By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart (1945)

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image: goodreads.com

This is one of those books that I had heard of vaguely and meant to read for ages – but for some reason didn’t. Luckily my reading lists project is getting me to read more of these sorts of books. And so I finally ordered a copy of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept from Wordery. I read it in two sittings, partly because it’s under 200 pages, and partly because it is so intense that I couldn’t tear myself away. It is technically a prose-poem novel, kind of like The Waves, but shorter and more immediate (to me at least). It is a fictionalised telling of Elizabeth Smart’s infatuation and affair with the poet George Barker, and its devastating effect on her. The story goes that Smart fell in love with Barker just by reading his poetry, and she began to correspond with him. Eventually in 1940 she convinced him to come to the US with this wife (he had been teaching in Japan), and it was then that they began their affair. It lasted for decades and they ended up having four children together. The first of these was conceived not long after they met, and part of the book deals with Smart’s complicated feelings about being pregnant by the man she loves, but not being with him. She visits her mother and feels desperately alone. People know she is unmarried and she feels the heat of their judgemental comments and little looks.

The fact that this is a prose-poem means that the language is very ‘poetic’ but also melodramatic and very emotional. Smart feels her love for Barker with full intensity, and so the pain she experiences when they are separated is just as intense and overpowering. While pregnant, she reminds herself that the child is a permanent link to the man she cannot be with:

But O my burning baby anchors love within me, and I am consumed wherever I go, like a Saint Catherine’s wheel of torture, perpetual as the earth, and far less likely to go out.

There are so many lines in this book that I could quote here to demonstrate not only the beauty of Smart’s writing but the universal truths about love that she understands so well. She writes that “Love is strong as death.” and that she is “possessed by love and [has] no options.” Her imagery, for me, is unsurpassed. She writes a lot about the Odyssey and its characters, compares herself to Penelope waiting at home for her long-lost love. She feels her love and despair with the intensity of a Greek hero and she sees the universality in those tragic stories. She pines like Dido for Aeneas, weeping as she looks out to sea. The sea appears frequently in her imagery and similes – she often feels overwhelmed by love as if she were drowning.

But she is also overwhelmed by despair. She despairs at the intensity of her love, at the doomed nature of it, and the suffering caused to Barker’s wife. While Smart acknowledges her own suffering, she knows that Barker’s wife deserves more sympathy:

But the gentle flowers, able to die unceremoniously, remind me of her grief whose tears drown all ghosts, and though I swing in torture from the windiest hill, more angels weep for her whose devastated love runs into all the oceans of the world.

It is heartbreaking.

So I wouldn’t recommend this book if you want a light read. But By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a beautiful and intelligent book that reminds us of the beauty in the world, and the intense emotions that run under marriages and affairs. Yann Martel’s introduction also sums up the experience of reading the book, and the way it makes you think about life:

… therein lies the greatness of Elizabeth Smart. She takes what is yours and mine, what is everyday and everywhere, what exists in every suburb and in every flat, and makes it mythical. You’re not just Doris and Dave who live in Essex. You’re also Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Dante and Beatrice, Elizabeth and George – only you don’t know it, or you’ve forgotten it momentarily, or you just missed the boat (but perhaps it’s not too late to catch the next one).

I love that. It reminds us that we can all be just as worthy and special as the great heroes of love, and we can all experience those things. We can get caught up in the mundanity of everyday life, and we forget the beauty and love in our lives.

But this book also reminds us that love is never easy or simple, and often someone will get hurt, one way or another. We cannot help who, how, or when we love, and we cannot stop ourselves from loving. Smart’s book celebrates love, but also despairs at our powerless before it. We can control everything in our lives, but we cannot control love.

In a way I want to recommend this book to everyone, but I know that the overwrought and emotional style of the writing might grate on some people; you just have to give in to it in order to enjoy the book. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is not a book for those that like action and a quick pace, but for me it was a page-turner in its own way. It is a book for those that love language and escapism, who love to be overwhelmed and consumed by what they are reading. It is simultaneously not for everyone, and also a small masterpiece.

