There are two of me now – Sylvia Plath, ‘In Plaster’
Throughout the work of Sylvia Plath, the self is threatened by its sinister double, an oppressive, competitive ‘other’. One metaphor Plath related to this theme was demoniacal possession, having read diverting case studies1 in which a typically female victim becomes host to a fiend, suffering a loss of individuality and coarsening of the voice.
By the time “Sylvia Plath” in Elin Cullhed’s Euphoria says “blah blah, fuck that” (page 3), anyone loyal to the authentic Plath will recognise this infernal imposter for what they are, and spend the rest of the novel cheerfully anticipating their demise.
“[B]lah blah, fuck that” proves a difficult sentiment to banish, once Euphoria picks up the much-borrowed stilts of the old Plathian tragedy and tramples over her final year: the breakdown of her marriage to Ted Hughes, and his affair with Assia Wevill.
Wevill has recently attracted sympathetic, thoughtful scholarship2 aiming to debunk hackneyed depictions of her as a home-wrecking femme fatale. Dispiriting, then, to see the “fickle temptress” descend on the novel, asking where in Devon to park her broomstick, in that “thin brittle hoarse witchy voice”.
“I am not subtle” Plath wrote during this period3, perhaps the demon seed from which Euphoria bloomed. The conundrum here is that the book pronounces an intention to champion its subject, while presenting a version of Plath that could have feasibly wandered from the mind of someone who utterly despises her.4
Meet our narrator, “Sylvia Plath”: a hysterical, petty, annoying, tedious, inarticulate, unimaginative narcissist. Cullhed’s interpretation of Plath as a “struggling toddler mom” who “go[es] bonkers” doesn’t satisfactorily explain this treatment of her, but it sets the tone.
For a taste of Cullhed’s style, list all the gripes you’ve harboured on a scale of minor to extremely minor, interjecting every fifth item with the phrase “and me in my dress”. Organise banal details into trimeter, giving them a quasi-poetic cadence: “It was my body, my skin, my white shimmering wrists that took me cycling through Devon”. “I was fertilised with his children, his dream, his promises.” “I was the nerves, I was the blood, I was the heart [ . . .]”
If this fails to induce the intended headache, just keep pounding the drum: “Ted had given me permission. Ted had forgiven me. Ted had held me. Ted had left me. Ted had returned. Ted had placed demands on me. Ted had asked me. Ted had stood beside me [ . . .]”
I challenge any reader in these gruelling passages not to drift off into their own embellishments: Ted over here, Ted over there, Ted on the ground, Ted in the air [ . . .] Built from careless free-associations, Euphoria is the kind of cheap, flat, top-of-the-head writing Plath gritted her teeth over.
“[ . . .][J]ust remember that I am Sylvia” the narrator insists, convincing nobody. It wears the name but has no talent for mimicry. Like Bigfoot, the fraud is obvious as soon as it moves: notice the unfamiliar ring when it writes: “I had paper now, a pen, I scribbled down the words”. The telling generalities of its sexual claims: “I had been fucked by machismo! I had had all variety of hot-tempered lovers. And how they had taken me… How I had made love to them.”
Readers of Plath will struggle to believe she’d say: “Food is good… It’s good to eat”5. Or: “life just flooded you with its liveability”. An artist of Plath’s instincts would avoid a thought as dumb as that by simply not thinking it.
Plath wasn’t sloppy enough to have a “deathly glow” in one sentence and a “glow of death” in the next. When she felt disenchanted, it was not because oceans are magical but seagulls do poos in them6. If she were alive today and read of a man’s “grey [ . . .] post-war gaze” she might release a weary, post-9/11 sigh.
“Brown hair, long face, sharp nose” is the lavish, plausibly human way the narrator describes her mate. (Why stop there? Two arms, two legs, and a head between the shoulders: Ted Hughes, as I live and breathe!)But hearing of his “infinitely long fingers”, we realise with sadness something has gone diabolically wrong with Hughes, too.
Only by accident is Euphoria’s language absurd or unsettling. “My smile that began in my mouth and could extend endlessly out onto my face” is a jump-scare of the incubus within, glimpsed through prolapsing facial tissue.
Translator Jennifer Hayashida must bear some blame. In a book that confuses literal and figurative imagery, a line like “I was full on carrot cake” has unintended repercussions. For a glazed spell, I wondered exactly what qualities of carrot cake “Sylvia Plath” was channelling, before realising she had just eaten a sufficient amount.
A hapless ally can cause more damage than a competent foe. Like Plath’s detractors, Euphoria doesn’t take her work seriously, seeing no distinction between the life and the poetry: “I was not gathering material: I was material…” “The writing. The writing. The novel. ME.”
The Plathian spirit has been displaced; the blood-jet, beating “I am I am I am”, drowned by the pummel of ME ME ME. It is a ghastly performance, full of the random laughter you’d expect of an actor keen on intensity but low on ideas. The message is plain: the girl has gone full-on banana bread.
Following an uncharacteristic impulse of good taste, Cullhed draws a veil over Plath’s death, which is a pity. Given the dreadful taste of the preceding pages, a decent, sensitive climax might involve bug-spray, flame-throwers, a hollering priest, a final projectile torrent of bucketing goop. Unfortunately, this is neither a decent nor a sensitive book. And after the demon is cast out, we are left wondering what it even wanted with our Sylvia.
About out contributor
Ash Caton is a poet and playwright living in Edinburgh. He regularly performs his work in the city, and has been published by the Edinburgh Literary Salon and Poetry Scotland. He is also the creator and host of Ear Read This (“Edinburgh’s most powerful book podcast”) and editor of John Kay’s Press based in John Kay’s bookshop in the Old Town.
- In Possession Demoniacal and Other, (1930) by T. K. Oesterreich ↩︎
- See Reclaiming Assia Wevill (2019) by Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick and The Collected Writings of Assia Wevill (2021) edited by Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick and Peter K. Steinberg. ↩︎
- Burning the Letters’ (1962). ↩︎
- A conundrum it oddly shares with two other recent novels featuring Plath: Your Story, My Story (2015) by Connie Palmen and The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. (2022) by Lee Kravetz. ↩︎
- Or, for that matter, a Ted Hughes that says: “You know what Sylvia? Kiss my ass.” ↩︎
- “[ . . .] in my head the ocean was magic…in reality, seagulls shat…” (page 224) ↩︎