Sylvia Plath: Alive in Letters

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I.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading the letters of Sylvia Plath, the advice I received was to take it slowly and take frequent breaks. The inference being that Plath’s letters would be a gruelling testament to suffering. It is a reasonable assumption. There is no major author in the post-war period more closely associated with numbing emotional isolation and excruciating depression than Plath. The short poems of her last weeks must be among the sourest, most sarcastic and seared expressions of suffering in modern poetry.

Those who know her work broadly know there is more to her but if you know little it is the last poems and her famous “Daddy” that you know. However, if one listens to the recording of Plath reading “Daddy” – that apparently bitter invective against a tyrannical father – you will hear the glee in her voice, undercutting the rage that a million young women have vicariously immersed themselves in. The likelihood that Plath wished to conflate into a single poem her mixed feelings about her father with the prevalent psychoanalytic preoccupation with the symbolic father figure – a poem as rife with absurdity as it is with anger – is not immediately obvious to the casual reader. The play of her humour and irony enliven the mosaic of cultural references she carefully arranged for us to find in her verse. This humour and learning is nowhere more evident than in her letters.

Born in 1932, Sylvia Plath grew up in a middle-class home in Massachusetts. The earliest extant letter is from 1940, the year her father died. Numerically, most of the letters are to Plath’s mother, the first ones written during summers spent with relatives, summer camps and at youth conferences. She wrote to a German pen pal for a number of years, explaining her life and displaying intense interest in German life. Her world was one of book-reading and stamp-collecting, cardigans, knee-socks, hamburgers and milk, blind double dates, picnics and bracing cycle rides.

She was accepted into Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. In almost daily postcards to her mother, she records her life. We follow her health, friends, studies and dates. Plath in these letters is an inquisitive, assiduous, intelligent, kind, thoughtful and creative young woman. She could be supercilious and self-impressed, as is only to be expected from an individual who had lived a sheltered life and received such praise and admiration while young. Even the most cynical reader would not be won over by her character.

She aspired to be a writer; she had been editor of the high-school newspaper. She started to write stories and poems. She wrote fiction that was published in women’s magazines and the new burgeoning market for girl’s magazines, such as Seventeen. At the same time she was submitting poems to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other publications. Poems are included in the text and we see Plath growing as a writer. Photographs of Plath, her family and friends and images of her illustrated letters are included.

The core of the group is those letters written to her mother. One can see Plath sharing her pleasures and problems, delighting in magazine cheques and competition prizes, all the time wanting her mother to be impressed and proud. Performing for an audience and meeting her own punishingly high standards proved too much. She exhausted herself through overwork. In the summer of 1953 she had a nervous breakdown, experiencing insomnia and depression, which was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. Soon after, she attempted suicide not once but twice. The first time she tried drowning. In the most powerful letter in the book – made all the more memorable for Plath’s offhand dry humour – she described her failure to die.

Well, I tried drowning, but that didn’t work; somehow the urge to life, mere physical life, is damn strong, and I felt that I could swim forever straight out into the sea and sun and never be able to swallow more than a gulp or two of water and swim on. The body is amazingly stubborn when it comes to sacrificing itself to the annihilating directions of the mind.

She continued:

So I hit upon what I figured would be the easiest way out: I waited until my mother had gone to town, my brother was at work, and my grandparents were out in the back yard. Then I broke the lock of my mother’s safe, took out the bottle of 50 sleeping pills, and descended to the dark sheltered ledge in our basement, after having left a note to mother that I had gone on a long walk and would not be back for a day or so. I swallowed quantities and blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion. My mother believed my note, sent out searching parties, notified the police, and finally, on the second day or so, began to give up hope when she found that the pills were missing. In the meantime, I had stupidly taken too many pills, vomited them, and came to consciousness in a dark hell…

The search for the missing co-ed – prizewinning young authoress – made the pages of over 200 newspapers and Plath had to recover in hospital a figure of minor notoriety.

Plath’s failed attempt to meet Dylan Thomas and successful encounters with W.H. Auden and literary scholar I.A. Richards while she was still a student, show Plath’s ambition to rise to the status of these figures. Part fan adoration, part intellectual curiosity, part careerism, these events are recounted in her letters. In a letter of 4 November 1954, Plath wrote “I am really beat but beatific: my status quo.” The following year she applied to teach English at the American school in Tangiers. How different her life might have been if she had been in the company of Bowles and Burroughs rather than Hughes and the Movement poets…

Plath recounted a bohemian scene of a carefree outing with a boyfriend.

I was so tired, having slept about two hours all night, that I curled up in the backseat of the little car driving to new haven and fell deeply asleep. I awoke to consciousness of sunlight and a circle of people staring at me in unfeigned curiosity. [Richard] sassoon had stopped at a merritt parkway gas station for coffee, and the sight of a touseled girl sleeping soundly in the backseat of a volkswagon in the midst of empty wine bottles and books of baudelaire attracted attention, to put it mildly.  

There are absences – not least many letters to boyfriends. Perhaps we should be grateful to have some intimacy withheld. There are no surviving letters to Richard Sassoon. We have some extracts that Plath copied into her diaries. They are the most literary, allusive and passionate of her early letters.

Plath was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and went to study at Newnham College, Cambridge in September 1955. Plath arrived in England and was enchanted to an almost comical degree.