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Originally published in 1945 by Editions Poetry London (Nicholson & Watson), and reprinted many times. I read the 4th Estate 2015 edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

Best of 2012: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel – Guest Post by Peggy Riley

This post has kindly been written by author and playwright Peggy Riley. Peggy’s debut novel Amity and Sorrow will be published in March 2013 by Tinder Press, a new imprint of Headline. Here Peggy talks about her pick for 2012, Booker Prize winning Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

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My book of the year was Bring Up the Bodies. Wasn’t it yours? Hilary Mantel’s second of three books about Thomas Cromwell seemed to top every book list going, though she was pipped to the ‘Waterstones Book of the Year’ post by an octopus.

2012 cover. Image: 4thestate.co.uk
2012 cover. Image: 4thestate.co.uk

My reading this year has mostly consisted of last year’s and next year’s books, but it is hard to find a book published this year that is more audacious. You don’t just read a book and a story this large, this grand, this all-consuming; you live with it and through it. The experience of reading it is near hallucinatory, with its great waves of words washing over and through you. It is a testament to Mantel’s skill that the middle book of a trilogy be so compelling, able to stand alone from Wolf Hall yet leading the reader to ache for the denouement that will come in the third, The Mirror and the Light, even though the ending is already fixed in time.

I don’t know what I’ve learned of Henry and his wives and wars; I’m a Tudor-nerd and my sense of them has been created via a variety of media over the years.  I’m not sure that Mantel has altered, adjusted or even added to my sense of them. What she has done is to bring a painting to life, this relatively unknown man captured by Holbein. Before reading, I had a vague sense of him, that he was somehow “bad”.  Mantel has shown me a multi-faceted, fully-realised character who has become, for me, a real man, a living piece of history set within a fabulous story. My sense of Cromwell will forever be Mantel’s now. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Hilary Mantel at the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Image: guardian.co.uk
Hilary Mantel at the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Image: guardian.co.uk

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Bring Up The Bodies was published by Fourth Estate in May 2012 and went on to win this year’s Man Booker Prize.

 

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

 

Blue Nights is a funny little book. The hardback is beautiful, with a blue background and lettering, a black and white photograph of a young Quintana covering the back. Beautiful, but funny. It is several things; but should not be viewed as a sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking. The earlier book was the literary actualisation of Didion’s reaction to the premature death of her husband John, and Blue Nights is her reaction to the death of her daughter, Quintana. John died in 2003, Quintana in 2005. Quintana had been ill for some time, and was unconscious in hospital at the time of her father’s death. With Didion’s mother having died in 2002, the first five years of the 21st century were made up hospital visits for Didion, with hours spent contemplating death, illness and aging. Throughout both books she mentions her own ailing health and visits to the doctor. The two books of course share themes, but I do not see Blue Nights as a sequel to the earlier memoir. It does not matter which book you read first. One cannot learn of the death of John or Quintana without learning about the death of the other. Both events are now firmly ingrained in both Didion’s psyche and public image.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

Blue Nights is about Didion’s relationship with her daughter more than anything else, and her own feelings about motherhood. She and Dunne adopted Quintana at birth in 1966. The adoption process was different back then, Didion states, and very soon after signing papers she and John took Quintana home. Like all new parents they experienced the overwhelmed and emotional feelings when left alone to look after a fragile baby. Didion and Dunne were unable to have children naturally and Didion states with ease that she never thought there was any guarantee she would have children; but, like many women, she still experienced a deep desire to have children – once her career had taken off, of course. She often felt that she did not meet ‘the standards’ of motherhood, though she does not say whose standards she wished to live up to or felt that she failed.

Didion does not paint either herself or her daughter as ‘easy’ people. She was often working, and when she wasn’t she could be withdrawn and quiet, awkward and sad. Quintana was a precocious child with a vivid imagination and endless questions about the world and why things were the way they were. She had a strange recurring dream about ‘The Broken Man’ who would come and displace the parts of their family life. She suffered from a handful of mild mental health problems and often mused on macabre subjects. Didion repeatedly recalls her daughter wishing she could ‘just be in the ground and go to sleep’. She was certainly troubled. Of course there were factors beyond Didion’s control – mental health, the abandonment fears and worries that Didion states all adopted children feel – but the book is filled with the image of a mother worrying what she did wrong and unable to stop blaming herself for every minor problem. She often asks if she could have done things differently, made different choices or decisions. There is no conclusion or solution to these worries; no one could convince Didion that she did nothing wrong, regardless of the truth.

