Little Fugue

Little Fugue

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by Robert Anderson

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Acclaimed short-story writer and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, Robert Anderson has written a brilliantly inventive first novel–a book that blends the facts of a famous writer’s life with the profound effect of her death on an entire generation.

Sylvia Plath’s legacy inspires, harrows, and haunts the three people at the center of


Acclaimed short-story writer and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, Robert Anderson has written a brilliantly inventive first novel–a book that blends the facts of a famous writer’s life with the profound effect of her death on an entire generation.

Sylvia Plath’s legacy inspires, harrows, and haunts the three people at the center of Little Fugue: her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, freed by her death and then imprisoned by her myth; Assia Gutmann Wevill, Plath’s rival and Hughes’s mistress, who kills herself only six years after Plath; and Robert Anderson, a young New York writer, who is obsessed with Plath’s poems and her suicide, which “forged my identity and, incidentally, ruined my life.”

Their lives intersect, transiently and directly, through some of the more dramatic social upheavals of the past decades: the ’68 student riots, the drug-addled seventies, the AIDS crisis of the eighties, the cataclysm of 9/11.

Little Fugue crackles with wit and verbal dexterity. There have been many accounts of the Plath/Hughes drama, but author Robert Anderson provides a fresh, utterly convincing interpretation of events. This is a brilliant novel of artists caught between the erotic allure of extinction and the eternal power of poetry.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Plath/Hughes story has been told and retold almost to death, but Flannery O'Connor Award-winner Anderson (The Ice Age) breathes brash new life into the iconic tale in this hypnotic and provocative novel. Anderson chronicles the aftermath of Plath's 1963 suicide from the perspective of real and fictional characters, notably Columbia-educated fiction writer Robert Anderson, who is forever changed by reading the Ariel poems. To him, Plath is untouchable, the sacrificial Joan of Arc. His Plath-infused account of social and political turmoil in New York from the Columbia riots of 1968 to September 11, 2001, is counterpointed by the story of Ted Hughes and his mistress, Assia Gutmann Wevill. Although Anderson makes it keenly obvious that he favors Plath, and he will ruffle plenty of feathers with his blunt partisanship ("What a bleak, anticlimactic, eschatological PR caper that Birthday Letters charade made for.... Ted made his last buck"), Ted is artfully portrayed as a man who felt he never really knew his wife. Assia, meanwhile, is the half-good poet who covets Plath's identity and ends up sharing her fate. Anderson's writing is electric, irreverent and erudite. The novel's only flaw is the erratic fugue between the masterful Plath/Assia/Ted passages and the sometimes convoluted Robert sections; Robert as character is occasionally subsumed by the character of New York, and the fundamental connection between Plath and her young acolyte is lost. Still, this is a fiercely imaginative effort, in which Anderson connects the intricate psychology of his characters with their art and the world around them. Agent, Ian Kleinert. (Dec. 28) Forecast: Anderson's lack of piety-some might call it lack of respect-for his real-life protagonists will make this a controversial book; the quality of the writing will make it a novel to be reckoned with. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this first novel from a Flannery O'Connor Award winner, Sylvia Plath's death is shown to have hugely affected her husband, his mistress, and a pie-eyed young devotee named Robert Anderson. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Assia Weevil get reimagined by the author of Ice Age (stories: 2000), who also stirs a fictional Robert Anderson and several New York catastrophes into an overstuffed first novel. The author begins intriguingly, with his alter ego on the roof of Columbia University's Dodge Hall observing an unidentified tumult whose meaning will become clear only at the close. Seguing into his obsession with Plath, "for many years a spokesperson for the alienated, the lovelorn, the vengeful, the suicidal," narrator Robert Anderson claims that Plath's poems and Hughes's "forged my identity . . . and, incidentally, they ruined my life." It's a good hook, and subsequent chapters exploring the couple's psyches the day of Plath's 1963 suicide lead readers to wonder where all this is going. Unfortunately, though, the narrator's adventures from the 1960s through 2001 have no convincing connection with the Plath-Hughes-Weevil triangle beyond a general atmosphere of doom. The author, born in 1964, makes his namesake 18 years older: Robert Anderson describes the '68 Columbia riots, the '77 blackout, Times Square at its sleazy late-'70s ebb, and the AIDS epidemic all in vivid prose, but the excitement of the language can't disguise the generic quality of the experiences. Weevil is the most interesting character here, shakily sustaining the affair with Hughes while realizing that his wife has chained him to her forever with her death. But this is familiar territory, and so are the narrator's romances with an idiosyncratic photographer and a junkie prostitute. The spiraling time frame is clear enough but leads nowhere thematically. A contrived climax brings Robert to the World TradeCenter on 9/11/01, then mingles that apocalypse with narratives of Hughes's 1969 trip to New York (when the author has him encounter Robert) and Assia's suicide the same year-topped off by placing Robert's long-lost love aboard one of the hijacked planes. It's way, way too much. Ambitions this outsized need more coherent themes and ideas. Agent: Ian Kleinert/William Morris Agency