London is simply fantastic. So much better organized (beautiful “tubes” with artistic posters, two decker red busses, maps everywhere, all black cars and cabs, guides to theaters, all posted) than NYC; more beautiful than Washington (Parks with roses, pelicans, palaces, plane trees and fig trees and lakes and fountains) and infinitely more quaint and historic (obviously) than Boston). The “bobbies”” are all young, handsome, and exquisitely bred; I think they’ve all gone to Oxford. Flower girls, fruit stands with enormous peaches, grapes, etc. on every corner. […] Oh, mother, every alleyway is crowded with tradition, antiquity, and I can feel a peace, reserve, lack of hurry here which has centuries behind it.

In February 1956, the concluding year of this collection, she met Ted Hughes and began a relationship with him. She wrote about how excited she was to be with him and how he helped her creatively. “Ted is the most wonderful man in the world; I am constantly incredulous with joy at how much I love him and how magnificently well we work together.” Included is the text for “Ode for Ted”. They married in the summer of 1956 in secret because Plath feared (apparently erroneously) that she would lose her scholarship were it to become known she had married. There are long letters describing an idyllic honeymoon in the small obscure fishing village of Benidorm (“probably too small to be on your map”). She did not approve of the bullfight she saw. “The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality.”

There are misjudgements in the editing of the volume. As is now house style for Faber & Faber correspondence present locations of letters are given (when that specialist information could have been given as end notes) yet no places are given for the location letters were written from. This is same as the Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot letters. This was not always the case. The Larkin letters (published 1992) do have locations given.

The notes are prolific and detailed, sometimes excessively. When Plath mentions enclosing stamp hinges what is gained by annotating “The enclosed stamp hinges are no longer with the letter”? The biographical notes refer not just to recipients but individuals mentioned. Likewise, many of these are useful but footnotes for passing mentions to schoolmates could be considered excessive. It is sobering to see biographical notes on Plath’s school and university friends reading “(1932-   )”. Plath too could still be alive now if she had not taken her own life over 50 years ago.

As this first volume closes, the prospect of the second volume offers us more varied correspondents – editors, authors, in-laws and so on – as she becomes a public figure in the British literary scene. It also promises insight into her final painful months.

Plath is much more than a victim. To underplay her complexity and her cool calculation as a writer is to ascribe to her little more than reactive emotionality. Indeed, if she were primarily the caricature of a hot-housed daughter, spurned wife and troubled mother – as many academics and students reduce her to – then she would be no writer at all. Above all the epithet “tragic” is a sweeping patronising description of a life as richly varied as any and presents the poet to be a helpless hostage in the grip of malevolent circumstances. Tragedy is a concept that is necessarily a retrospective judgement and is enmeshed in the idea of inevitability. Supporters of Plath who are driven by gender-political motivations exaggerate both her brilliant originality as a poet and the overwhelming influence of her husband’s infidelity in her choice of suicide. Plath was a great poet but very much a product of her time, influenced by her reading and her peers. Plath was distressed by Hughes’s infidelity but she was also subject to internal pressures and psychological issues present since her youth, not to mention the difficulty of coping alone with two young children whilst on powerful mood-altering medication. To understand anything about Plath the writer we must acknowledge her cunning, her craft, her ambition, her immersion in literature and her ambivalence. This understanding opens us up to acknowledging Plath’s complexity as a person.

There is no better way to understand that complexity than to read her letters.

II.

In 1740 Samuel Richardson published one of the first novels in English, titled Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. In this book we are presented with a coherent directed narrative telling a story in the form of authentic letters between various characters. The author plays with boundaries of fiction and factuality, though readers can feel fairly certain they are reading a work of fiction. In this novel (and two subsequent ones) we get ostensibly independent documents which are really guided by the hand of the omniscient omnipotent author. We at once are immersed in a story, experience it through differing perspectives and appreciate the author’s ingenuity. It complements our intelligence and we in turn admire the craft put into this story. We enjoy the narrative and meta-narrative. Like Tristam Shandy, another experimental early novel, Richardson’s novels approach a near Post-Modernist play of pretence and self-awareness. The works were necessarily experimental as the English novel was only then being invented.

There is a peculiar aspect to reading collected letters by a single writer without replies. Unlike poems or stories, which although they might be related are individual communications, letters are incomplete. Lacking the chain of interchange, we confront something incomplete: a two-part musical score with half the pages missing.

Readers who are well informed about a subject find themselves reading letters through an external framework. If we read a book of collected letters in sequence, we read early letters with a degree of impatience, wanting to get to more accomplished writing and varied correspondents. We become tired of reading news repeated to multiple correspondents, especially in a complete (rather than selected) collection. We await significant career milestones, personal events and historical events, anticipating the writer’s responses. We search the last letter for profound insights into life or a final message to the world. Like attendees of a play we have seen before, we know what is in the characters’ future. The dramatic irony is that we know the accomplishments, tragedies, betrayals and reverses of fortune which lie ahead of the characters while those individuals do not. We are omniscient, watching characters struggling to overcome obstacles and challenges in their path, judging their morality and fortitude in their most private words. We have the power to skip ahead or go back – even of dismissing the spectacle by simply declining to read on.

