991, p.27, cited in O’Toole 2013)

But O’Toole also cites other variations on the tale, other potential writers. Miller’s anecdote is unsubstantiated. (I think it’s also worth noting that the time scale between Hemingway’s supposed claim and his completing it, sounds incredibly far-fetched unless he had already prepared the story in advance. This surely suggests he’d seen the story elsewhere.) His article, linked to below, is worth a read.

Online References

O’Toole, Garson (2013) For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn, Quote Investigator, accessed 7th September 2018.

 
Reading Life: 5th September 2018

A photograph of the Japanese garden at Kingston Lacy

With more reading time to spend as of late, I’ve found myself reading the books I received at Christmas, novels I’d asked for upon request for a list. The Nakano Thrift Shop was one. Originally drawn in by the hype, I decided to read it when browsing my shelves and whilst I thought early on that it probably wasn’t my cup of tea I wanted to keep going, after all it was a present and I was intrigued by the author. I wonder if perhaps, looking at things with introductions in mind, I should have read Murakami first, but then one book doesn’t speak for all and to my knowledge the translators for the two authors are different.

From there I picked up Americanah – first started in January – and read it until the end, which meant from 1/3 of the way through. It’ll be on my best of list. The variety of subjects under the one umbrella topic, particularly with a main character who isn’t all that likeable, was very well done.

And then I opted for the book that sat next to the Kawakami on my higgledy-piggledy to be read shelf, also a gift – Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It hardly bears repeating that it’s difficult, but for its literary value, both in terms of Plath and in the context of literature as a whole, it’s also enjoyable. I’ve noted down a number of extracts – the story of the bellhop, Esther/Sylvia’s views on women’s lives in those years – and am also enjoying the lighter moments, elements I didn’t expect would be included. For now it’s less dark than I imagined, but I know it goes further. I’m working at a sort of 50/50 pace with research – reading a few chapters, switching to research, then going back to the book. I read about the debates surrounding Plath and Ted Hughes when I read Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, but there have been more recent reports about her father aligning with the Nazis – like this one from 2012 by Dalya Alberge – that paint a picture that gives a more rounded story to Plath’s poem, Daddy, from which the following comes:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

I’m half thinking that after Plath I should continue on to other books received as presents, because it’s a good mix, and includes Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge Of The World. I’ll see – I’m inclined to be completely whimsical, and reading books received as gifts sets an expectation, however random.

Which difficult book have you read recently and how did you find the experience?

 
August 2018 Reading Round Up

August was pretty good. I’ve a couple of books on the go and finished a fair number, though I’m glad to have finished most of them, to have got them out of the way.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Glenda Young: Belle Of The Back Streets – A girl from a poor family in pre-wartime Britain takes to the streets as a rag and bone person and doesn’t follow the advice of others, instead spending time with the ‘wrong sort’. This was very much like a soap opera, with multiple people dying in quick succession just for plot points.

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Hiromi Kawakami: The Nakano Thrift Shop – Hitomi relates various times at the second-hand shop in which she works, as she finds love with a co-worker and tries to figure out more about her employers. Good as an example of translated literature, but you have to be aware that not much happens.

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Nick Spalding: Checking Out – A childrens’ musical creator, given a few months to live, looks to provide meaning to his life. Not bad but the comedy falls flat early on.

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Rosie Travers: The Theatre Of Dreams – A recently-disgraced actress moves to the coast to manage a dance school… or at least that’s what she thought she was doing – in actual fact she’s there to help save a historical pavilion from demolition. Good stuff.

My favourite this month would be the Travers; high above the others it added much needed enjoyment and the mystery element that starts about a third of the way through really raised the bar, which was a promise kept.

Quotation Report

A thought from The Nakano Thrift Shop worth mulling over:

When it comes to old things, whether buying or selling, why is it that people act so cautious?… With something brand new, they have no problem just ordering it from a catalogue, no matter how expensive.

For September the plan is literary fiction with a book or two in different genres. Over the weekend I got back to Americanah and am a fair way towards finishing; I’d like to have done so by the end of this week.

What are you reading? And do you have plans for autumn?

 
Hiromi Kawakami – The Nakano Thrift Shop

Book Cover

Neither something old, nor something new.

Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 260
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-846-27600-2
First Published: 1st April 2005; 4th August 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 31st August 2018
Rating: 3/5

Original language: Japanese
Original title: 古道具 中野商店 (Furudogu Nakano Shoten – Nakano Antique Shop)
Translated by: Allison Markin Powell

Hitomi works at the Nakano Thrift Shop; named after its somewhat peculiar owner, the shop sells second-hand items, but not, as the owner would want to point out, antiques. Every day brings new customers, new items, and stilted conversations; the owner often starts a conversation with the end of a sentence – ‘you know what I mean?’ As the months go by, Hitomi finds herself interested in her very quiet co-worker, Takeo, and becomes interested in the life of Mr Nakano’s artistic sister, Masayo.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a novel formed of short stories about the day to day workings of a shop in the context of the workers’ lives. Referred to by many as a ‘slice of life’ novel, the storytelling is done via a first person narrative.

There isn’t all that much storytelling – in the normal sense – here. The narrative is most often very simple, sometimes verging on boring, although there are a handful of poignant moments wherein the theme of a chapter/short story melds into an aspect of a character’s life. (Each chapter concerns an item from the shop or a food, so, for example, in the chapter ‘Apple’, two characters converse vaguely – dialogue is used sparingly, with a lot of detail left to the reader to fill in – discussing a type of apple, the way it is too tart for the shop owner. Later, after this has been related, one of the speakers finds it too tart herself.)

It’s in these emotional moments that the book is very good, the emotions adding more substance. The pity is it’s only for seconds at a time; it becomes the primary method of character development which means development is sparse and the narrative doesn’t go anywhere significant.

The translation is very western, with ideas and idioms changed to ones that work in English; Markin Powell’s method is more about the feeling behind the words than a literal translation. There are times when the western elements become too much – very modern western-centric grammar, for example – but it’s generally well done. Markin Powell has used italics and description as sparingly as Kawakami uses words so anyone who knows a bit about Japanese popular culture or those happy to research as they go along (this book won’t work as well without it) will find this enjoyable. The times when the description is too long or the occasional repetitions are down to Kawakami.

The reason to read this book (in translation) is to get a sense of Kawakami and modern popular Japanese literature in general. There’s very little to take away beyond that and for a short book it can be a slog to get through, the character development as sparse as the text and taking too long to begin.

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