Lengthy Biographies, James Joyce and Other Letters to the Editor

All the Lives I Want

To the Editor:

Daphne Merkin is to be lauded for her review of “Red Comet” (Dec. 27), Heather Clark’s new work about the “Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath.” The combination of extraordinary talent and self-destructive behavior culminating in suicide sparks the curiosity of many of us, especially those, like myself, who have spent decades working in the world of mental health. Merkin herself is someone who has suffered her own depression and has shared this with us in many illuminating and provocative works.

Merkin wonders whether “there is little to be added” about Plath, but then dispels this not only with her discussion of Clark’s ideas but also by providing those of her own.

Especially poignant was Clark’s observation, emphasized by Merkin, that Plath’s last poems were filled with a mixture of both rage and control. Clark gives voice to their intriguing impression of “having been written posthumously,” the paradoxical but also very real sense of the admixture of life and death in suicide.

While Merkin does not lead us to the solution of the mystery of suicide, she whets our appetite to hear not only more about Plath but also more of her own speculations and insights.

Warren R. Procci, M.D.
Los Angeles

To the Editor:

Would it be possible for your book reviewers to take points off for excessive length? I give you the latest biography of Sylvia Plath, a doorstop that weighs in at 1,118 pages. I, like every other member of my book club, would not think of reading a book of that length, no matter how compelling.

I do make the occasional exception and recently read Obama’s new 700-page memoir, which was a pleasure. But I can’t imagine reading the latest tome about Ted Kennedy, for example, which clocks in at 928 pages and is only the first installment of two volumes.

Who, really, has time to read books of this length? Biographies in particular are prone to go on at great length and so will generally not find the audience their subjects deserve. I consider myself a lover of biography, so I hope publishers will ask themselves what they can do to curtail this unfortunate practice.

Barbara Matusow
Bethesda, Md.

Alternating Stories

To the Editor:

Because I am a lame (and lamentable) reader of books, I dream of leading a club whose happy chore it is to read and discuss the best review of each week’s Book Review: The Book Review Review Club.

I pick the review, not for its object but for itself, the pleasure of its own words, its clarity and its poetry, the way it quickens my heartbeat. Sometimes the winning choice is not clear. Not so this Sunday. I announce to my circle that we shall be reading and discussing Michael Cunningham’s essay “How Virginia Woolf Revolutionized the Novel” (Dec. 27), with a lingering on life being “a chaos of decisions made and not made, of the consequences of both, and of the uncountable parallel lives lived silently, invisibly, alongside our own.”

David L. Myers
Berlin, Md.

To the Editor:

Michael Cunningham’s essay has it wrong. The novel that revolutionized modern literature with the masterpiece of an ordinary day was published in 1922, three years before “Mrs. Dalloway”; its author was James Joyce and its title is “Ulysses.”

In brief, nearly every accolade Cunningham showers on “Mrs. Dalloway” is much more appropriately assigned to and demonstrated first in “Ulysses”:

“contains just about everything one needs to know about human life”

“a single day in the life of a relatively conventional person”

“consciousness passes from one character to another”

“encompasses … almost infinite shades and degrees of happiness, loss, satisfaction, regret and tragedy”

“the book’s most singular innovation … is the alternating stories” (Leopold, Stephen, Gerty, Molly)

While this takes nothing away from the fine work that “Mrs. Dalloway” represents, it is worth noting that Woolf read “Ulysses” while writing her novel. Of course, Oscar Wilde said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and T. S. Eliot added that “great writers steal,” as Shakespeare and Joyce (among many others) did.

But, in the case of the revolution of the modern novel, it is important to remember that Joyce did it first and, for many readers, best.

Richard J. Gerber
Lake Peekskill, N.Y.

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