Thus we as readers who consume a collection of letters have a unique response to the text – a text moreover that the author never actually wrote. The author wrote small texts and sent them to different readers without thought to how they would work together. It would be like printing a transcript of someone’s speech over the course of a day without context, pauses and responses. We encounter multiple discrete texts to different recipients in a totalised, cumulative and sequential manner. Books of letters do not have to be read in such a way and certainly researchers or students do use such books as reference resources. Our expectations adjust but we are beings formed of experience and temperament and it is impossible for us to entirely detach our expectations of narrative, drama and reading pleasure which colour our responses to a collection of letters. This is not to suggest that collections of letters and readings of them are misleading or intrinsically flawed. They are, of course, as every human endeavour and response must be but that is not the point. The point is that reading letters in collected form presents us with a distortion that we should constantly remind ourselves is a distortion.

Consider the case of diary reading. It has often been said that diaries are repositories of disappointment and disgruntlement, places where writers can unload their negative feelings to experience catharsis and meet no opposition or scrutiny. Consequently, diaries appear to readers as negative, bitter and petty. In truth they often are but they are a partial presentation of the self and as a record of character diaries can be very misleading, even if we constantly remind ourselves of the bias. With letters the matter we must bear in mind is not a distortion in the source (although it is natural that a writer communicates certain things and withholds other things on purpose) but that we are watching a film composed of multiple different silent films which flicker in and out and overlaying that is our historical understanding, which forms a continuous soundtrack which is anachronistic and not necessarily congruent with the film passages. Yet as we watch this film we naturally wish to consider it whole, narratively comprehensible and authored. Our human tendency forms this discordant fusion.

As long as we are aware of this tendency we can better understand our own reactions to reading volumes of letters and not succumbing to the temptation of believing we understand more than we actually do.

 

Sylvia Plath, (Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, eds.), The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-1956, Faber & Faber, 2017, hardback, 1,424pp, col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 0571 328 994

© Alexander Adams

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Literature of Longing

Denton Welch

Denton Welch, Daniel J. Murtaugh (ed.), Good Night, Beloved Comrade. The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver, 2017, University of Wisconsin Press, hardback, 213pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-299-31010-3

 

The upheaval of the Second World War provided many people with opportunities for covert romantic and sexual assignations. The blackout in large cities aided fleeting trysts and, on the home front, the relocation of people assigned war work, the absence of spouses and general mobilisation all loosened social constraints. People of different regions, professions and classes mingled on an unprecedented scale during those years.

In November 1943 the author-artist Denton Welch was partially crippled and bed-ridden when a friend paid a visit. Welch said he was too ill to see him, then he changed his mind; it was a decision that would alter the course of his life. The friend brought into Welch’s bedroom a handsome labourer called Eric Oliver. Although they did not know it at the time, Welch and Oliver’s lives would be entwined forever after.

At that time Welch had published a novel and some stories that had made him the toast of a small circle of London literati and a wider circle of homosexual admirers. Welch, who had trained as an artist, had been struck by a car at the age of twenty and for the remainder of his life suffered severe medical complications. Mobility seriously restricted and frequently in pain, Welch occupied himself with writing, spending his adult years in Tonbridge, Kent. Although in his twenties, he described himself as “old, so immensely old, like a stone image on a mountain watching small boys play”. Detachment aided Welch as a writer – he excelled in observation and description. Of the writings published in Welch’s lifetime the most explicitly homosexual aspects were omitted; only in the 1980s were Welch’s frankest writings published.

Welch’s journals and novels are tinged with longing, regret and wistfulness. Reading his descriptions of road-menders working in the sun stripped to the waist, we are made strongly aware of an attraction the author rarely consummated. His bucolic descriptions of rural Kent and pinpoint scrutiny of domestic details also leave a strong impression. Reading Welch is peculiarly like watching Welch write – we imagine Welch melancholy and thoughtful, his full forehead and horn-rimmed spectacles bowed above the pages of a notebook.

When Welch met Oliver, the latter was working in Kent in the agricultural service as a land boy. Oliver found Welch good company; Welch became infatuated with Oliver. The mismatch in class and outlook – with Welch a public-school-educated introverted intellectual and Oliver, a hard-drinking bisexual working-class rake – caused a degree of friction and uncertainty. After a slow start they grew closer and became lovers. After Oliver’s residence was destroyed by a V-2 rocket (in July 1944), he accepted Welch’s offer that Oliver move in with him; they would remain together until Welch’s death in 1948, at the age of 33. The companions gave mutual support and Oliver’s emotional and practical assistance brought the writer great happiness in his last years.

This collection of 51 unpublished letters by Welch to Oliver covers the period 1943-7. Most letters are from 1943 and 1944, before cohabiting rendered correspondence unnecessary. The letters of 1945-7 were written during Oliver’s absences. In early letters, Welch expresses his longing and betrays anxiety about rejection, sometimes pricked by jealousy and self-pity.

“I would agree with you absolutely, over 100% love affairs being very uncommon, but doesn’t that apply to everything in life? Aren’t all our feelings, however strong, never quite as strong as we think they might be? Aren’t they always mixed with some doubt; and aren’t we always torturing ourselves and wasting time thinking, can this be love?”

