One problem with reading fictional accounts of familiar lives is that readers must shuttle between two stories: the version they already know and the version the novelist has assembled from the surviving evidence and transformed into art. The competition is usually uneven because the novelist can bring so many tricks to the game. But only lives, or parts of lives, that already look like art can be effectively rendered. Quiet deaths in nursing homes do not compel us; smooth romances leave us cold. We need a narrative snare. That the breathless final months of Sylvia Plath's life have attracted so much literary attention is no accident. Great promise and early death are the key ingredients in tragedy, and the sense of incompletion fostered by Plath's suicide at 30 is an almost irresistible lure.
To her credit, Kate Moses has chosen to consign Plath's death in February 1963 to a postscript in her masterful first novel, "Wintering." Her real subject is the completion of the manuscript of "Ariel," Plath's second collection of verse, in the fall and winter of 1962. That the full expression of Plath's genius -- the poems such as "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" that she knew would make her name -- coincided with the breakup of her seven-year marriage to Ted Hughes has been made much of by feminist critics, who rightly see Plath's anger as the crucible for this astonishing work. (Typically a slow, exacting writer, Plath fired off 21 poems in the 28 days after Hughes left her.) With an emphasis on Plath's domestic ingenuities -- her predawn writing stints, her cake-baking, gardening and child-rearing -- Moses doesn't cast Plath as a Fury, but as no one's victim, or at least not solely the victim of her straying husband. Her Plath is brilliant, self-absorbed, pathologically jealous, inconsistent except where her writing and her children are concerned. She is both the Angel and the Devil in the House.
Although "Wintering" moves back and forth in time, its emotional starting point is Plath's move alone, with her children, to a London flat on Dec. 10, 1962. She left the beautiful old country house, Court Green, that had embodied her dreams of marriage and artistic companionship. Now, when she is not stamping around London after Hughes or composing poems ("She's burned through them," Moses writes, "burned with fever, day after day, hit the mother lode, the richest vein."), she is trying to reconcile what has happened to her with what she still wants from life: "To keep it all in mind, to see it all: their onions, their potatoes, their apples and honey emblematic, the practical harvest of a complicated love, residue of their marriage and its betrayals -- the myths of earth and air, the salt of tears, and sweetness. Yes, sweetness: these children, warm and alive, snuffling amid the litter of [Christmas] festoonery. Her poetry, finally -- bled from her, but genuine for it, the one voice she had waited, needed, to hear."
Plath's journals show that she knew how good these poems were. She must have greeted each day with a mix of grief and exultation, but also, in Moses' view, with a tremendous act of will. It is striking that so lyrical a novel can be so unsentimental about artistic production. Plath woke early to write before her children were out of bed and had to move the room's single space heater closer to the desk. (Moses is good with all the limited comforts of Plath's independence that freezing winter: blankets, heaters, homemade curtains.) Some poems, such as "Medusa," were written when Plath was not only burning with indignation but also running a high fever, alone in the flat with her two sick children, whose vomiting, potty triumphs and need for outings are depicted here with the attention to detail of a mother of young children (Moses' first book was the Salon anthology "Mothers Who Think").
If there is a flaw in this moving and beautifully sustained novel, it is the slight disconnection between the white-hot poems themselves, with their lacerating insights and imagery, and the plucky, resourceful American girl Moses portrays pulling herself out of a bad patch through the medium of art. Moses shows us the frenzied creation but not the frenzy itself. "Wintering" is a heroic tale about writing in the face of despair, about art as the most cunning weapon one can bring to a marriage.
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A woman is crossing the moon.
The midnight sky has bled itself completely onto the darkened rooftops, erasing the houses and the black trees and everything else outside. Except for the lopsided moon: it pulses in its aperture, shrunken from its full luminous ripeness of three nights ago when Sylvia watched it from this same window in her new parlor. It's since been halved, funereally shadowed by the excruciating drag of the planets. Draped like a mirror after death, or like Sylvia's cheap new furniture, shrouded with old sheets as in an abandoned house. Though Sylvia's not giving up. She's been pacing the silent flat for focusless hours, jumping at the intermittent clank of the electric heater, watching the moon like a trapped fox. But she's pulling herself together, and she's got the paint can out, the brushes and the broom-handled roller. Newspapers on the floor, a tarp covering the just-delivered wicker armchairs that will masquerade, for the time being, as a sofa. Newspapers spread on the glass-topped coffee table pushed out of the way, to the wall. She's set the raw pine bookcases on newspaper also; she'll paint them while she's working on the parlor walls and get this one room completed.
It's bad luck to look at the moon through glass, according to medieval superstition. Sylvia's done that before; she'll take no more chances. The parlor's quarter-paned windows rattle on their cords, hauled up with a screech against paint fumes. The cold rushes in, instantly dropping the temperature in the room.