Reviews: ‘Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life’

I found the following review of  Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life, both challenging and insightful. Read this excerpt of  Dr Ann Skea’s article, and my response, below. For the full review, see Ann Skea’s website at http://ann.skea.com/Bate%20Biography.htm Telling Tales: Ann Skea’s Review of Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life  (quoted with permission from Dr Skea) In his ‘Deposition’ chapter, Bate lays out his own rule for tackling the biography which Ted always said should never be written. “The cardinal rule is this: the work and how it came into being is what it is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work; the biographical impulse must be at one with the literary-critical”. At the end of an extract and paraphrasing of my transcripts of two interviews with Ted conducted by Claudia Wright at the Adelaide Festival in 1976, Bate bluntly states: “after the interview they slept together”. Where did this come from? It is certainly no part of the interviews I transcribed and he could not have been told it by Claudia, who died in 2005. So, was it a Festival rumour, like the one he says circulated about an affair between Ted and Jennifer Rankin, and which he later accepts as a fact? Which brings me to another aspect of Bate’s book. In his ‘Deposition’ he writes that: “women play a huge part in the story of his [Ted’s] […]

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Amichai, or Lost in Translation

Excerpt from Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath               Heads turned when Ted and Assia entered the Festival Hall on the opening night of the Festival. She was strikingly beautiful, resplendent in shimmering white satin, her skin glowing pale gold against the gown. Ted towered next to her, seeming immense against her delicacy, wearing his signature corduroy jacket, his hair unruly, looking every inch the romantic poet. In keeping with the cosmopolitan theme of this star-studded occasion, Assia’s Semitic beauty was the perfect foil to English gentility. There were suppressed oohs and ahs, especially from some of the younger women. Assia moved with a haughty grace, ignoring stares, some of admiration, others mocking. Amongst the luminaries, Ted Hughes and Assia Gutmann reigned as the royal couple. To Assia, this night was a fulfilment of all her fantasies, enhanced by the bridal theme of her gown. The visiting speakers included Pablo Neruda from Chile, Miroslav Holub from Czechoslovakia, and Allen Ginsberg from New York. For Ted and Assia the most important guest was Yehuda Amichai, from Israel. A leonine presence, Yehuda arrived escorting his young wife, Hannah. Assia had heard that he and Hannah had had a clandestine affair, and that Yehuda had left his wife for her. The knowledge gave her hope that she, too, would one day walk at Ted’s side as his true wife. Ted had discovered Yehuda’s work when researching for […]

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NT Literary Awards

I’ve been shortlisted for the Essay Section of this award, and achieved second place as a finalist. A modest achievement, but still gratifying. A friend commented: ‘Your essay on Capriccio is a wonderful piece of literary criticism and a great explanation of your purpose in writing the book. Could the essay be a kind of prologue to your your ‘Capriccio’? Surely this essay should be published in some kind of literary criticism journal.’ In my essay, I argue that the poems in Capriccio have been largely lost to the public, and are not a true reflection of Hughes’ relationship with Assia Wevill. In fact, Hughes told Assia’s biographers that these poems ‘were perhaps not the ones I should have written’, So what’s my next step? Is there a literary journal out there who’d consider my essay? There’s a version of it on this Blog: see my Post ‘The Lost Poems of Ted Hughes’.

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Excerpt from my novel

I'm re-writing 'Capriccio' under a new title. It seems that most readers have never heard of Ted Hughes' poetry sequence of the same title, which is hardly surprising, considering they were first published as 'rare books' at the cost of 4000 English pounds each. So people may think my book is about music, as 'Capriccio' is mostly used as a musical term for a fast, merry piece. Assia's story is far from merry, although she had some exciting times.

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Assia’s birthday

Remembering Assia Gutmann Wevill, born this day 1927 in Berlin. Tragically she took her own life in 1969. She’s the main character of my new novel, ‘Capriccio’, which retraces her stormy relationship with poet Ted Hughes. Who was Assia? Why has history treated her so unfairly? Was she, as Ted Hughes speculates in his poetry collection ‘Capriccio’ doomed to die? For answers to these questions, and more, read my novel ‘Capriccio’, excerpts of which can be found on this Blog, under the menu item ‘Excerpts’.

