The following extract is from the opening of Your Story, My Story by Connie Palmen. The novel is based on the volatile true love story of literary icons Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Delivered in Hughes’s voice, it explores their seven-year relationship. Palmen’s work of fiction is translated by Eileen J. Stevens and Anna Asbury, and published by Amazon Crossing.
Your Story, My Story
To most people, we exist only in books, my bride and I. For the past thirty-five years, I’ve had to watch with impotent horror as our real lives were buried beneath a mudslide of apocryphal stories, false witness, gossip, fabrication, and myth; how our true, complex personalities were replaced by hackneyed characters, reduced to mere images, tailor-made to suit a readership with an appetite for sensationalism.
And in all of this, she was the brittle saint, I the brutal traitor. I have remained silent.
She had something in her of the religious fanatic, that reckless longing for a higher form of purity, the saintly and violent willingness to sacrifice herself—her old, false self—to murder it, so that she could be born again, clean, free, and, above all, real.
In the seven years we were together, I never saw her with anyone—not even our children—as she really was, the way I knew her, the woman I lived with, the woman who, stamping like a filly in heat, bit my cheek and drew blood the first time we met.
We didn’t embrace—we attacked each other.
Snorting—with pleasure, with joy—I yanked the red hair band from her head, tore the silver earrings from her lobes, I would have liked to rip her dress to shreds, to strip her of all the trappings of decency, obedience, and civility, of falseness.
It was cruel. It hurt. It was real.
We plundered each other.
Less than four months later, I married her.
I should have known that for a woman who bites instead of kisses, loving was the same as lashing out. I should have realized that by stealing her jewelry, I was only tearing away her ornamentation and taking it as my trophy. Whoever begins this kind of love knows that violence and destruction are hidden at its heart. To the death. One of us was done for from the very start.
It was either her or me.
In that all-consuming violence called love, I’d met my match.
I loved her—I’ve loved her ever since. If her suicide was the trap she used to catch me, to swallow me, to absorb me, to become one body, she succeeded. A bridegroom taken hostage by death, linked eternally in a posthumous marriage, as inseparable as she wanted me to be from her.
Her name is my name. Her death is my death.
I believe in something like a real self and know how rare it is to hear it speak, to see it liberated from its cocoon of falseness and insignificance, the sham appearances we present to others to win them over, to mislead them. The more dangerous the real self, the more refined the masks. The more caustic the poison we would like to spew over others—to paralyze them, to kill them—the sweeter the nectar with which we lure them toward us, to be near us, to love us.
She was a sweet-smelling barrel of venom.
I’d never before met anyone for whom love and hate were so close that they were practically the same. She wanted more than anything else to love somebody, but when she actually did, she hated it. She wanted more than anything to be adored, but she mercilessly punished anyone who ever loved her.
Hidden behind a facade of crushing cheerfulness was a shy hare with a soul of glass, a child full of fears, nightmarish amputations, imprisonments, electrocutions. And I—the amorous shaman—adored that fragile, wounded girl, her real self, and wanted to do what a lover’s devotion requires: shatter her mask like a tender iconoclast. Because I loved her, it was up to me to rip her out of her shell of falseness—both as a woman and as a writer—to enable her to make her voice heard. The frightened voice, the angry voice, the maudlin voice with which she whined about trivialities, the muted voice she used to torment and humiliate, the forbidden voice like a raging fury she used to ostracize everyone who had wounded her. Her tongue of stone needed to be able to dance to the meter of her soul, that black soul of which she was justly frightened. It was up to me to raise her from that death.
What I didn’t understand then was that I was also liberating myself. Her madness is my madness.
From the age of thirteen, my head was filled with myths, legends, folk-tales, a secret world of magical knowledge populated by cruel gods who devoured their sons, and powerful goddesses in the changing guises of virgin, mother, hag. My sister added astrology, tarot cards, and the Ouija board to the mix. By the age of twenty, I was able to work out a complete horoscope for my family and advise friends on girls they could share heaven with, or those they were better off avoiding like the plague. I looked at the position of the stars and planets every morning to see what they had to tell me.
If, on the day we met, I had listened to what they were saying—not softly whispering, but howling at the top of their lungs—I would have locked myself in my room instead of going to that night’s presentation of the first—and last—issue of our poetry magazine. I would never have met her, or perhaps would have met her at another moment, a day when it wasn’t written in the stars that a disastrous meeting awaited me, an explosive collision of astral energy that would change my life forever.
I am a skeptical fortune-teller: I have too little faith. I went.
It was crowded, noisy, smoky as hell. She appeared like a long-legged goddess between the existentialist men in turtlenecks and the pasty English women with whom I was all too familiar. At the university, her fame had preceded her. I knew who she had to be, the exuberant American girl with a number of publications to her name.
A lustrously polished woman rose up before my eyes, a vision from the promised land. As soon as I touched her marble skin, I would be able to reach across the Atlantic Ocean to American literature. With her full-moon face and copper-colored, satiny complexion she looked like a Hollywood actress. A pearly smile, teeth white as a shark’s, gleaming between fleshy lips painted blood red, sun-kissed blond wavy hair; everything that was reckless about her had been reined in by a close-fitting dress, red and black, the colors of Scorpio. She danced a little too wantonly, a little too brazenly, with my best friend, Lucas, as if half-entranced, but she wasn’t—she wanted me to witness this display. In the brief hush in which the music of the world falls silent and nature holds its breath, gathering strength for a devastating hurricane, she took a few wobbling steps in my direction—my inebriated goddess—a pair of blackish-brown eyes feverish with the urge to mate.
I walked toward her; I called her by name.
I said, “Sylvia.”
Surprised by the recognition, she had to shout to be heard above the hot-blooded jazz and boasting men, and so she did, she shouted. She barked my own lines at me like Hecate, entire stanzas from the poems she’d just read in our magazine.
A sweet, artificial aroma of lilies and spring blossoms surrounded her, but when I grabbed her and led her from the dance floor, I picked up her true odor, sharp as musk, sweetly sour as the sweat of a female deer in heat. I went into the night a marked man, with the imprint of her teeth on my cheek.
It was February 25, 1956. I was hers.
Connie Palmen was born in Sint Odiliënberg, the Netherlands, and studied literature and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of The Laws, voted the European Novel of the Year and shortlisted for the 1996 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Friendship, winner of the AKO Literature Prize; Lucifer; and the autobiographical novel I.M. Ms. Palmen currently lives in Amsterdam. www.conniepalmen.nl
Your Story, My Story by Connie Palmen (translated by Eileen J. Stevens and Anna Asbury) published by Amazon Crossing, 2021, £15.99, hardback. For information and to buy the book, click here.
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