Henning Mankell obituary
“Henning Mankell, who has died aged 67, after being diagnosed with cancer last year, established almost single-handedly the global picture of Sweden as a crime writer’s ideal dystopia. He took the existing Swedish tradition of crime writing as a form of leftwing social criticism and gave it international recognition, capturing in his melancholy, drunken, bullish detective Kurt Wallander a sense of struggle in bewildered defeat that echoed round the world…He campaigned against Aids and landmines; where drugs against Aids could not be afforded, he encouraged an oral history project, so that the lives and struggles of those who died might be remembered – he dreamed this would be read in a new library of Alexandria in centuries to come. “Africa has taught me that there is so much needless suffering in the world. We could stop it tomorrow: to teach every child in the world to read and write would cost no more than we in the west spend on dog food,” he said. Most of his working life was split between novel writing and theatre work. He was extraordinarily prolific, publishing as many as three novels a year, and his sales figures eventually topped 40m. The quality might have been uneven but there was no mistaking the passion and generosity behind them. He wrote, always, about subjects he thought really mattered…”
Jonathan Bate was given what he took to be a green light to write a “literary life” of Ted Hughes. He was never “authorised”; but the sole owner of the estate, the poet’s widow, Carol Hughes, gave Bate what he regarded as “a symbolic anointing”. She did not, alas, give him a signed contractual letter, and authorial unction — perceived or otherwise — has no standing in law. Faber & Faber, Hughes’s publisher, confidently commissioned Bate’s book.
Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, by Jonathan Bate, William Collins, RRP£30 / Harper, RRP$40, 662 pages
The fraught background to this important, flawed but ultimately triumphant biography has been a running news story.
The formative event for Hughes came when he met Plath, an American visiting student. At this point Bate’s narrative thickens. Like Ted, Sylvia was a poet of precocious promise; and, like him, passionate. They married — imprudently, as regards money and career prospects. Two children were born. The couple travelled and quarrelled and evolved distinctly separate styles of verse. There were “snarls and bitings”, broken crockery, slaps and black eyes. How necessary the turbulence of their relationship was to their evolving arts is carefully scrutinised by Bate. Possessed of insatiable sexual appetite and film-star looks, Hughes was flagrantly unfaithful. Plath was, his supporters allege, unstable. His most extended adultery was with the poet Assia Wevill — his dark lady. There was, she said, an “animal thing” between them. He was unfaithful to Assia, and others, eventually choosing to marry Carol Orchard, a young woman who had minded his children. In a ghastly echo of Plath’s death, the betrayed Wevill had killed herself by gas oven. She took her and Hughes’s child, Shura, with her. “All the women I have anything to do with seem to die”, said Hughes.
It is too easy to see Hughes as a villain. Bate avoids such judgment and mounts a subtly constructed explanation (it is not an apology). Hughes, Bate points out, “believed that all artistic creativity came from a wound”. The wound in his late work, from Crow (1970) onwards, was, of course, Plath’s death.
Bate draws, as closely as he is legally able, on Hughes’s dream journals to argue that he was haunted by her. The image that recurs — one that was played with by Ted and Sylvia in their early relationship — is Wuthering Heights. He is “Hughescliff”, she is Catherine, the ghost who will never let go. Bate also suggests, rather less credibly, that Hughes’s “infidelity in later relationships was partly a function of his fidelity to the memory of Sylvia”. Certainly in his years of fame, married to Carol, his infidelities went beyond flagrant into something resembling satyromania. It is not easy to see it as fidelity.