I liked Michael Cunningham’s dark and insightful explorations of traditional fairytales in Wild Swan: And Other Tales. For a start it is a beautiful object, sparingly illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, a slim hardback wrapped in a lovely rough-textured paper. These stories attempt to explain some of the motives of their well-known – yet oddly opaque – characters, and to follow their characters beyond the bounds of ‘happily ever after’.
I particularly liked Rumpelstiltskin, where we discover why the sad little man helps turn straw into gold (and what sort of psychotic king demands such tribute on pain of death, and what sort of father says his daughter can do such a thing) and demands a baby in return. Also the first story is very clever, about what happens to the brother, bewitched into a swan, whose sister only has time to make almost twelve of the nettle-shirts that will restore her swan brothers to human shape. His shirt is missing an arm and so is he – although he does have a very beautiful wing. But how do then live the rest of your life, making your family uncomfortable by reminding them of family rifts, one-armed and so very other?
Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life is quite unsettling. A colleague loved it and recommended it, and I was interested as I knew the Hughes and Plath myths and legends but only the outline that ‘everyone’ sort of knows.
As dark and fascinating in its way as Cunningham’s tales, it describes a life lived in a maelstrom of passion and death and guilt and raw talent. Not to mention fame and excoriating public opprobrium. On the one hand it feels like the old familiar story of the genius who requires the maelstrom to produce his work, regardless of who gets hurt, and who is somehow excepted from observing social rules or norms in exchange for sharing his – very great – gifts with us. On the other hand Hughes really did seem to need to live his life in the way he is famous for, and I guess it is no one’s business but the people living it with him – except some of them died. The awfulness of the suicides of Sylvia Plath, his first wife, and then his lover Assia Wevill, who also killed their 4 year old daughter Shura, seems insurmountable but I thought Bate very carefully, fairly and clearly spelt out what happened in each case.
Bate, who went from favoured biographer to persona non grata with the Hughes estate, was not allowed to quote much at all from the poems, and so the book concerns itself very much with the rest of his life, his deep love of British landscape and wildlife, his beliefs about astrology and a sort of occult spiritulism, his encouragement of children reading, writing and listening to poetry. Overarching all in the biography, much like in life, his relationships successful and unsuccessful make up so much of the story. I feel a bit odd about knowing all this intimate stuff about people far away and long dead – even if they are literary giants. Turns out, I might lean more towards those who believe that the work is the important thing – not so much the minutiae of the writer’s life, which I, a reader of biographies, wasn’t expecting.
A fascinating look at a man who said he didn’t ever want a biography but who’d been keeping journals, letters and drafts of his work with one and half eyes on posterity since he was about 16, saying one thing and meaning it, while doing another, and meaning that too – and always, there is the poetry.