ROUGH MAGIC by Paul Alexander


A Biography of Sylvia Plath
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 Second biography of Sylvia Plath this season, this one by the editor of Ariel Ascending (1984), a collection of essays on Plath's life and work. Alexander's is a full-bodied biography, long on facts, short on criticism, but the best so far as a conventional life of the poet. Despite his detail, however, Alexander is much less involved with interpretation than Ronald Hayman is in The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (p. 909), a psychocritical investigation focusing on the nature of suicide as shown in the poet's work. Hayman is more exciting, though both writers strain at supposition. Alexander carries Hayman's revisionist view of Plath's husband, poet Ted Hughes, to an even more extreme darkness, with Hughes now showing up as a craggy, violent man obsessed with horoscopes and the occult and in Plath's last year even urging her to suicide, perhaps with posthypnotic suggestion. Implied is that Plath fulfilled an agenda reinforced in her by Hughes, though of course she had an earlier history of suicide attempts. Whatever the truth of this (Hughes has never granted an interview about Plath), it's now more than a quarter century later and Hughes still finds himself pursued by his dead but restless wife in a variety of legal battles about her estate. Alexander (as Hayman did) resorts to paraphrase of Plath's work (Hughes refuses all rights to quote unless he can vet any biography), which tends to de-energize his page, but he has cracked the reserve of many Plath intimates who've not spoken before, especially about Hughes in a strange delirium attempting to strangle Plath and later deserting her outright on a vacation in Ireland when he thought he saw a face move in a painting. Alexander also uncovers a likely abortion that helped save her Fulbright. Lives of Plath are now so familiar that one reads them to see which writer can play Hamlet best. At this point, Hayman--with reservations--cuts the brightest figure, with Plath chewing more scenery than even Alexander can muster. (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-670-81812-7
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1991