One of the things my editor at Trouw and I have in common is that we’re both Plath-Hughes geeks. So when she asked me to review another book inspired by Ted Hughes—not another reworking of his life this time, but a kind of avian fan fiction—I naturally said yes.
I was nineteen when I first read ‘Crow’, and it probably marked me for life. Ted Hughes’s 1970 cycle of poems about a mythical, shamanic, monstrous creature was violent, cynical, despairing, and nasty, and therefore both troubling and deeply satisfying to my adolescent mind. The poems were life-affirming, too, and at times funny, the work of a person who had seen the worst and was determined to go on. Written in a period of sorrow and despair after Hughes’s wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide, the poems tell the adventures of a mythical bird, a figure drawn partly from Celtic and Native American legend, eating trash, fighting with God, and shaking his fist against life.
A writer who takes inspiration from myth runs the risk of turning into one. Even during his lifetime Hughes was much written about, especially in his role as the—loving? unfaithful? both?—husband of Plath. Since his death in 1998, the books have continued: memoirs, biographies, novels. A selection of his letters, ‘Ik wil nooit vergeven worden’, was published in the Privé-domein series in 2013. Last year Connie Palmen published a novel, ‘Jij zegt het’, in which a first-person Hughes contemplates the mystery of the writing self. Then a British academic, Jonathan Bate, caused a small scandal with an unauthorized biography of the Poet Laureate. And now a young British bookseller and editor, Max Porter, has invited not Hughes but Crow himself into his slim, poetic first novel.
In ‘Grief Is the Thing with Feathers’ a woman dies suddenly, leaving behind a husband and two young sons. After the funeral, the three of them sit alone in a house that itself seems to be in “heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief.” A knock is heard at the door and in walks a giant bird with a “sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather and yeast.” It picks the father up off the floor and says ominously, “I won’t leave until you don’t need me anymore.”
In the subsequent struggle with loss the father, the boys, and Crow himself take turns narrating, leaving the woman’s voice to be missed, imagined, forgotten. The father is stunned by what can no longer happen: “We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-ready arguments. (…) She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm). And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.” The boys show their unhappiness by playing dangerous games in the woods.
At first Crow threatens to raid the nest and eat these two chicks, but as the book goes on he becomes philosophical, at times almost maternal. Grief, he observes, is “the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic. It shares mathematical characteristics with many natural forms. Such as? Oh, feathers. Turds? Waves? Honeycomb? String? Intestines? Bones?” Eventually the father goes back to his old work, writing a scholarly essay called ‘Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis.’
In a terrific translation by Saskia van der Lingen, Porter’s novel is a magical reflection on family, sorrow, and the consolations of literature. Porter’s Crow is not the devouring, laughing animal that made my first contact with Hughes’s poems so exhilarating. Instead he’s a beast of a gentler, more domesticated pain. (In the Guardian, Porter said he drew on his memories of his father’s death when he was six.) Yet Porter’s lines have a beauty that is very much their own, making this a surprising and moving book, one that doesn’t linger in Hughes’s shadow but claims a place as a work of art in its own right.
Trouw, April 2, 2016. Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (London: Faber & Faber, 2015). Verdriet is het ding met veren (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2016).