“The Bell Jar” (The Bell Jar), by Sylvia Plath, translated from English (United States) by Michel Persitz and revised by Caroline Bouet, preface by Jakuta Alikavazovic, biographical note by Lois Ames, Denoël, “& by the way”, 320 p., €19.90.
How to read The Bell of Distress without seeing in each page an omen? And there is of course the risk of turning away from its literary dimension because of the fascination that the tragic works of the “sublime lunatics” have on us. Sylvia Plath published this book in January 1963, under the name of Victoria Lucas. She is already known as a poet and fears that the book’s testimonial character will eclipse its artistic value (which she doubts in spite of herself). A month later she committed suicide.
The Bell of Distress, this love song to the mad girl, takes place during the summer of 1953, when McCarthy’s America electrocutes the Rosenbergs. Esther Greenwood has won a poetry contest that opens up the dizzying life of New York for a month. She twirls from sumptuous cocktails to various frivolities (how to get rid of her virginity, the Great Affair, without getting pregnant?). But Esther, while she feels like she’s in control of the world, actually feels as bubbly as a pile of sand. After the initial euphoria, she’s just the eye of the tornado “who moves sadly amid the disorganized chaos”. And then, at the end of this month, Cinderella will have to return to her mother in her gloomy suburban life. She will sink into a depression so absolute that she will never stop imagining all the ways to put an end to her pain – Plath likes the poetics of lists, it’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time, the humor being, I’m not telling you, the most delicate (and sometimes the most effective) attempt to avoid shipwreck.
This terrifying descent
Despite her determination and her ingenuity to end it, Esther will only escape death thanks to this heart, this “old swaggering heart”, who did not give in. We know the rest. It’s the psychiatry of the 1950s. Electroshocks and lobotomies in series. Plath multiplies images whose poetic force is matched only by accuracy. Esther feels “like a racehorse in a world without a racetrack”. She has “the impression of being a hole in the floor”. This metaphorical lucidity has something, against all expectations, of consolation – we must salute here the explosive revision of the translation by Caroline Bouet (the range of colors of the sanatorium was ” goose crap “ in the previous translation it is now “the declination of the color of a liver”…). Mental illness is that glass bell that Esther is trapped in, “simmering in its own stale air”.
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