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Book Review: ‘Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath,’ by Heather Clark

Otto Plath was of German origin but therein any similarity to the Nazi figure he is transmuted into in “Daddy” ends. (Plath would be much criticized in the years to come for appropriating Holocaust imagery for her own use, although, as Clark points out, “the theme was in the air by the early 1960s, finding its way into poems by Geoffrey Hill and Anthony Hecht, among others.”) He was “a committed pacifist who renounced his German citizenship in 1926,” Clark recounts, “and watched Hitler’s rise with trepidation.” Those looking for biological cues to Plath’s mental problems might note that Otto’s mother, Ernestine, was remembered by him as “a rather melancholy person,” and that she was committed in 1916 to the decrepit Oregon Hospital for the Insane for depression or possibly senile dementia; she died there, alone and neglected by her family, three years later.

Otto immigrated to America in 1900 at the age of 15, where he would eventually pursue his early interest in entomology, obtaining a doctorate in biology at Harvard in 1928 and becoming a popular professor at Boston University. Along the way, he had a short-lived first marriage, which seems to have left him deeply embittered about women. (According to Aurelia, Otto’s second wife and Sylvia’s mother, his first wife “had left him after only three weeks for sexual reasons.”) Plath, who wrote a series of poems about bees, including one called “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” described her father to her psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, as “a brilliant professor” and a “great man” before turning on him in her dire late poems.

Aurelia Schober was the demure daughter of a German immigrant and “had hoped to become a writer once,” as she told an interviewer. She met Otto, already in his mid-40s, in one of her graduate German classes. When they married in January 1932, Aurelia was a teacher of both English and German at Brookline High School, but she gave up working at her husband’s request, the better to devote herself to being a homemaker.

Plath’s birth that October was followed by the birth of her brother, Warren, three years later. “Sylvia sought out Otto’s attention,” Clark writes, “in an attempt to become his ‘pet,’ just as she believed Warren was Aurelia’s.” Yet in the last four years of Otto’s life, which were plagued by ill health for which he refused to see a doctor, Plath had little direct involvement with him. “She would play the piano, draw and recite poems she had memorized or written herself.” (Plath was reading and writing at 5.) “Sometimes she would leave poems under his napkin at dinner. Her dying father was her first audience.”

Aurelia, who was vilified both during and after her daughter’s life, is another beneficiary of the evenhandedness that is one of this book’s singular virtues. Clark envisions Aurelia with both empathy and clarity, salvaging her from the almost uniformly negative portraits that appeared in the wake of her beloved “Syvvie”’s death, and which were contributed to by Plath herself, particularly in the fictionalized rendition of her mother in her only novel, “The Bell Jar.” Although Aurelia was undoubtedly a complicated and thwarted person, Clark does not buy into the view that she was Medusa-like, the source of both Plath’s overweening drive and her lethally self-destructive impulses: “Aurelia, the story goes, put so much pressure on her daughter to excel that Sylvia felt the only way to win her mother’s love was to outperform herself again and again; because she could not sustain this cycle, she had no choice but to give up.”

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