1977 CLUB: Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath

Reading books from 1977

Collaborative Book-Blogging

1977I enjoy taking part in book blogging jollies, but seldom find time to give them my wholehearted commitment. This year alone there have been tempting readathons and readalongs for Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Agatha Christie and Persephone Books, to name but a sprinkling. Sad to say, I haven’t signed up for any – until now.

I recently spotted a post about the forthcoming 1977 Club; an event hosted jointly by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book from the 16th-22nd April. Participants were asked to read books published only in that year (there had previously been clubs for 1924, 1938, 1947, 1951 and 1968), and a helpful list of eligible titles was provided to make the challenge easier.

A day or two later I noticed a photograph on Karen’s blog displaying a pile of books originally published in 1977, among them Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a short story collection by Sylvia Plath. This title had been sitting unread on my shelves for a long time, but until that point I was unaware it had been released in the very year required to take part in this challenge. I had my book, so why not join in the fun? Voila!

The Book

I’m a wormy hermit in a country of prize pigs so corn-happy they can’t see the slaughter house at the end of the track.”

JPATBOD CoverAlthough Sylvia Plath died in 1963 at the age of only 30, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection of short stories, pieces of journalism and extracts from her journal, was published posthumously by Faber & Faber in 1977.

Her estranged husband, the late Ted Hughes, had complete control over her unpublished work. He selected thirteen stories for the anthology from manuscripts found among her papers after death, including those, he claimed, “she wished to keep,” plus “others written during her last two years in England.”

I no longer recall how or why this book came to be in my possession, but it’s likely I picked it up from a second-hand book shop with every intention of reading it shortly thereafter. Doubtless other books came along to lure me away, and Johnny Panic was set aside for another day.

Finally reading this volume of Plathian ephemera over the course of a weekend was at times a bizarre experience. I discovered her prose was sharp, sinister and oddly surprising. Her narrative had a jittery intensity. It was filled with foreboding and had a uniquely mirthless quality. Some stories were stronger than others, but the selection as a whole offered an insight into her development as a writer.

I wonder now why it took me so long to read this collection. I’ve always admired Plath’s poetry, especially Ariel with its free-flowing emotion and ambiguous themes. Perhaps I was waiting for the right moment in my life to fully appreciate this particular work. Though, it’s far more likely I was overwhelmed by the growing number of unread books in my library and, like Johnny, I panicked.

Categories: Readathons / Challenges

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15 replies

  1. Another fascinating review. Plath was a great poet, and The Bell Jar is also a wonderful book. I’m interested in the fact that there was no apparent humour in the different narratives here. In The Bell Jar, there were flashes of a sharp and dark wit- even though the grim text featured a prolonged descent into insanity there were descriptions of poets eating lettuce with their fingers and egocentric males that linger in my head to this day. Some feminists might speculate that Ted Hughes subtracted from her sardonic take on things.

    • Thank you, Cheep. I used the word ‘mirthless’ in the sense of smiling or laughing without real amusement but expressing irony. You are right that her work is often sardonic. I perhaps didn’t express this very well in my piece. However, I feel you are probably right about Ted Hughes. Protecting his reputation probably took priority over publishing Plath’s work. It was so sad her life ended so tragically. She could have achieved so much more.

      • Oh, I’m so sorry- I always leap in to defend something or someone without thinking. I’ve seen a graph which suggests that mirthless is a word which is not as used as often as it once was, and that may have meant that I interpreted the word carelessly. I never enjoy Ted Hughes as much as one should, and therefore subconsciously hold him somewhat irrationally responsible for things that were not under his control. But to have two entanglements with women end in suicide does seem a little careless.

      • No need to apologise, Cheep (is it okay to keep calling you that?), I enjoy discussing words and their various interpretations. Yes, I’m never too sure what to make of Ted Hughes. Was he attracted to very unhappy women or was he partly responsible for their states of mind? I suppose we’ll never know for sure. Careless is definitely one word to describe him!

  2. Sometimes books need to be read at the right time. I think her prose is just as good as her poetry and I love her snarky viewpoint, although I did find dark humour in the stories. Definitely time for a collected Plath prose volume!

  3. I remember reading this years ago…your description is just perfect – jittery, sharp, and sinister. Excellent review!!

  4. I have The Bell Jar on order from the library. It will be my first foray into Plath’s writing. I was surprised to find it had such a long waiting list. As is often the case, once a thing is in one’s mind (book or otherwise), it seems to crop up everywhere and I’ve noticed a number of quotes and extracts from that book. They’ve helped me move from a position of wariness at approaching her work to one of fascination and interest. Your review of her stories is contributing to the general swing towards hopeful positivity!

  5. This sounds really brilliant and I’m super curious about it cos I love Plath’s other work. Great review!


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