If you look at Sylvia Plath’s copy of German in Review held in the archives at Smith College, you will immediately notice a striking feature about it. The cover has been defaced with two stab marks and has been hit with such force that the indentations reach through to page 44 of the volume. Apart from this, the book is in rather good condition given its age and the distance it has travelled. On 2 October 1956 while living in Whitstead, Newnham College, Cambridge, Plath wrote to her mother in Wellesley, Massachusetts asking her to post this book across the Atlantic as once again she was going to try and learn German.
This ongoing, and frankly agonising, battle with the German language lasted for all of Plath’s life. While on the one hand she felt an affinity with what she called her ‘father-mother’ tongue, on the other she was simply unable to grasp the grammatical structure and sentence construction of the language. Her journals and letters are full of her torment. How much she wanted to learn and understand German while berating herself for being too ‘dense’ or ‘lazy.’ Page after page she urges herself to study and read, yet it seems one of the few areas in life that Plath simply could not comprehend.
These efforts even seemed to feature in her romantic life, with a 4 August 1954 letter to her boyfriend Gordon Lameyer saying, ‘thinking back, of how dear you were to agonize through all the german with me…’ More dramatically to her mother on 5 October 1954, she claims ‘I am going to learn German or perish in the process…’ Even in March 1962, less than two months after giving birth to her son, Nicholas, she is once again urging herself on and her latest efforts appear on her Letts wall calendar for German study and reading.
This item, then, in Smith archives, the German in Review, violently stabbed twice on the cover raises all sorts of questions. Did it accidentally get damaged the many times it moved around the world between different apartments and houses?
I do not think so.
When you handle it and turn the first forty or so pages, you can easily see the damage is deliberate. Somebody has taken a sharp object and punctured the cover and the opening pages. Was it Plath? Did she finally release her frustration by stabbing her grammar book? And if so, when? Did she record doing this in her ‘missing’ journals? We simply do not know. But this archival object is disquieting. One can’t help but feel that there is a story attached to it that eludes us. It is unsettling and a little sad. And another silent archive story, waiting to be told.