Reading of the indignities of Denton’s medical examinations and the symptoms of his conditions explains much of his peevishness, although the descriptions are touched with humour. Not all of the correspondence is introspective. Welch tells Oliver about the flight of residents from Kent to avoid V-1 bombs (a number of which landed on Tonbridge), “those wretched bombers circling overhead and those peculiar lights which flash from the hillside” and difficulties of living with rationing. He passes on news of their friends, sometimes empathetic, sometimes catty. Suffering and the threat of sudden death heightened the piquancy of Welch’s desire, though he admitted that “in some moods I would quite ruthlessly sacrifice all the lovers in the world to my work.”

The editor has decided to leave Welch’s spelling and grammatical errors uncorrected and underlining in the original letters is faithfully transcribed. Thus we get Welch at his most raw, intimate and irascible. A vivid, informative introduction allows readers previously unfamiliar with Welch’s writings to understand the course of the author’s life and work. Extensive annotation is confined to the back of the book and includes extracts of Welch’s novels and journals. The reader does not have to be familiar with Welch’s other writings to enjoy this collection, which is as fresh and lively as Welch’s fiction and journals.

This book is part of a series of publications in the press’s “Living Out” series of gay and lesbian literature. More open social attitudes towards sexuality have stimulated interest in gay writing. Newly published letters and diaries give us insights into the experiences of people whose stories could not be publicly told in the eras in which they lived. Although some individuals considered their sexuality shameful and found subterfuge stressful, others relished the frisson of “sex as crime”, leading the lives of sexual outlaws and conspirators. Welch’s life is particularly poignant as it was so clearly restricted by the circumstances of his time. In a later age more advanced medical treatment and altered social attitudes regarding homosexuality would have extended and enriched his life. Yet, perhaps Welch’s best qualities as a writer spring from painful yearning and a sense of isolation. Paradoxically, what might have made Denton Welch’s life fuller would possibly have made his writing less powerfully engaging.

Alexander Adams

Review: The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence

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B.S. Johnson, Zulfikar Ghose, Vanessa Guignery (ed.), The B.S. Johnson-Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence, 2015, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, cloth hb, 457pp + xxiv pp,  ISBN 978 1 4438 7266 9

 

1.

Bryan Stanley Johnson (1933-1973) and Zulfikar Ghose (b. 1935) were fellow writers who achieved success in the London literary scene of the 1960s. They came into contact with each other in 1959, while still English undergraduates. They entered into a correspondence about the editing of Ghose’s university literary journal, a dialogue that developed into a close alliance, partly epistolary because although they both lived in London at the same time, they also lived apart for periods. This volume collects all the surviving letters, cards and telegrams between the pair, covering the years 1959 to 1973.

B.S. Johnson is once again fairly well known. He achieved professional respect, modest sales and occasional (brief) notoriety as a writer of mildly avant-garde fiction, verse and drama. His first novel was published in 1963 and in the following decade he produced a substantial amount of fiction, drama and prose (much of sports journalism and literary criticism). He covered the 1966 football World Cup for The Observer and The Times of India. He wrote and directed a number of short films and television programmes. His most notable works are novels employing avant-garde techniques, such as text in parallel columns, holes cut into pages and blank and patterned pages. The Unfortunates (1969) is composed of 27 loose sections in a box, to be read – aside from sections marked “first” and “last” – in any order.

Johnson was vociferous in his advocacy of Modernism and experimental techniques in preference to more traditional narrative plot and ostensible realism. He compared the novelist’s position to that of an architect’s, saying that it was dishonest to work as if Modernist innovations had never taken place. It was the duty of the writer, as he saw it, to embody the intellectual developments of his era in formal characteristics of prose. Johnson could be dogmatic and intemperate on this matter, though he could also be generous to fellow writers and his left-wing principles steered him towards occasional collective action and attempts to better the lot of authors who made their living from their work. It is clear from the progression of the novels, as well as from various letters and articles, that at least by the 1972 Johnson felt he had reached a point of exhaustion in his pursuit of technical novelty. Indeed, it seemed clear that his rigid view that “telling stories is telling lies” had left him with only his own life to mine for material, which he had exhausted by the time he finished his last novel.

See the Old Lady Decently (posthumously published in 1975) was an admission of Johnson’s exhaustion It was a reconstruction of his mother’s life, drawn partially from interviews. He had reached the limits of usable material from his own life and struggled to assemble a disjointed assemblage of aspects from his own life and that of his mother. He interpolated fragments of his experience writing the book into the book and thereby became drawn into a web of self-reference and self-absorption that was denser than ever. Writing about writing is dull stuff, largely. As a chronicler of ordinary life, Johnson could see that the subject of See the Old Lady Decently was writing itself, an arid area destined to become ever more self-regarding. The novel was to be part of a trilogy but Johnson understood the line he was pursuing was exhausted, not least because he had already quarried his own life for material in previous novels. He did not write the subsequent two books planned and died shortly after delivering the manuscript of the first to his publisher; See the Old Lady Decently has never been republished.

It could be argued that technical novelty was actually impeding Johnson. He was in danger of being known – when he was known at all by the reading public – as a producer of literary gimmicks. It is the case that some of his novels were very slight in terms of narrative substance. More substantial characters, denser stories, more complete back stories to indicate motivation – all of these would have made Johnson’s novels more satisfying. It is possible that Johnson’s devices would have proved even more taxing to readers if the books had been longer. Johnson was often writing under the pressure of deadlines because of his contracts and he was hamstrung by his ideological position resisting pure invention. Seven novels, two collections of poems and a number of play and film scripts written in the curse of a decade was a relatively demanding production rate for an author who had additionally to write a fair quantity of journalism and who involved himself in the life of his young family.