Didion’s musings on her motherhood are explored through various memories of Quintana’s life, particularly her wedding in 2003 and their time living in California in the 1970s. For the rest of the book Didion recalls her own psychological reactions to Quintana’s death and her health problems. Here the tone is very similar to The Year of Magical Thinking, with Didion repeating memories and phrases, and pondering the depths that illness can affect both the ill and the family of the ill person. Certainly the themes are similar, almost the same, as the previous memoir, in which she pondered marriage and being a good wife. Now she ponders motherhood and being a good parent. Her husband John is not mentioned often. Quintana appears as a spectre haunting Didion’s dreams and worries, asking questions that she dare not, or does not want to answer. This is of course a very sad book. It is beautifully written in the usual Didion style – frank and careful, covering all the details and asking endless questions. I cannot say that if you ‘liked’ The Year of Magical Thinking you will ‘like’ Blue Nights; it is not as simple as that. These memoirs are not enjoyable in that sense that they are fun and entertaining, but they are well written and interesting, challenging and moving. Fans of Didion will want to read Blue Nights for the writing and the insight into her life and psyche; newcomers will enjoy the writing too, but also the discussion and musings on death, ageing, illness and family. Blue Nights is recommended, with warnings of tragedy.

Published by Fourth Estate in 2011. 

 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Guest Post)

This is a guest post written by Hannah Gillow Kloster.

2011 cover. (Image: goodreads.com)
2011 cover. (Image: goodreads.com)

As a huge fan of Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous works, I was looking forward to reading his latest major novel, The Marriage Plot. On its blurb, the book purports to be about an English Major writing her thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, whilst around her deconstructionism is performing a revolution in English departments all over the world; so far, so good. However, for a book that studies the enormous gap between the safe, formulaic literature of the nineteenth century and the cutting-edge literary and philosophy scene of early eighties academia, it is remarkably un-ironic about it’s own throw-backism.

The blurb continues to state that ‘As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different suitors, intervenes’. The positive thing about this is that at least the blurb does not exaggerate. Madeleine does very little other than study her literary heroines, and sit around waiting for love to intervene. There is very little active searching for love on her part. It hits her, not even like a ton of bricks, more like a handful of not very large pebbles. And as her brilliant, erratic, mentally unstable boyfriend Leonard continues to be of increasingly unsound mind, she mooches around waiting for him to be a) the brilliant man she fell in love with and b) off his meds so they can have sex. But unlike Homer’s Penelope, one of the female literary heroines to which Eugenides compares her, she doesn’t even seem to have free will, much less a plan.

I am not ashamed to say I was one of the many English students whose justification for studying literature was “well, I mean, I love reading and I love the classics, like, I read Jane Austen when I was ten and it was sooo good”. However, I, like most English students, both grew out of Jane Austen, and embraced her extreme irony and her not-really-emancipated-but-one-could-argue-that-they-are women. Madeleine seems to have done neither. And much like Austen herself was criticised for ignoring the world around her (notably the fact that Napoleon was on a rampage throughout most of her writing life), Madeleine seems oblivious to most of the developments that have taken place since the early eighteen hundreds, (apart from the fact that women are allowed to want sex. She got that part. But quickly forgets it again when her man is feeling unsexy and chubs and needs her to take care of him).

Unsurprisingly, there is also a third part to this love affair – the intellectual, insecure, religious, bare-footed (and oh-so-ironically named) Mitchell Grammaticus. Yes. He has lusted over Madeleine from afar for most of his academic life, while she places him firmly in the friend zone. I guess one could say he is channelling a bit of Mr. Collins. But his place in the novel seems less about challenging Madeleine and Leonard’s romance, and more about giving Eugenides’ a chance to poke some harmless fun at middle-class boys who “find inner peace” and embrace religious mysticism, but only until their money runs out and they come back from India to return to real life. Much like Eugenides’ take on English lit graduate Madeleine, Grammaticus is disappointingly cliché.

