You know that feeling, you open a book – yes, I’m sounding old-fashioned already having not yet truly joined the burgeoning kindle brigade – but on reading that first page I was hooked. Well and truly hooked. As I continued to read I felt the smoothness of the writing flow like a clear-running river as it navigated effortlessly the descriptions of the various bumps and eddies the main character of the book was experiencing in her life. But beneath the smooth surface there is an edge to her tale with murky depths not far off.
In fact, I realised that as I read with increasing pleasure, I was consuming the book far too fast. I slowed down to savour the enjoyment of such incredibly good writing. I marvelled at how this writer broke the rules of authorship with finesse, redefined the word ‘silence’ for instance and then in a manner that was so ‘right’ manages to intertwine the physical and the abstract worlds that she was describing in her writing that I thought: “Gee whizz, this author knows her stuff”. I have grown envious of her well-honed and inimitable skill that at a touch adds drama to what she is talking about. Her phraseology can take on the essence of an expertly-flung, luminous javelin as it hurtles through your imagination with an unparallelled spiritual kick to it. It pierces deeply and you can feel it. It rocks you to your core so that somehow her moral thrust enters into your soul and you realise that she is forcing you to re-examine the most sensitive DNA of your ethical make-up. Permit me to quote a relevant part of the story I’m reading as the heroine skis down a mountain: “A keen wind that had been hiding itself struck me full in the mouth and raked the hair back horizontal on my head …… I plummeted down past the zigzaggers, the students, the experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and compromise, into my own past.” It also has the air of the confessional about it.
So far I’m half-way through her story and I’m amazed at my reactions and thoughts. It’s not often you read a book which makes such a unique impression. Now, here is a work written by a young woman some fifty years ago in America and I know her writing has affected me – a middle-aged man living 3,000 miles away in England in the 21st century. She has touched me profoundly and it is such an exciting discovery. There is something in her poetically sparse yet honest style that is so articulate which captures exactly what is being described at any given point in her book. But that’s not all. Somehow within this richly-endowed but concise technique of hers, the author can convey imagery and emotions with pinpoint accuracy. Every time she’s on the money with a minimum of narrative that is easy to read while communicating so much to her reader. Let me give you another example: the main character – a woman – is at the top of a snow-covered mountain in winter and the scene as experienced by her reads, “The cold air punished my lungs and sinuses to a visionary clearness.” It's her use of the word 'visionary' in this context that gives new meaning to the clarity of perception experienced on a freezing mountain during a clear winter's day. But yet at the same time within the same pithy sentence there are spiritual overtones verging on the poetic with the author penning the words, 'punished' and (again) 'visionary'. To pursue the quasi-religious metaphor further, she even touches on the idea of someone having a vision in connection with a supreme deity who might be living on high. In this way, her words multi-layered in meaning with differing 'connections' resemble James Joyce et al. in the use of this literary device.
I'm sure I've given you a sufficient number of clues as to who I'm reading at the moment and the well-known writer and poet who was married to another poet who went on to become Poet Laureate of England but, the author in question, sadly took her own life shortly after the publication of this her only novel in 1963 - a half century ago. I recall coming across this book as a first-year undergraduate way back in 1973 (only a decade after the author's sad demise) but was dissuaded from reading it because a group of militant feminists in Trinity at the time had hijacked this oeuvre loudly brandishing it as their pressure group mantra. But I'm glad to say that 40 years later I have rediscovered this gem and it is a wondrous pleasure.
There is nothing like writing excellence and my goodness don't you know it when you come across it? This author's creative verve, in my opinion, provides us with an exclusive insight into the main character portrayed and the world around her. Why? Because as readers we have been most fortunate in being bequeathed a distinct 'visionary clearness' by this exceptional author, Sylvia Plath in 'The Bell Jar'.
(First appeared in Red Room, 18 September 2013)