Johnson’s novels Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966), The Unfortunates and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) are rewarding and memorable novels, which are largely successful as literature. What stands out in these books is not so much the technical experimentation – which is often quite modest and to a degree peripheral to the overall experience of reading the novels – but the clarity of writing, the author’s intelligence and sensitivity, the memorable images and humour. The formal innovations do not distract from the substance of the novels. Other nouvelle roman novelists could be much more ambitious than Johnson, whose attachment to radical formalism was tempered by a desire to reach a mass audience.  Johnson wanted to have a readership comparable to that for the novels of James Joyce and the prose and drama of Samuel Beckett. Johnson was always ready to promote his books and to be interviewed. He frequently made suggestions to his publishers and agents about how to market his books. He wanted to be a respected novelist, earn a living from royalties and advances alone and also maintain intellectual credibility. That he managed to sustain all of these three to a degree (however erratically or uncertainly) is a measure of Johnson’s skill and tenacity. However, depressed by the death of his mother and marital difficulties and anxious about the relative commercial failure of his books and – most importantly – frustrated by the apparent dead-end he had reached in his literary work, Johnson took his own life in November 1973. His reputation ebbed over the following decades, with most of books out of print, and it was only with the republication of some of his novels in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Johnson reached a new generation. It seems unlikely that the revival of Johnson’s reputation will extend to his poetry. This minor revival was aided by an intelligent and sympathetic biography, Like a Fiery Elephant (2004), by Jonathan Coe.

Zulfikar Ghose is less known to general British readers, though he was a highly regarded young poet in the 1960s, frequently anthologised and widely published. Many readers while approach this volume of correspondence knowing some of Johnson’s novels and perhaps nothing at all of Ghose’s writings. Ghose was born in Sialkot, India (later Pakistan) and moved to London in the late 1940s. He later read English at the Keele University. His poems were published from the late 1950s onwards and his first novel (The Contradictions) appeared in 1966. His writing style displays greater diversity than Johnson’s, ranging from formally experimental Modernism to more traditional narrative realism. Ghose has rejected the label as a diaspora or post-colonial writer, although some of his early subjects included topics related to his country of origin.

Ghose was more successful as a poet than Johnson was, though no jealousy is apparent in the correspondence. After earning a living as a teacher, Ghose was offered a position in the English department of the University of Texas at Austin, where he moved in 1969. He has been resident in Texas since then. Like Johnson, Ghose wrote sports journalism, including cricket reports for The Observer. He visited Brazil with his Brazilian wife and wrote three novels based on his experiences there (The Incredible Brazilian (1972-8)). His extensive literary friendships generated a large body of correspondence, some of which is housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and the British Library. His relocation to Texas has probably contributed to the decline of Ghose’s current profile in Britain.

Johnson and Ghose collaborated a number of times: first on Ghose’s university literary review, later on some pieces of journalism, a book of short stories (Statement Against Corpses (1964)), an unpublished book of social satire and some unrealised projects. Johnson and Ghose’s poetry was published together alongside the poems of Gavin Ewart in the Penguin Modern Poets series (1975). These projects form many of the subjects the pair discussed by letter.

One of the pleasures of this collection of correspondence is discovering Ghose as a writer. Any reader of Johnson’s novels and biography already knows his topics, prosodic rhythm and idioms, which are to be found in abundance in these letters. The biography has mined this correspondence so thoroughly that one recognises many passages word for word. What one discovers in Ghose’s letters is an opinionated and vigorous commentator on literature – especially of his time – who is struggling to make a living as a writer. The publication of this correspondence may stimulate Johnson fans to read Ghose’s books.

 

This collection consists of all surviving letters from Ghose to Johnson present in the Johnson archive at the British Library (donated by Johnson’s widow, Virginia) and letters from Johnson to Ghose present in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas (donated by Ghose). In addition to the letters and cards, there are poems by Johnson and Ghose about each other, a statement about Ghose’s writing by Johnson dating from 1967, Ghose’s memoir entitled “Bryan” (originally published in 1985) and an interview with Ghose by this volume’s editor (originally published in 2013). There are extensive indices.

The letters are organised chronologically. The first letter is from Ghose to Johnson, dated 6 March 1959. Johnson’s letters from January 1961 to late 1962 are missing. The letters divide roughly equally in terms of proportion per writer. Most were typed, with a number of postcards being handwritten. No item is reproduced in facsimile except the telegram of 17 November 1973 notifying Ghose of Johnson’s death, which concludes the correspondence.

The initial subject of letters is literary editing. Both Johnson and Ghose edited student journals and anthologies and exchanged opinions or asked for recommendation. Some names which come up will be familiar while others are of writers now forgotten. The pair wrote about literature in general. There is a mutual aversion to Movement writers, a distrust of Eliot’s verse drama and scepticism towards many of the big literary names of the era. Ghose grew to admire contemporary American writers while Johnson was most attached to Joyce and Beckett.