Though it contains good moments, witticisms, and nails quite a few of the characters one would traditionally find in an English department, The Marriage Plot lacks the poignancy and extreme insight of Eugenides’ earlier works. Furthermore, considering that a large part of the audience for this novel, or so I suspect, will be English Literature graduates such as myself, they will not find many shocking or powerful truths. At best, The Marriage Plot is a fond if ridiculing nostalgia-trip to the days of pretentious fellow students and hungover seminars. At worst, though, it is a remarkably ‘unfeministic’ portrait of an exceptionally dull girl, with even less of an inner life than Miss Jane Bennett, who I think all English literature students will agree is dull indeed.

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Published in the UK by Fourth Estate in October 2011.

 

 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The New Journalism movement of the 1960s was about reporting the situation exactly as it was by way of the journalist involving themselves in that situation as much as possible. This meant going in and talking to the protestors, spending nights with them in the tents, attending the entire political conference and getting to know the campaigners, becoming friends with those involved; in short, immersion. Joan Didion was one of the key writers of New Journalism. Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are two seminal books of essays that explore practically all facets of 1960s society and  perfectly demonstrate the immersive and ‘real’ nature of New Journalism. Didion spent considerable time with her subjects, becoming involved in their lives and documenting everything as it was. More than anything the word ‘cool’ was associated with her and her work – her style has always been calm and slow, full of detail but only what seems relevant. She never includes the mundane unless it demonstrates her point. She is entirely realist.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

She brings this same style to The Year of Magical Thinking; but here something is different. This is not reportage or fiction; she is not reporting something that happened to someone else. It is an account of the year after her husband died. She and John Gregory Dunne married in 1964. He died in 2003. Except for a few months at the start of their marriage, they both worked at home. For forty years they were together pretty much all the time. There were only a few weeks here and there when one or the other had to go away for work. After forty years together he collapsed while they were having dinner one evening at home and died shortly afterwards. Dunne had had heart problems for more than ten years before his death, but this did not make the actual event any less sudden. Didion called an ambulance, they came and did what they could, they all went to the hospital and about an hour after his collapse Didion’s husband of forty years was pronounced dead. And that was it. He was gone.

The quote on the back of the small white book is the opening line of the text and a note Didion made to herself shortly after Dunne died. ‘Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’ The main theme of the book, if there is one, is Didion’s attempts to come to terms with those changes that happen in the instant. Her account of how she herself tried to deal with the death of her husband is calm and slow, like her other work, but this time deeply personal. During the time covered by the book their daughter Quintana is in and out of hospital with severe flu and later neurological problems. In fact she was unconscious in hospital when her father died and did not learn of his death until over a month later. Over the next year there are several times when she seems very close to death, and Didion is acutely aware of this. She wonders a lot about death and whether we can know when it is coming for us. She wonders if John knew he was going to die when he did; she examines certain things he said or certain things that happened that made it seem like he knew he did not have very much time left. She wonders if this meant something or whether it is just part of her grief, a constant asking of questions as an attempt to comprehend and understand what happened.

Didion is able to look back and examine not only what happened when in relation to her husband’s death but also what she did and when in its aftermath. Her ability to analyse and assess her own past behaviour is quite remarkable – it is as if she can look at her past as if it were someone else’s and through this she able to write about it as if she were reporting it. Perhaps. Either way it is quite brilliant. Her journalistic skills mean that when she ponders something she does not simply ramble or get muddled, she goes through some kind of logical pattern of thought. Even if she repeats questions or phrases – which she often does – at different points in the book, they are always brought to her mind by a different memory or question and do  not seem unnecessary.

Writing The Year of Magical Thinking must have quite cathartic for Didion. She is able to look back at what happened and lay everything out before herself and the reader, to work together with the reader to try and work out what to do when your husband dies and your daughter is seriously ill. How to look back at your life and fit it together with the situation in which you now find yourself. Quite simply it is a very sad but very beautiful book.

Published by Knopf in the US and Fourth Estate in the UK, in 2005.