Whose Story Is It Anyway?

I am grateful that author Connie Palmen sent me a copy of her recently translated Your Story, My Story, published by "Amazon Crossing". I had no intention of reading it, but found myself in need of a book and this was the only unread one on my bookshelf and I could not get to a library. 

Not being a fan of fictionalizations of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, I entered it with perhaps an unfair bias, which I must be upfront about. And ultimately, was disappointed with this simple book. Or, maybe I should say that I was satisfied that in reading it, Your Story, My Story lived up to my expectations of being a bad book. 

Your Story, My Story is essentially just a summarizing and regurgitation of Hughes' Birthday Letters, and a few other texts. It is nowhere near as good or as authentic as the originals it basically plagiarizes. And it reminds me yet again that the REAL story of lives and experiences of Plath and Hughes, and the REAL poetry they wrote, is simply just far more interesting than the imagination Palmen--and others--attempt to utilize. As a result I re-read Birthday Letters as a way, if you can believe it, to cleanse myself.

Not sure if this is a writer, a translator, or an editor issue, or all three, but the constancy of the Hughes character referring to his wife as "my bride" was archaic. I am not sure why--and I do not really care what the reason is--the author does not refer to the "wife/bride" as "Sylvia". There are just four instances in the text of the "novel" where Plath is mentioned by name. And fewer than that for "Ted". There is no doubt who the male and female lead characters are supposed to be; so many other actual people are named and actual occurrences are explicitly identified. The references to "my bride" shift on page 127, largely, to "my wife". This was supremely annoying. 

Some other problems highlight that the research for this book could have been better. 

On page 47, Palmen writes that Wilbury Crockett was her teacher at Smith. Wrong. He was in Wellesley.

On pages 23, 54, 76, etc. Palmen writes that Plath typing on her Hermes typewriter. Wrong. She used an Olivetti at this time and got the Hermes in 1959, probably around the time she went to Yaddo. 

On page 70, Palmen writes that the Ted Hughes character says his writing class is in Boston. Wrong. It was in Amherst. This is one of the logical things. Think! Would someone travel from Northampton to teach in Boston in an era before major highways? 

On page 75, Palmen writes that they lived on the 5th floor at 9 Willow Street. Wrong. It was the 6th floor.

On page 93, Palmen writes that Yellowstone National Park is in Montana? Wrong. It is in Wyoming. (Well, it spills a bit--barely a fringe of it--into Montana and Idaho, but Plath and Hughes were clearly and squarely in Wyoming.)

On page 170, Palmen writes that the Ted Hughes character says that in February 1963 he returned with Susan to 18 Rugby Street and that it was the first time he'd been there since he got married. Wrong. They spent some time there in January 1960 and Palmen he writes about that. 

This book was printed in late 2020 or in early 2021. The Author's Note is very out of date as it mentions that Ted Hughes' trunk will be opened by Emory in 2023. Wrong. In 2018, Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick and I revealed that it was opened many years ago. It also says that Hughes "donated" his papers to Emory. Wrong. He sold them. 

There is more but I will stop as I think I have made my point. 

I made light pencil notes here and there but I'd very much like to jettison this book from my house. If someone wants it, please let me know. Would prefer US only. If there is no interest with a week, then I will ensconce it---like an earthenware head into a willow tree--in one of those little free libraries that are around about.

All links accessed 6 March 2020.

Comments

  1. I also re-read Birthday Letters recently & was surprised by how touching some of the poems are. I also recently read that Smith has a box of Sylvia’s papers to be opened since Warren Plath has passed away. Is there any truth to this?!

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  2. Thank you for your comment, Paige. It wouldn't surprise me if that was the case with Smith & Warren Plath's recent passing. Where did you read this, please? ~pks

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  3. I read it in the introduction of Linda Wagner Martin’s SP biography it says that the estate mandated a box at Smith to be opened in 2013 with another box to be opened after SP’s mother & brother have passed away. I’ve been reading SP’s work & her journals & letters (thank you for those 2 volumes of her letters!) during lockdown this past year & have started reading SP biographies. I just picked Ms. Wagner Martin’s up today & saw the comment re the boxes. I hope that it’s true & that you will have solid info about it to share on your blog soon. Thank you!

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  4. I hope this is true, too. Though I asked Karen Kukil back 2017 or 2018 if Smith had any sealed Plath materials and she said no. The 2013 box was the Journals, which Ted Hughes authorized to unseal back in 1998. But it might now be worth following up with her about the comment in Wagner-Martins book. Thank you for reminding me of it. And thank you for your comment on the Letters! I'm glad to know they are being read. And quarantine /lockdown is as good a time as any! ~pks

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  5. Hi Paige, me again. I've done a little nosing around my notes and I've found that the sealed material that was to be closed until 2013 was Plath's journals from 1957-1959. And, the sealed material not to be opened until after Aurelia Plath and Warren Plath's deaths was Plath's Beuscher therapy diary/notebooks. Both of which were published in the unabridged version of Journals of Sylvia Plath. So it appears there may be nothing to look forward to (strange way of phrasing that, but you know what I mean). ~pks

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  6. That’s disappointing but thank you for checking it out, Paige

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  7. Hi Peter,
    I would be happy to take this book off of your hands. How can I DM you so I can give you my mailing address?

    How would you rank this fictionalization in comparison to Wintering by Kate Moses, & Sylvia and Ted by Emma Tennant?

    Thank you in advance.

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  8. Sir, this is by far the most scary reaction I have ever read on one of my novels. It is like its been judged by a narrow-minded schoolteacher in the middle of nowhere and without any knowledge about literature. The suggestions that you had to ‘cleanse’ yourself after reading it, is repulsive and disrespectful.
    Connie Palmen

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  9. Hi Lisa: Please email me at peterksteinberg AT hotmail DOT com. ~pks

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  10. I've to say I agree, I haven't found any fictionalization of Plath's life or story even mildly interesting. That covers everything from Kate Moses book to Poison (which really IS poison) to the Gwyneth Paltrow movie. None of it has been of any interest to me. The one exception is The Plath Cabinet by Catherine Bowman, but that is hardly a fictionalization.

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  11. Hi Peter,

    I will email you.

    Thank you.

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  12. I usually steer clear of any 'fictionalizations' as well - with 2 exceptions. 1/ I watched the film 'Sylvia' with Gwyneth Paltrow, which cemented my determination to steer clear and 2/ I read Connie Palmen's novel, in Dutch, when it appeared, which, in truth, gave me the idea that, yes, somebody was actually able to do something sensible with this story. So I'm afraid I disagree with your judgement :)

    I wasn't able to detect any of the errors you mentioned - I wrote a thesis on Plath in 1992 when amazon didn't exist yet, I had to literally travel to London to look for books, and most material (letters, diaries) were heavily censored. But Palmen actually succeeded in bringing these two people alive for me in a way that didn't feel 'off'. And even though I know the story, and know how it ends, I still read through the final pages with bated breath. I thought this quite a (literary) achievement, even though some details appear to be wrong.

    Finally, thank you for blog. I have discovered it only recently, and am simply amazed at the wealth of material and insight displayed here. Am going through it with a very fine comb. The Letters have been on my shelves for some time, and I feel the time to read them is now (once I've finished Red Comet).

    Muriel

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