Johnson greatly admired Beckett and frequently described him as the greatest living writer. When he had the chance, he contacted Beckett and became a correspondent and friendly acquaintance, visiting Beckett when he was in Paris. It is interesting that no letters from Beckett to Johnson are included in the four volumes of Beckett letters, though there are letters to others recommending Johnson as a worthy recipient of literary awards and prizes. Johnson credited Beckett’s intervention as instrumental in getting Christie Malry published in America. Upon learning of Johnson’s death, Beckett wrote to Michael Bakewell, Johnson’s agent.

Dear Michael

Thanks for yours of 14.

I learnt the shocking grievous news at end of last week.

I have had a brief card from Virginia.

I missed T.C. in Paris.

It wd be good to see you again, here or anywhere.

Best always,

Sam[i]

(“T.C.” is “telephone call”, a reference to the fact that Johnson attempted (and failed) to contact Beckett by telephone several times in the days before his suicide.)

Johnson retained – and often seemed to nurture – a class-based resentment of successful middle-class writers. As the child of a working-class family, the first of his family to receive a university education, Johnson had the aspiration to be accepted by a literary class composed largely of middle-class writers and was quick to ascribe professional slights against him to class snobbery. Not that Johnson wasn’t a snob. He could be dismissive of people, books and social trends that did not conform with his views and his inflexibility on political and artistic matters seems very much the product of personal insecurity. Johnson simultaneously wanted to be accepted into a social set that he resented while experiencing a degree of guilt at his inevitable separation from his roots. One reason for Johnson’s idealisation of Wales, which he visited many times, must have been its apparent lack of class distinctions – not apparent to him at least.

Taking sides – even inventing sides if no clear distinction was visible – was a way of making social issues and art adversarial, a kind of moral dialectical football match between progressives and conservatives. It gave Johnson a purpose but it was an approach which inevitably isolated him and caused resentment among colleagues and people who potentially might have supported his writing. Johnson became belatedly politically involved when the Conservative party gained power in the general election of 1970. As a left-winger, he was ambivalent about Communism following visits to Eastern Bloc countries as part of cultural delegations. He found the systems of government oppressive and absurd but he admired the respect that literature was held in by the general public.

Johnson was resentful of the advantages graduates of Oxford and Cambridge had in the literary world and willing to bludgeon perceived enemies as relying on social ties to advance themselves beyond the levels their talents (or lack thereof) befitted them to. Ghose made few such comments. Ghose never mentions racial or religious prejudice in the letters, finding a lack of Oxfordian connections more of a hindrance than any resistance to his Pakistani heritage.

One of the most prominent characteristics of this correspondence is the humour. The writers shared a common mordant sense of humour and exchanged jokes and limericks they had encountered or invented. Upon learning that her husband would be receiving compensatory damages for libel, Virginia Johnson told him that she wanted to use the money to buy a freezer. “Freezer a jolly good fellow,” Johnson commented. On another occasion, school pupils were asked the meaning of “fructify”, to which one pupil muttered “Fructify I know”.

In the letters, the pair rate brands of typewriters (Olympia poor, Olivetti good) and pass on family news (they attended dinner parties at each other’s homes when they lived in London). There is relatively little literary gossip outside of tips and warnings regarding editors, publishers and agents that the pair dealt with professionally. Current affairs do not get much of a look in. Letters sent by Ghose from Brazil and India, and by Johnson from Paris, are richer in description and more informative about their daily lives than their usual letters.

We were almost killed in a car crash exactly a month ago in the wilderness of the state of Goias on our way back from Brasilia. We did the daft thing of going on a dirt road at night , were chased by a a lorry, misjudged a narrow wooden bridge, took it on two wheels and were going careering down into the river but were halted by a tree, which, saving us, made a concertina of the front of the car. I chipped a front tooth and that was all the personal damage.

Ghose to Johnson, 8 February 1967

Cars became a recurrent topic between them. They shared recommendations and comparisons of vehicles.

The main subject of their discussions is their writing. They exchanged newly written poems and stories and sent copies of books, expecting the other to comment honestly and constructively. Although they lived in London at the same time and met frequently, writing letters in privacy allowed them to set out clearly their responses to texts. Their comments are often technical, to do with metre or stress. Although many of the suggestions are minor, the writers did not shy away from criticising whole poems or books. The friendship relied upon candour and expertise depended on complete openness about the writer’s reservations regarding a piece of writing. Readers will often not have access to the poems analysed in these letters, though some poems are included in the body of the letters. Johnson’s novels are easily found, Ghose’s less so.

The pair were equally supportive and critical about each other’s writings, though generally in sympathy. Johnson was liable to be more dogmatic on literary questions.

