Biography / They Came to Praise Assia

The point of interest is all the nothing that Ted Hughes' mistress accomplished during her lifetime - nothing except for conducting an affair with a handsome and mysterious poet who was married to the greatest poet of them all.

Hayeha U'mota shel Assia G.

Hatzela Hayisraelit ben Ted Hughes LeSylvia Plath (The Life and Death of Assia G.: The Israeli Shadow Between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath), by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev; Kinneret, Zmora Bitan, Dvir (Hebrew), 335 pages, NIS 88, in Hebrew (Published in English as "Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love"; Da Capo Press, $15.95, paperback)

Sylvia Plath is a legend, in her death rather than in her lifetime, as she was always meant to be, as she always knew she would be: Lady Lazarus, a phoenix resurrected from ashes and paper, Electra, Medusa and Persephone all rolled into one. The poet has become so legendary that after about 100 biographies of her, one has even been written about the "other woman," the one who broke up Plath's marriage to Ted Hughes. And lo and behold, I found this book telling the story of Assia Gutman Wevill to be perhaps the most intriguing one related to Plath's life that I have read so far - and I have read a great many of them. It was intriguing not because of my uncontrollable desire to get my hands on every scrap of paper bearing Sylvia Plath's name, but mainly because it is may be the first "anti-biography" I have ever read.

"A Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love" offers the antithesis of what lies at the heart of other biographies. In most cases, those who purchase a biography will approach it out of affection and admiration for the work of the subject (especially in the case of artists), sometimes even in a spirit of fear and trembling. But to date, I have never encountered the story of a life that will be read out of hatred for the subject and the role that subject played in the life of another, esteemed figure - a biography in which the point of interest is the nothing that character accomplished during her lifetime. Really nothing, except for conducting an affair with a handsome and mysterious poet who was married to the greatest poet of them all.

Wevill, born Assia Gutman in Berlin in 1927, grew up in Tel Aviv, and left for London with the first man who offered to take her there. She attended art school, worked as a secretary and in advertising, and was a homemaker. She loved the arts, especially writing and drawing. But she wasn't published or showcased. She just had hobbies. Most people do.

Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, the Israeli journalists who wrote the book, took on two missions. The first was to change the minds of the convinced. If potential readers are fans of Hughes, also a poet, then they have before them a strong indictment of the man who helped lead a woman over the abyss (and who was apparently the quintessential Narcissus, though there is nothing new in a discussion of his insensitivity). And if they are, like me, admirers of Plath, they will be confronted by the book's attempt to arouse their sympathy for Wevill, whom Plath herself referred to as "the bitch." That second mission is the more challenging and by far the more fascinating of their goals: to add another layer to the complex and dark tale whose principal protagonists were Plath and Hughes.

The book before us represents a considerable journalistic achievement. It includes a thorough and comprehensive investigation of its principal character, as well as affection for her and a daring - perhaps overly daring - attempt to tie the various narratives it tells into one impressive package. It is a story that would rescue the life of the unfortunate Assia Wevill from the fate that she herself planned for it, a cruel fate that took the life of an innocent child - Shura, the illegitimate daughter of Wevill and Hughes. When Assia killed herself, in 1969, by exposing herself to the fumes of a gas oven, she also murdered her 4-year-old daughter.

The book also offers a useful lesson that ought to be internalized: One should not conduct affairs with married men, or poets, and not necessarily in that order.

As far as style is concerned, the photos of the chic Wevill are the only opportunity afforded for encountering it in the book. The closure and the presentation itself are sometimes absurd, almost embarrassing, and interpretive in nature; they are like a gossipy E! channel for literature lovers. In the authors' telling, Assia tends to be jealous, Ted is full of passion and the core of their love remains unextinguished.

