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.