Ghose’s savage criticism of Johnson’s script Whose Dog Are You Anyway? is a dispassionate dissection. The script was for an anti-clerical stage drama written by Johnson. The script was rejected and has never been performed complete, though extracts have been staged. Ghose’s comments bear quoting at length:

I did not like it. I thought the subject-matter merited a short essay but not a full-length play. It is certainly brave of you to try and write a play about a general idea and the play is probably new in this respect, having no story or character involvement; but such an attempt ought to be either wildly funny or devastatingly aggressive in its use of language, and it is neither; it ought to punch the audience in its stomach, but it does not do so. It is only mildly amusing, too often the humour seemed to be weak. At some points you say in your directions that the audience will laugh; I did not do so nor could imagine myself doing so given the performance. I noticed, too, that at one point you leave the actors to invent their own joke; I don’t trust that and it makes me suspect, maybe wrongly, that you couldn’t be bothered to invent one yourself. For I’ve never known you to leave the slightest detail to anyone else. […]

I don’t expect a PhD disputation, but I do expect lively writing and a really convincing refutation, a once-and-for-all balls to god. Instead the dialogue had a bored air about it, the feeling that we’ve-been-through-it-before; this may well be your intention, but to the theme of the play this situation is an important one and you should have dealt with it with fierce rhetoric. The argument is valid, but its statement is without force. […]

The whole thing is too loose. From the moment when the MC begins to talk about normal and abnormal to the Evangelist’s speeded up insanity, I get the impression that you’re not being tough enough with your language; and intellectually, it’s less than a satisfactory performance.

Ghose to Johnson, 19 July 1967

Johnson responded with a mixture of despondent acceptance and exculpatory defensiveness. To the comment about allowing actors to invent dialogue he replied: “You must accept that (a) actors will not do exactly as you intended”. This is an evasion Samuel Beckett would not have given a second’s consideration to. “The main thing that upset me was your pointing out that the language wasn’t up to my usual standards […]” He admitted he was bored by the writing and that “I don’t have the rhetoric it wants”, implying that the play was an ultimately futile endeavour, as subsequent commentators have agreed it to be. It is more than a little unfair that many readers – perhaps a majority – will be more familiar with an unpublished and unperformed minor play by Johnson than they will be with perhaps any published novel of Ghose’s.

As the correspondence reaches the early 1970s, Johnson’s frustration with the publishing world in general and his career in particular becomes evident.

Did you know they’ve turned down my SELECTED SHORTER PROSE? Irresponsible publishing, I called it, and he got very annoyed. They did not even bother to discuss the book with me – just turned it down.

Johnson to Ghose, 25 September 1970

I’ve just about surfaced after a long (well, four months) period of financial depression, which gave me other sorts of depression as well. I was cheated out of directing a film for which I’d done the script on the understanding I’d be seriously considered to direct it.

Johnson to Ghose, 31 October 1971

Increasingly concerned about supporting his family on his earnings from writing, Johnson considered returning to school teaching. Ghose attempted to arrange for Johnson to take a position of visiting lecturer at the University of Texas, a plan which fell through. We can witness Ghose’s concern for his friend and the equanimity with which he treated Johnson’s rare outbursts of rancour in these letters.

As for The Writing Centre of Great Britain, I shall be pleased to be made its head at £50,000 a year, since I am best qualified. But I shall give one lecture a year, if I think so, on a subject of my own choosing, to last no longer than three seconds. I’m a writer, not a teacher.

Johnson to Ghose, 13 June 1972

With (infallible) hindsight we can see Johnson’s accelerating slide towards the point of extinction. Yet Johnson’s jocose morbidity takes on a suicidal cast only in retrospect and there is much here that – had Johnson’s career taken a slightly different turn and had he lived longer – would seem no more severe than Larkin’s pessimistic rationalisations in his letters.

Readers will be left with the impression of a close bond of friendship and a frank exchange of intellectual ideas between two accomplished writers, serious about not only their craft but also their subjects.

3.

As a publication of literary correspondence, this volume has serious flaws.

The editing of the volume leaves a lot to be desired. Meaningless misspellings such as “libary” and “silverbich” are retained, as is “out [sic] magazine” instead of a silent correction to “our” or “[our]”. “BFI” is best altered to “BFI [British Film Institute]” or written as a footnote rather than the intrusive “B[ritish]F[ilm]I[nstitute]”. Famous figures are given footnotes but some obscure ones are missed. Some obvious and unimportant slips go unremarked upon while others merit footnotes or “[sic]” insertions. Readers will be puzzled to see authors’ handwritten notes made on typewritten letters printed as footnotes rather than as part of the main letter text itself. (Or included in the text – the editing is consistently inconsistent.)

This volume ought to have been either a reading edition (silent corrections or corrections in parenthesis) or a critical edition (transcribed verbatim). Instead, it is an awkward mixture. We don’t get the authors in a fluently readable form because we stumble across intrusive annotation; at the same time, we wonder about what might have been silently corrected. Annotations are inconsistent, sometimes being placed later in the text than the first appearance of that reference or abbreviation. Common abbreviations of titles of Johnson’s work go unaltered, expanded or subject to footnotes, apparently at random.

Every editor must decide his/her methodology dependent upon an assessment of whether the letters under consideration will be read sequentially or individually. It is reasonable – with a group as cohesive as this – that readers will read the Johnson-Ghose letters sequentially and subsequently consult letters in isolation while retaining some familiarity. The methodology should therefore have been formulated accordingly, which it has not been. What the exact methodology is is unclear. There is no editorial procedure described in this book. Contrast this with the exemplary methodologies in the Beckett and Hemingway volumes.

Aside from a flawed methodology – and the inconsistent application thereof – there are some obvious editorial errors. Residents of Ruthin, Denbighshire will be crestfallen to read of Johnson’s visit to “Ruthkin, Denbigshire” in the footnotes.