When Plath finds a book in Hughes' apartment, write Negev and Koren, "that she had slashed in jealous rage a year and a half earlier, she opened [it] and read the inscription. Judging by her revulsion, it had been Assia's consoling gift to Ted, to replace the volume he had lost. For Sylvia, it was a fatal blow, like a bullet striking a running animal." Wevill's complex and attractive personality and her talents as a painter and poet, all of which come in for praise in the book, lead one to a conclusion that is the opposite of what the authors intended: that Wevill was not unique in any way. The "other woman" could in fact have been any other woman. It seems that, more than anything else, it was her submissiveness and blind devotion that caused her to be singled out by Hughes as a worthy target. His trick was simple. He never knew what he wanted from her. She knew, though; Wevill wanted to be the wife of an artist.

The raven's covetousness

The familiar mantra (which Hughes also seized upon, for his own reasons) is that Plath did not commit suicide because of Wevill or Hughes, but because of her own internal demons. Indeed, Plath and Hughes' son Nicholas Hughes killed himself in March of this year, at the age of 47, after suffering from severe depression - making it impossible not to think that, yes, there was some chemical or biological basis for Plath's suicidal inclination.

Anyone who has had the privilege of reading or even perusing Plath's wonderful poems, her fascinating diary or her brilliant novel, "The Bell Jar," understands that Sylvia saw too much. Her eyes witnessed what a flesh-and-blood person should not see. The crazy oracle was fated to die. The angel became insane when embodied as flesh and blood, and therefore it seems that Hughes' choice of Wevill was an act of revenge.

This is not specifically stated in the book, but is certainly present in the photographs, which show that Wevill did not surpass Sylvia in any way: not in wisdom, talent, or even taste in clothes. Plath was as rare as a unicorn. Wevill was another muse to the glory of boredom. She certainly is much more representative of the public, a woman of the times, but the authors' attempt to turn her into a feminist heroine is sad at best. She was not a heroine. She was exceptional only in her strong and blinding beauty.

Plath knew that Hollywood-style beauty, the kind that is beyond all criticism, was not her lot. Had she lived to read this book, she probably would have found consolation in the fat farmer's-wife arms that Wevill developed after the birth of her daughter - the view of a spare tire around the belly and a heavy backside are the best gift that the "other woman" could have given her. In fact, if Sylvia Plath were with us today, she would probably have read this book with enthusiasm and understood everything from the photos.

Ah, the photos. Never mind the photos of Hughes during his visit to Israel with his friend Yehuda Amichai, but a photo of one of the authors embracing Hughes and smiling? It arouses a feeling of admiration, yes, but it is also in bad taste. This reader admits: It is impossible not to desire Hughes, the tall, dark, tortured poet with the sculpted jaw. Dark sex appeal. Burning poetry. Hawk eyes. The covetousness of a raven. But isn't there a need here for a certain degree of distance from the subject of the writing? As for Plath, there's a picture of her at the end of the photo selection, in which she looks melancholy, as usual.

The magic disappeared

Plath and Hughes were the children of gods, while Wevill was a mere mortal. It is interesting to discover in the book the extent to which Wevill and Hughes appear to have realized that Plath was a genius. Assia stole her writings, leafed through her books, marked key lines and sentenced herself to the role of groupie of both Plath and Hughes. At least in one of the two cases she proved she had good taste.

It is hard not to think that the entire story involves a matter of ambiguous and disturbing karma. Anyone who has already read biographies of Sylvia Plath cannot help believing that, in her life as in her death, she deliberately cast a dark spell on the two.

Unfortunately, the real magic is missing from the book: the words of the spells woven by Plath in her poems and other writing (though in any case, they suffer from rewriting and censorship by Hughes).

There was also a bloody competition between Plath and Hughes, with pages of poetry covered on both sides - her side, his side, comments. Hughes inspired Plath in a certain sense. In the short term, he was acclaimed, but posterity will remember her, and he was, after all, sentenced to be her husband, and to write forewords and comments about her. The intensity of the suffering produced a diamond that provided material for Hughes in later years, and neutered him. Justice really is poetic.

Koren and Negev's book has one main advantage: This is the first book about Plath that has not made me want to hole up at home in secluded silence for three weeks. All told, "Lover of Unreason" is a journalistic achievement. But a masterpiece? Please read "The Bell Jar."