In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm’s meta-biography of Sylvia Plath, Malcolm structures the book around visits, mostly in and about London, with other writers who have written about Plath and encountered the hazards, both obvious and submerged, that await anyone writing about people live or recently alive. For the end of the book she saves a visit to one of the oddest Plath memoirists: Trevor Thomas, a man of many hats who happened to live in the flat below Plath’s in the last couple of months before she killed herself, and who in 1986 had been coaxed by the Independent to retail his memories of her. He was 79 then and a few years older when Malcolm visited him.
Thomas and a friend, Robbie, pick her up at the tube stop in London, pick up a pizza and some olives for dinner, and drive back to Thomas’s flat. The entire visit is searing, as Malcolm, a writer of incomparable intelligence, fierceness, and compassion, tries to give order to Thomas’s dense, cluttered existence in a house that is much the same way. Toward the end of this passage, which is just short of the end of the book — this is both a biography of biography as well as of Plath, so she’s trying to tie up one just before the other — Malcolm offers this extraordinary passage about the challenge facing any writer. It’s vintage Malcolm and an extraordinary view of the writer’s challenge:
We arrived at our destination: a small house on a silent street of narrow, rather bleak and pinched two-story brick row houses, the most common form of English domestic architecture.. But I was not prepared for what I saw what I entered to the house: a depository of bizarre clutter and disorder. We entered a narrow passageway, made almost impassable by sagging cardboard cartons stacked to the ceiling, which led to a small, square, dimly lit, windowless room. There was a round white plastic table in the center, surrounded by ruined chairs of various kinds, the largest of which faced a television set. Along the walls and on the floor and on every surface hundreds, perhaps thousands, of objects were piled, as if the place were a secondhand shop into which the contentns of ten other secondhand shops had been hurriedly crammed, and over everything there was a film of dust: not ordinary transient dust but dust that itself was overlaid with dust—dust that through the years had acquired a kind of objecthood, a sort of immanence. Through an archway near the entrance one could see into a dark bedroom with an unmade bed, on which rumpled bedding and vague piles of clothes lay, surrounded by shadowy stacks of more objects. One looked with relief to the daylit kitchen open off the living room. But one’s relief was short-lived. In its way, the kitchen was the most disturbing room of all. Here, too, every surface swarmed with objects—hundreds of utensils, appliances, gadgets, bottles of condiments, boxes, baskets, dishes, jars jostling one another—so that all the functions of the room had been canceled; the place was useless for the preparation of food and cleaning up afterward. There was nowhere to put anything down to work, or even to cook: the gas range was out of commission and had become another surface for objects to proliferate on.
After describing the preparation and presentation of the meal (a painful thing to watch; “But there’s no room,” Robbies cries) Malcolm gets to her biographer’s dilemma.
Later, as I thought about Thomas’s house (which I often did; one does not easily forget such a place), it appeared to me as a kind of monstrous allegory of truth. This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas’s house, the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is a life. The house also stirred my imagination as a metaphor for the problem of writing. Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge plastic garbage bags with a confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart. The goal is to make a space where a few ideas and images and feelings may be so arranged that the reader will want to linger a while among them, rather than to flee, as I had wanted to flee from Thomas’s house. But this task of housecleaning (of narrating) is not merely arduous; it is dangerous. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in; there is the danger of throwing too much out and being left too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out. Once one starts throwing out, it may become hard to stop. It may be better not start. It may be better to hang onto everything, like Trevor Thomas, lest one be left with nothing. The fear that I felt in Thomas’s house is a cousin of the fear felt by the writer who cannot risk beginning to write.
Malcolm’s descriptions of the houses in this book are enough themselves to justify reading it. The whole book is like this — a delicious, riveting engagement of both senses and intellect. I don’t think I know a writer more simultaneously merciless and generous.