Euphoria by Elin Cullhed review – inside the mind of Sylvia Plath

The Swedish writer offers an audacious, gripping novel imagining the poet’s final year and the conflict between creative genius and domestic life

“Oh, he is here; my black marauder; oh hungry hungry,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary, half longing for and half fearing the return of Ted Hughes in 1956. Both poets used each other as material and fuel for incandescent, mythological writing. To write about their marriage is therefore dangerous – you’re competing with two of the greatest 20th-century poets. But it’s seductive nonetheless, and perhaps especially for novelists, because it’s such a novelistic story: two writers locked in a life-and-death struggle in a remote house; a mistress invited into the household by Plath herself, in a gesture at once self-destructive and unknowing.

Euphoria, a much-garlanded novel by Swedish writer Elin Cullhed, is an account of Plath’s final year, flooded with Plath’s own imagery and written from a perspective deep inside her head. There’s a massive audacity to it. Effectively Cullhed tries to do in more capacious, domestic and worldly form what Plath succeeded so spectacularly in doing in her final poems – writing all the pleasure and pain of maternal and sexual love in a world at once ordinary (baking, gardening, sleeping children) and feverishly charged. Think of the poem Nick and the Candlestick, in which Plath, walking with a candlestick to her son’s bedroom, becomes a miner alongside “waxy stalactites”, the baby’s room a womb exuding “black bat airs”.

Cullhed’s contribution is to grasp the sanity that novelistic description can bring to the marital pyrotechnics, slowing things down and adding a suppleness and dimensionality that Plath and Hughes don’t seem to have been capable of themselves within the marriage. The audacity is necessary: without overpowering confidence of the kind on display here, there would be no point doing this at all. And I think Cullhed succeeds in creating a book for our times, translated into English with just the right mixture of casualness and lyricism by Jennifer Hayashida; this isn’t yet another dissection of a time long past.

Indeed, there’s such fiery confidence here, such cleanness – something of the cleanness of Plath’s own poems – that it doesn’t necessarily matter that it’s about Plath. Cullhed has the poet resolve that “I would never again ask for permission to write”. I wonder if Cullhed found her own permission to write in Plath, as well as a poetic register that she could take on and expand. This is a book about the precipitous, high-stakes relationship between creative genius and domestic life, centred on the lure and dangers of freedom.

At one point in the novel Hughes tells Plath that life has a mission for everyone and that his mission is freedom. His revelation is all-too-plausibly risible. The freedom that Hughes is seeking is the freedom to evade his responsibilities as a father and have an affair with Assia Wevill. But Cullhed’s Plath has committed to a life with this man partly because she was seduced by his vision of freedom. “His stride is wildernesses of freedom”, Hughes wrote in his 1957 poem The Jaguar. “The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.” Now that her husband’s freedom has shown itself also to be crushingly banal, Plath has to work out her own sense of what freedom is.

Plath fears freedom here because she fears loneliness. “My greatest fear was this loneliness,” she says; “I would be pickled in my jar of loneliness.” Before Hughes leaves her, she feels permanently constricted in his presence, unable to write, even unable to breathe. Yet she’s too lonely to ask for time alone. After he goes, we see her gradually and fearfully turning loneliness back into freedom. Cullhed writes grippingly about marriage and its moods, about the boredom and tenderness of parenthood, and the ecstasy and horrors of sex, but what she writes about best is creative freedom.

There’s an extraordinary scene in which Plath writes the poem Daddy. “I wrote until my insides were hollowed out, until all of me felt like my body was an arch that threw my soul out like the kind of innards that would lurch into a toilet.” This may sound excessive quoted out of context, but Cullhed succeeds in showing the miraculousness of creation: the move from a blank page to something and the gradual understanding of what this something is. Plath is interrupted by a crow – an avatar for Hughes – but she carries on, and in doing so comes to a new realisation about how she, “a young, beautiful promise”, was used to “cover up the rotten, the dead”. This is freedom, and in discovering it, she begins the lurching oscillation between joyful wanting and terror that will escalate until the death that Cullhed doesn’t show to be inevitable.

Cullhed dramatises the episode where Plath rides the horse Ariel for the first time just after Hughes has left her, displeasing the stable girl by galloping, unhelmeted, away from the paddock. This is a dash towards freedom in which Plath understands she’s dancing with death. “And now I / Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas”, Plath wrote in her own Ariel, matching Hughes’s wildernesses of freedom with her own “suicidal” flight into “the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning”. Cullhead has described marriage earlier in the novel as “a question to the world”. It becomes clear here that the real question is about freedom: how much freedom should anyone have to take, how much can they bear?

• Lara Feigel is the author of Look! We Have Come Through! – Living With DH Lawrence (Bloomsbury). Euphoria by Elin Cullhed, translated by Jennifer Hayashida, is published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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