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Read an Excerpt

Book One

The Bridal Path

London, February 1963. New York All Along.



A flatbed barge is roaring down Broadway with an American flag furling. The semi is on an empty run, returning from one of the fills upstate. I’m standing on the roof of Dodge Hall, Columbia University. I’m covered with bone dust. Candles are left to burn on the blacktop. They weep in sleepers’ windows. The night’s fires burn low as the city lies in bed, still awake. There’s some Columbia kids on the street in tattered, laundry day clothing and rearward baseball caps. They are mocking the Spirit of ’76 battle corps. One of them has a pennywhistle; another, a marching drum. The last one conducts the wind. They pass, single file, beneath the bell tower of the Broadway Presbyterian Church. They fade out of view. The kids have captured the essence of music. Soloing musicians always elude the range of the senses. They dare the faculty of memory to define them. Poets are even more surreptitious. They are forever soloing. Harmony, for them, is a matter of isolation. Revelation is a rootless tongue, a sourceless river. Before the race even begins, the starting blocks have disappeared. The lost runner is mortally wounded by the maddening echo of a gun unfired. Rarely do poets meet the viewer’s eyes in photographs. But she does.

The aqua cubes flicker, rectangles within rectangles. Tonight, the news of the world will conjugate with my accustomed scrutiny of the cosmos. Dan, Tom, and Peter. Our boys of doom in their winter. Our nighthawks of the woeful countenance. They, or one of their dredged-up experts, will have an answer to every question and a solution for naught. There will be no commercial breaks tonight. The show is being sponsored by our collective subconsciousness. This is a party thrown by the crashers.

And I had in mind to write the story of a violent trespasser long before this evening. For years I’ve obsessed about Sylvia Plath, she of the guileless photo studies. She was a formidable poet. She was another in a long line of female literary kamikazes, the breed extending back to the authors of the Sibylline verses or, if you would rather, to the First Intermediate Period of ancient Egypt when it is said that female scribes, laboring blithesomely under the shadow of proscribed death sentences, were given the task of ghostwriting autobiographical funerary texts—under the pharaohs, dying in style was given exaggerated preferment over living in the same manner. The most prominent of these ancient farewell poems is The Dialogue of a Man with His Ba. This work, dating from a little more than two thousand years before Christ, is a meditation on the art of suicide.

Sylvia, through the channel of her posthumously published dialogue with her own soul, has been for many years a spokesperson for the alienated, the lovelorn, the vengeful, the suicidal, and for all suicides, speaking to, for, in, and of multitudes from her early and chosen grave. Sylvia’s appeal is, in no small way, linked with her inscrutability and her swaggering mortal failure. This lingering impression seems to be precisely what she had in mind. The meandering and the vulnerability of The Journals, Letters Home, The Colossus, and The Bell Jar are as understandable as Hamlet’s when you read the unmasking act of Ariel. In photographs, she has a first date’s eyes, all too wide and eager, and a blind date’s smile that pleads with you to like her, while at the same time referring in its ebullience to the photo’s substructure; the phosphorescent neutralization of the negative beneath, wherein her smile will surely resonate and her certitude will surely glow, if you will just squint your eyes and hold your gaze. You must not pay attention to her; you must pay immersion. She is a fire that has burned low of its own severity. She lies in her grave now, still awake.

