This novel makes palpable Sylvia Plath’s consuming choice between art and child

Your children’s skin, the time to see how everything changes and is forgiven, sex, son Nicholas, daughter Frieda, the sea and the rocks and Ted Hughes running away.

Euphoria by the Swedish author Elin Cullhed (1983) opens with these ‘seven reasons not to die’, and it is telling.

In this powerful novel with Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) as fictional character and narrator, it was precisely the intention to life of this brilliant and complicated poet, in contrast to her famous death by suicide.

The freedom that Cullhed allows itself is great. She emphatically states that the novel cannot be read as a biography. This story is the sediment of a personal obsession born of identification with Plath: the enormous struggle of the woman who marries, gives birth to children and tries to keep writing. To do Plath justice, Cullhed has taken inspiration from her texts and letters.

The story covers Sylvia Plath’s last fifteen months: she lives with up-and-coming poet Ted Hughes in an old vicarage in a drafty English village in Devon. Daughter Frieda is two, son Nicholas is on the way. The family still has to settle in the village and conquer the large garden around the house. The frustration quickly shows itself in the abrasive reflection: what if the family is not subordinate to writing? Care practices transform space into a routine emptiness, ‘the sweet meaninglessness’, where literature emerges with difficulty.

In blistering scenes, Cullhed depicts writing as a space you have to fight for. She shows that certain structures in the care of children are stronger than the parents themselves, and that isolation threatens the woman in the family: the father could be separated more easily, perhaps prompted by the oppressive bond that the mother can have with her child, by carrying , feed and feed. Hughes seems to appropriate the authorship more easily and give it more of a right to exist. These are the moments when he fails to see her and addresses her as his equal: husband, parent and also a writer: ‘Like Ted, I also wanted to go to the attic and be important, but I knew that someone had to lie here to infinity to be for his child.’

Out of this fundamentally skewed tendency grows a very significant and difficult relationship with motherhood. These are two conflicting stories that together form one truth. This ambivalence makes the novel strong, for example in scenes where Sylvia looks at her children with an overwhelming love and tenderness and feels that no novel can ever compete with that. At the same time, she knows:[..] that a woman could never grow the moment she became a mother: for then she made herself available to the universe, then she became everything, never herself again.’

Selfish hunger

That a writer has to be fought here makes it even more complicated. Writing is an unpredictable and invisible process that requires a lot of contemplation. There is a lot of skepticism to overcome when you withdraw from a busy family life to spend a few hours upstairs and think quietly. It requires a lot of patience and trust in a long-term promise: it’s not there yet, but something is coming. It is also uncertain and largely self-imposed. This makes it a tough battle to be fought against direct and concrete tasks, the partner’s work schedule or unexpected care of a sick child.

But the battle you have to fight within yourself is perhaps even more difficult: to take that promise that something will come seriously and to force space for it, not to explain away the sense of urgency and then spend the hours in seclusion. spent at the expense of continuing to value something else. That writing can feel like a selfish hunger is getting in Euphoria in an empathetic way.

Furthermore, Cullhed makes visible how motherhood also nourishes Plath’s writing. It is a rich theme, one of the few where I feel that my own experience is a significant addition to writing about a topic. Besides a child, a new version of yourself is born and with it a new writer. It may take some effort to reconcile the two.

maternity leave

In my novel Little stuttering flights I also explored the coexistence of drives that are very physical and pragmatic (such as parenting) and the drive to shape something with one’s own hands and creativity (such as the work of a writer or architect). The main character Julia disappears shortly after the birth of her daughter. The story is told from the perspective of her partner, an architect. He remembers moments when she writes frantically and then deletes everything. At one point she considers devoting herself to poetry. In my novel, Julia herself has no voice, except in a poem he finds. In it, she writes about the fragile version of herself that remains in the maternity period, how ignorance, disbelief, worry and constant vigilance overwhelm her. In this one proof of her authorship, she writes about motherhood. As a mother, she has found a voice.

That something that hurts is also fruitful can take the sharp edges out of it.

Punishment of the author’s soul

In all that lonely frustration, Plath clings to Cullhed with one thought of comfort: “It is my weapon, so I shall endure these days: I shall write about it.” She assigns to all gloom a fatal function, namely the chastisement of the writer’s soul.

Thus, Sylvia’s already weathered soul is torn apart by contradictions. When she is home, she wants to leave. When she is away, she wants to go home and write. She wants to be there for others, but when she does, the irresistible urge to move back returns. The word ‘euphoria’ contains a clamping force where light and darkness unite: it must create, despite the enormous vulnerability it entails. There is a void to be filled, ‘a starving hole that eats rejection’. For all that she is, mother, daughter, wife and writer, she wants to feel loved.

The story is driven by streams of thought, where enumerations regularly ramble on and there is sometimes no time for punctuation. The constant changes in what she feels and how she interprets situations become palpable through the seemingly unfiltered style. It is an intense swing between hope and despair. The thoughts reach a climax in capital letters and exclamations.

The sensuous and earthy language gives a raw edge to her perceptions. More than once, sex has a devastating effect, ‘My husband fucks the fear out of me’, and the urge to write is animal, a wolf. Something is raw or burnt, black or white, all in contrasts, as she puts it: ‘That’s how it was in my life: dying and rising again’. The language is sometimes direct and flat, vulgar perhaps, but appropriate to the determined voice of the narrator.

Meanwhile, Sylvia continues to send terribly cheerful letters to her mother Aurelia in America. She briefly finds peace in this writing, because in these letters she can ‘cast life’. It is no exception that she will disappear a few seconds later. Moments of happiness quickly return to fear of everything,'[dat je] every day can die of claustrophobic randomness’. That makes this novel intense, to say the least.

When one of the great fears comes true; when Sylvia is convinced that Ted is having an affair and the woman in question is on the phone, her mind reads: ‘1. I HATE HIM AS MUCH AS I EVER LOVED HIM. 2. I WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THIS.” The story ends in London, before an uncertain move, in a guest bed with her children’s nanny. She decides to make a list of reasons not to die for fun. So the story is complete, and Sylvia Plath as a character has been given eternal life.

The novel is about Plath, but also transcends her private history. IN Euphoria Cullhed, a young mother and author herself, shows the enormous vulnerability of motherhood. She dares to say that becoming a mother is a kind of dying because the ‘original’ has been overwritten by another version. No wonder Sylvia Plath’s life and work gave her so much to hold on to. Plath wrote in the poem ‘Three woman’ about the arrival of a child: ‘There is no miracle more cruel than this‘. She also stated about motherhood: ‘It is a terrible thing to be so open. It is as if your heart put on a face and entered the world.’ Because autobiographical prose was becoming flat and boring, Cullhed gratefully took the arm of Sylvia Plath.

Beyond the strong bond with an ally, Cullhed wanted to set the record straight. The name Sylvia Plath still evokes the sharp association with her death—an effect in no way comparable to all manner of male writers who committed suicide whose focus has remained on their work. Cullhed’s intention was to bring Plath to life as the special woman, mother and writer she was. Just as the one-sided story of great parenting is a lie, the story of her death is also too one-sided.

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