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A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill

A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill

By Yehuda Koren, Eilat Negev

Robson Books, 2006
Series 3 No.7 - Love and War

The only thing that has stayed with me of that meeting is an illuminated script she showed me of poems by Ted Hughes with her art work – another collaboration, another of those labours of love, not copy-writing, which ought to have outlasted her and may or may not be lost; and something tells me still that it is by this script that she wished me to remember her.

Review by Michael Hamburger

Perplexities about Assia Wevill

Having long since ceased to be a book reviewer, least of all of revelations about the private lives of persons known to me as writers or as friends, I had a special reason for making an exception of A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Death of Assia Wevill. It was that I had two connections with her, both of which had become blanks in my mind. The first was that I was persuaded to write an Introduction to the early book of Selected Poems by Yehuda Amichai which included a set of translations by Assia, though I felt incompetent to do so because, as I wrote in it, ‘poems are made of words, and I cannot read the words of which Amichai’s poems are made, cannot follow – let alone judge – his way with the Hebrew language, what he does with its ancient and modern, literary and vernacular components…’ I hoped to discover from this biography who persuaded me – Ted Hughes, his sister Olwyn, the editor at Penguin or Assia herself; also what part Ted Hughes had in these translations. If there was correspondence in the matter, I have lost or mislaid it. I also failed to receive copies of the first printing, by Cape Goliard, of these versions, and of the second printing of them in the USA. It is my friend Oliver Bernard who tells me now that my Introduction was included in the American edition. All I have is the Penguin paperback of 1971, published after Assia’s death, in which my Introduction is copyrighted with the date 1968, before Assia’s death. In the Penguin edition the translations by Assia and those by Harold Schimmel are described as done ‘with the collaboration of Ted Hughes’. What I know is that Ted Hughes continued to translate Amichai with various collaborators up to the time of his death, and I have a copy of his Amichai translation Amen (Harper USA, 1977) with his inscription. No light at all is cast on these perplexities by A Lover of Unreason; but, to me, those Amichai versions of Assia’s are among the very little that remains of her life and work, since she took even her small daughter with her into death.

The second connection was a single longish meeting with Assia which I could neither date nor locate. It belonged to a phase in which both my family life and professional life were under such pressure that nothing could sink in, nothing be recorded or registered in memory. Again, the biographical book did not fill the gap. It was only by searching through a collection of old pocket diaries, after reading the book, that I found the date of the meeting – 3 January 1969, only weeks and days before Assia’s death. That no surname, address, telephone number or time of day followed the name ‘Assia’ in that diary entry suggests that we must have been in touch earlier on – perhaps about the Amichai versions? The meeting, in any case, must have been at Assia’s house in Clapham.

Insecurity was at the root of Assia’s troubles throughout her life; and the causes of that insecurity are fully documented in this biography. At the moment of our only longer meeting, though, I too was beset by insecurity, all the continuities of my life being in suspense. As well as being preoccupied, most probably I did not know Assia well enough to have sensed just how close she was to her ultimate crisis point. What is more, I was about to leave London for a semester’s teaching in the USA. So the question for me remains how much Assia’s desperation transpired in the long conversation we had then; but I have no recollection whatever of what we talked about, why she invited me to her flat or whether she told me enough to have made that meeting a call for the intervention I might at least have attempted, as a friend of Ted Hughes. The only thing that has stayed with me of that meeting is an illuminated script she showed me of poems by Ted Hughes with her art work – another collaboration, another of those labours of love, not copy-writing, which ought to have outlasted her and may or may not be lost; and something tells me still that it is by this script that she wished me to remember her. The script is mentioned in passing by the biographers – because I recalled it when approached by them – but its preservation or destruction is left in doubt.

Of the biography I will say only that Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev have done all they could to trace the facts and circumstances of Assia Gutmann’s (then Wevill’s) extraordinarily fragmented life, from antecedents Ukrainian and Latvian-Jewish on her father’s side, German and Christian on her mother’s, to Berlin, Palestine, South Africa, Canada and England; her three marriages, her employments in advertising agencies and associations with poets more or less famous. Her beauty, charm and accomplishments are copiously attested. So are her mainly frustrated erotic and sexual associations, down to the successive abortions and the final one of herself and her only child, when she was 41. So much emphasis falls on Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and David Wevill – whom I was not to meet till later, in 1974 – that the book did remind me of another meeting, my only longer conversation with Sylvia Plath soon before her death, at the PEN Anthology party in October 1962. There I had been struck by her hectic desperation, but was unable, of course, to meddle in affairs that were not my business.

Most of the reports from which the book is drawn are necessarily retrospective, with only brief extracts from Assia’s own diaries and letters. This makes the book a contribution to the gossip, sensationalism and scandal-mongering that have become the price to be paid for celebrity; and, gifted though she was, Assia emerges as the victim of her self-doubts, self-estrangements and self-dramatizations, as a tragic catalyst in the arts – except for the few works that have qualified her as a subject in her own right, but the subject of a different kind of book.                                          

Michael Hamburger

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