These matters could have been avoided had there been a firm hand on the editorial tiller – or a clearer and rationalised methodology – and the employment of a competent proof-reader. Do not take from these comments that the editing is terrible. It is not. It is adequate but illogical, suffering frequent lapses and has an unsettling inconsistency which gives the attentive reader a vague unease about what has been missed, omitted and silently changed. This is a common problem in editions of texts that fall between the reading edition and the critical edition. While the substance of the volume is of great interest and a satisfying read, it is not – despite the impression given by the commentary, annotation, indices and presentation – close to critical-edition standard.

Finally, the binding deserves comment. This collection of correspondence is a valuable source of information not only about the writers but British print journalism, poetry and author-agent-publisher relations in the period covered and as such will be a reference work consulted for many decades to come. The imprint is an academic one and care has been taken to make the volume as comprehensive as possible. This shows that the editor and publishers understand that the volume is intended as a lasting reference work. The book is priced highly, as academic books generally are. However, while the hardcovers and binding in cloth (a silky black cloth) are sturdy and attractive, the pages are perfect bound not signature bound. Perfect binding is much less durable than signature binding. Furthermore, perfect-bound pages are generally not repairable if the internal spine splits; signature-bound pages can easily be repaired and re-bound. For a reference work intended to last many decades (and priced commensurately), perfect binding is entirely inappropriate. It is a production decision made to cut costs, one that will disappoint purchasers.

Alexander Adams

19 January 2017

[i] Quoted by Alan Burns, “Two chapters from a book provisionally titled “Human Like the Rest of Us: A Life of B. S. Johnson”, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1997. Reproduced on www.bsjohnson.co.uk

Samuel Beckett: a man of letters

“There are few figures in modern literature as enigmatic as Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). His dramas Waiting for Godot and Happy Days present characters in predicaments equally pitiful and grotesque. His novels such as Murphy, Watt and Malone Dies give internal monologues of characters trapped in webs of memory and doubt. These works are quintessential examples of existential literature, though they have been described as absurdist. He was famously resistant to exegesis and refused to explain what his writings ‘meant’, a stance which generated exasperation and admiration in equal measure from detractors and supporters. ‘I know no more of the characters than what they say, what they do and what happens to them.’

“A collection of approximately 2,500 letters, postcards and telegrams fills the 3,500 pages of the recently completed four-volume set, The Letters of Samuel Beckett. Beckett, and later his estate, stipulated that the only letters to be published should be those directly addressing his work. Yet it would be incorrect to say the selection neglects the personal because writing described and defined Beckett’s outlook on life. As readers of his novels notice, there is often an overlap between the fiction and the events in Beckett’s own life….”

Read the full review of Samuel Beckett’s letters in 4 volumes on Spiked, 16 January 2017 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/samuel-beckett-a-man-of-letters/19206#.WHy8SPl_s5k

Iris Murdoch’s Letters

“Younger readers will know Anglo-Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) from her husband’s memoir Iris and its film adaptation. Yet, Murdoch dominated British fiction and public thought for a good part of the 1950s, right up until the 1980s. Murdoch occupied a similar position to Virginia Woolf in the 1930s, as an ambitious, highbrow novelist capable of selling well and receiving critical acclaim. Murdoch won every prize available, and was conferred a Damehood and multiple honours by the time dementia overtook her in her last years.

“Murdoch was something of a rarity in the British literary world: a novelist who was also a confirmed intellectual, who taught and published on moral philosophy….”

Read the entire review online on Spiked, 28 January 2016, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/review-iris-murdochs-letters/17975#.Vqn-s_l_s5k

William S. Burroughs: Letters, vol. 2

“Volume 1 of William Burroughs’s letters took readers from 1945 to 1959, following his frequent changes of location from New York to Texas, Mexico City, Tangiers and Paris, as he turned his hand to junk pushing, cannabis growing, pea farming, psychopharmacological investigation and – finally – writing. Burroughs skipped bail and left Mexico for good after accidentally shooting his wife dead, leaving their son Billy to be raised by his grandparents in Florida. During this early period, letters were a vital conduit for Burroughs’s political and intellectual ideas and for the continuation of friendships, principally with Allen Ginsberg.

In Volume 2 we pick up the story with Burroughs living in Paris, just having sent off the proofs of Naked Lunch to the printers…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 30 March 2012 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/12298#.Vd94GPldU5k

Vincent Van Gogh: letters

“When young Dutchwoman Jo Bonger met picture-dealer Theo Van Gogh, she was intrigued by the stream of yellow envelopes that arrived for him from the south of France. These were from his brother Vincent, an unsuccessful painter intent on creating a school of independent avant-garde painters in Arles. Little did she know how significant these letters would become in her life.

“The bond between the brothers Van Gogh is at the core of the artist’s letters, which are now considered an outstanding part of world literature. Theo provided Vincent with support and advice during the turbulent years Vincent endured during his short (and usually disastrous) stints as an art dealer, bookseller, schoolmaster, preacher and missionary. Later, when Vincent’s relationship with his father deteriorated to a point when his parents could no longer countenance his eccentric and obstinate ways, Theo agreed to take over paying the allowance their father had previously provided…”

Read the full review at SPIKED, 19 December 2014:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/van-goghs-deeply-human-letters/16387#.Vd9K7PldU5k