From the perspective of forty years, her photographs have the exact value as her Ariel poems and the same eminence as recollected moonlight. In photographs, she is a captured death upon arrival. She is a bright, evasive, and eternal open question. She is wild and cannot be tamed. She is a wound that can be nursed and never healed. In Ariel, no matter how many times you read the poems, Sylvia is always your first, always your blind, auguring date.

A few years ago, Sylvia’s widower, poet laureate of England Ted Hughes, surprised us all by acknowledging his wife in a published collection. What a bleak, anticlimactic, eschatological PR caper that Birthday Letters charade made for. Ted has his last word in his last book. Ted made his last buck. As in a fable, he broke his silence, spoke his contestable truth, and then whistled his way out of the spotlight. He died offstage of a heart attack, hard upon his belated birthday tidings. The black cable extended across the Atlantic and culminated in the leaden ink of the morning paper. The telegram photoelectrically opened the door to unending public gossip sans slander suits. It cued yours truly and God knows how many other bibliophilic skulduggerers out there. With Ted gone, we can now muse behind his back and over his grave as well. Hearing hovering voices, as a matter of fact, cannot be anything so very new for either Sylvia or Ted. Nor can answering those voices, indistinctly or outright, if we, their readers and interpreters, can hope for a continuation of our long years of haunting. To be vexed, haunted, harassed, and obsessed by their convergent lives and mutually exclusive destinies is what we, their readers, we, their jury, we, their angels of ill intent, want more than a delineation of their collective tragic/romantic mystery. Rest assured. Though their bodies lie in what passes for peace now, concordances are being amassed. Prodigal poems are being called home to the anthologies. The last of their papers are being perused. In troubled times, their enmity and adversity will always provide us with a source of repose.

Notwithstanding jealousy, betrayal, marital separation, and their ultimate deaths, thirty-five long years apart, Ted and Sylvia have remained on tenuous, sometimes ireful, speaking terms all along. Many years before his birthday condolences, Ted wrote a volume concerning a transmutable crow who journeys to death and back. He wrote another book about the blood sacrifice of a changeling, seemingly in response to Sylvia’s poem about a trainee-suicide who sheds flesh like a striptease artist, taunting death itself. Sylvia seems to have left detailed instructions to posterity regarding the way in which she would like to be unremittingly psychoanalyzed in the echo chamber of Ted’s conscience and also in the dominion of Western literary studies. She was not only responsible for her own death; she selected the subterfuge of her burial site. She killed herself in pursuit of neither rest nor peace, nor even understanding, since recognition hardly ever equals understanding. For that matter, neither of the poets was interested in minting truth so much as in promul- gating myth. Sylvia and Ted were mythologists with three primary thematic subjects: themselves, each other, and all the repercussions of their pairing—up to, including, and in the aftermath of the appearance of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the opaque lady of the sonnets. The divergent confessions of the two poets do indeed constitute a narrative much more than they constitute any sort of reckoning. In the last analysis, I think that it might be wiser to trust them less than their own critics and biographers. Their pattern of lies is my only paradigm, my one true fiction. I love Sylvia. I resent Ted. I owe neither of them anything. Their poems forged my identity. They did not foretell, but they fore-informed my future. And, incidentally, they ruined my life. I couldn’t imagine any of us old.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

ROBERT ANDERSON was born in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1964. He grew up outside of Minneapolis and attended the University of Minnesota. He came to New York in 1986 and lived for many years in Times Square residential hotels–the Vigilant, the Woodward, and the St. James–while working as a cook and writing. His first book, the short-story collection Ice Age, won the University of Georgia Press’s Flannery O’Connor Award in 2000.

From the Hardcover edition.

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