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The lost poems of Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes’ series of twenty poems, called ‘Capriccio,’ was first published in 1990 in a print run of only fifty. The expensively produced leather-bound volume was inaccessible to most readers, by virtue of its cost ($4000) and rare book status. It was not until after Hughes’ death in 1998, that the series was accessible in its entirety, as a brief section in ‘The Collected Poems of Ted Hughes’ edited by Paul Keegan. (Faber and Faber, 2003). Thus the full sequence of ‘Capriccio’ was virtually lost to Hughes’ readers for many years. Why did Hughes wait almost thirty years after his affair with Assia Wevill to publish these poems? Why did he tell Assia’s biographers, Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, that these poems were perhaps ‘not the ones I should have written’? Was this work an apologia for Hughes’ role in the life and death of Assia and Shura, intended to show destiny as the culprit? In these poems, some of which cruelly portray Assia as Lilith the devil-woman, there is little mention of Hughes’ own destructive influences. Hughes appears to argue that he’s biologically predetermined to be Assia’s prey, and that the winds of fate brought them together. The fate she carried sniffed us out, he writes in ‘Dreamers’, the only poem about Assia which is not in ‘Capriccio’. Next to Hughes’ award-winning ‘Birthday Letters’, the autobiographical nature of ‘Capriccio’ went barely noticed for many years. When the poems were […]

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An excerpt from Capriccio

Shura (Alexandra Tatiana Elise) Hughes Wevill was the daughter of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill Excerpt from ‘Pit and Stones’ a chapter in the novel in which Ted, Assia and the children are returning from a house-hunting trip in Manchester. They would never see each other again. Just then the train gave a great jolt. Frieda, who’d been leaning forward, was catapulted into Assia’s lap. Ted braced himself and held on to Nick’s shirt tail. A squeal of brakes followed, and the train groaned to a shuddering stop. From somewhere in another compartment they heard a woman’s scream. Shura began to cry, still clutching the half-eaten cake. Assia held her close with one arm while protecting Frieda with her other. ‘What’s happening?’ she asked the world in general, and Ted in particular. ‘You stay here with the children. I’ll try to find out. And for God’s sake, can’t you stop your daughter snivelling?’ Assia turned her face away, smoothing Shura’s hair tenderly. ‘It’s all right, liebchen. Soon we’ll all be home.’ To Ted she said coldly, ‘You seem to forget that our daughter has just turned four. Just like you ‘forgot’ to come to her birthday party. This trip’s a great deal harder for her than it is for Frieda and Nick.’ © Dina Davis

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Thoughts on Capriccio

EXCERPT from my Article: ‘On Ted Hughes’ Capriccio’ Hughes’ collection of twenty poems, Capriccio, was produced in 1990 as a beautiful boxed volume with leather covers. Printed on hand-made paper, and at $4000 a copy, the book was designed to be rare.[1] Each of the fifty volumes was signed by the author, and also by the illustrator, Leonard Baskin, whose company […]

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Who was Assia Gutmann Wevill?

    Lucas Myers, a lifelong friend of Ted Hughes, writes: ‘Sylvia’s rival had been misrepresented. She was a touch too elegant for her own well-being, fundamentally very vulnerable, needed a lot of affection, and could remembe SS boots outside the railway carriage compartment as her family, half Jewish, approached the Swiss border.’ – Lucas Myers, ‘Ah, Youth … Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath at Cambridge and After’ (from ‘Bitter Fame’ by Anne Stevens, Appendix 1). Peter Porter writes  of “the cruelty of excising Assia’s true part in the Hughes/Plath heritage, assigning her only the role of marginal temptress, whom we all seem to have allowed to be airbrushed out of literary history.” Porter, an eminent Australian poet,  knew Assia well. He writes of her: “She had wit, charm and generosity, and while she could be wilful and self-dramatising, she was also natural and straightforward. [Assia] grew up speaking German, Hebrew and English. She attended an academy for well-off Arab children who identified with the Mandated British. Somehow she acquired a beautifully modulated English voice long before she set foot in Britain.” While answering an advertisement for a London flat placed by Hughes and Plath in a newspaper, the fourth and fatal attraction of her life began. My novel ‘Capriccio’ traces the vicissitudes, joys, and agonies of the love affair between Assia and Ted Hughes. Excerpts from Peter Porter’s Review of ‘Lover of Unreason’ in The Guardian, Saturday,  28 October 2006

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Assia, Strauss, and World War II

At the end of World War II, the composer Richard Strauss, whose final work was an opera titled ‘Capriccio’, wrote:  ‘The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.’Strauss described the government sanctioned anti-semitism as ‘the basest weapon of untalented, lazy mediocrity against a higher intelligence and greater talent.’ Assia Gutmann, whose father was Jewish,  was one of the many victims of this period in history. At age six, she and her family were driven out of Berlin  by the anti-semitic policies of the Third Reich. Mercifully, their exile saved their lives, but Dr Gutmann’s family perished.

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