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.

A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda (1962)

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(image: dauntbookspublishing.co.uk)

I came upon this book entirely by chance in Waterstone’s – it was the cover that made me pick it up, and I am so, so glad I did. A Broken Mirror is described on the inside cover as “A haunting classic of modern Catalan literature from one of Spain’s most prestigious writers”, but honestly I had never heard of Mercé Rodoreda before I picked up this book, for whatever reason. But I am so happy I have discovered her work, because, put simply, this book is sublime.

A Broken Mirror is a family saga, stretching over three generations of the Valldaura family in Barcelona. We begin with Teresa, the matriarch, during her first marriage. She is beautiful and in some ways this is what carries her, what keeps her going through so much of her life. Men seem to fall in love with her all the time. After her first husband dies (he is quite a bit older than her) she marries Salvador Valldaura, and the saga of the family begins. They have a daughter, Sofia, who in turn marries Eladi Farriols – they have two boys, Ramon and Jaume; there is also Maria, who happens to be Eladi’s daughter from an affair with a dancer. This complicated family live in a villa, thrown together with several generations of servants, and watched over by Armanda, the one maid who never leaves them. Her life is intertwined with theirs, as well as with that of the house.

The book is divided into three parts, with several chapters in each. The chapters are each told from the third person perspective of one of the characters, whether a family member or one of the many people in their orbit. In the introduction to the book the translator Josep Miquel Sobrer writes that,

“… each chapter is anchored in some character’s point of view, often a character who is incidental to the development of the action. The technique, which Carme Arnau has related to cinematic narratives and to the free indirect style of writes such as Gustave Flaubert and Virginia Woolf, gives the novel its intensity.”

I remember learning about free indirect speech in Jane Austen at school, and I think this assessment is correct. Throughout A Broken Mirror you are given time to understand each of the characters’ mentality, and their own experience of the shared narrative. For a book with so many characters, free indirect is the perfect way to visit all of them without feeling overwhelmed by all the information. Through this technique, Rodoreda also perfectly illustrates the way in which we live both in the past and the present, as the characters constantly relate what is happening to what has happened before, how things used to be, the things they remember. Things change all the time, but they also stay the same.

Josep Miquel Sobrer writes in his introduction that A Broken Mirror is pessimistic, and in some ways it is – time ravages everything, people never love as they should, and in the end everything comes to nothing… but I think it does celebrate the joys of family life, the pleasures of love, and the thoughtlessness of childhood. It celebrates moments in time. At several points there is a stark contrast between the dramatic, troubled family, and the joyous abandon of the maids stripping off in the summer and chasing each other with the garden hose. Armanda watches them all and sees the beauty and fragility of life and happiness.

I think that is the crux of this book, and the reason it is so beguiling. A Broken Mirror reminds us that life is always messy, and complicated, but that it is still worth living. There is a scene, late in the book, where Armanda drops a mirror and sees in all the broken pieces all the pieces of her long life with the Valldaura family – all the people, all the heartache and grief, the joy and happiness as well as the sadness. Life is made up of so many pieces, good and bad, and sometimes it is impossible to fit them all together. Some of the best passages come when characters are looking back on their lives and remembering their lost loves, their stolen moments, and their youth. They realise that it was pointless to think that life would be a certain way, because it always happens just as it will. Even if the pieces do not fit together, they are each worth something.

A Broken Mirror is one of the most beautiful books I think I have ever read. The language is beautiful, even in translation, and each character is full realised, no matter who they are. There is sheer poetry and romance in this novel, and it is full of the most wonderful imagery. Each scene feels three-dimensional, and you can almost feel the Spanish summer heat and hear the laurel bush rustling in the wind. I was totally immersed in the story of the Valldauras and was sorry to come to the end of the novel, and I will certainly seek out more of Rodoreda’s work. Especially if Daunt do more of these beautiful editions!

*

Originally published in 1962. I read the 2017 Daunt Books edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

Overdue update on Christmas and birthday books

As I said in my last post, life has rather gotten in the way of blogging over the last month or so (probably more than that), so I am only just getting around to organising posts I meant to write and publish a while ago…

First I must ask you to cast your mind back to the excitement of getting presents at Christmas, and then double it, because my birthday is just after Christmas and so I get lots of presents around that time. Not too bad.

I actually received fewer books than I expected to, seeing as I asked for quite a few, but I am so pleased with the ones I did get. And aren’t they pretty!thumb_img_9248_1024

These were all on my wish list apart from The Prose Factory, which was a pleasant surprise from my fiancé’s mother.  I’d never even heard of it but it looks fascinating so I’m looking forward to getting into it at some point.

I’ve just finished reading the book about Katherine Howard and have a blog post in the works. It has made me really want to read more about the women of the Tudor period, particularly Henry VIII’s other wives, as well as Elizabeth I and Mary. I am particularly keen on reading about my namesake as she has always held a certain mysterious magic for me and I would love to understand more about her life and reign, and her character.

I also asked for every Shirley Jackson book that I haven’t already got, and I am very pleased to now have Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales, especially as the latter is a very nice little hardback with a bright green back cover. I can’t wait to get back into more of Jackson’s eerie and wonderful short stories.

I asked for The Devil in the White City as it’s something I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. The book is set in 1893 and “tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the [Chicago World’s] Fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.” (quote from GoodReads). I think both these men have interesting stories, and it just sounds like a fascinating time. It also doesn’t hurt that H.H. Holmes was the inspiration for the character of J.P. March in American Horror Story: Hotel – and for the hotel itself.

My fiancé’s amazing brother and sister also got a set of Vintage Classics editions of Virginia Woolf, which was a lovely surprise.

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I’ve some of these but not all, and I’m very glad I get to read them in such lovely editions! I plan to start with A Room of One’s Own as I’ve never actually gotten around to reading it…

So there you go – lots of amazing reading to be getting on with. I did also get vouchers for Foyles so there may even more books soon, what a surprise!

Happy reading!

Meeting Persephone Books: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

I purchased Cheerful Weather for the Wedding while out with other bloggers and book-tubers when we visited the lovely Persephone shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London, and it is the first Persephone I have ever actually read, despite having admired their books for some time. I would encourage a visit to the shop if you love 20th century fiction and hidden gems – the shop is a hidden gem and so are its books, as Persephone’s remit is to publish forgotten or lesser known books from the 20th century, all in their elegant grey covers. The bestselling titles are given the honour of becoming Persephone Classics and are republished with beautiful illustrated covers. My first Persephone was one of these, and very attractive too.

2009 Persephone Classics edition (image: goodreads.com)
2009 Persephone Classics edition (image: goodreads.com)

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was originally published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1932. Virginia’s praise for it is something that I expect will keep it in print! She said: ‘I think it astonishingly good – complete and sharp and individual.’ (Taken from the introduction to the Persephone edition.)

The book is a sweet little novella that takes place on the wedding day of a young woman torn between old love and new. It is at once a comedy of manners, a satire of the middle classes, and a desperate story of lost love. And all this in under 200 pages. It’s not exactly groundbreaking, but it is enjoyable and interesting, with great flashes of humour and wit as well as sharp observation and unsentimental emotion. I read it in two days, on holiday in France, and it was the perfect thing to read at the time. Light but not fluffy; complex but not complicated. It is quite ‘of the time’ and in keeping with a lot of the Bloomsbury set’s work, I think. Like a simpler version of Mrs Dalloway it is a ‘day in the life’ that manages to expand over time and space and incorporate so much more than the events that it relates, and I really loved this about it. You learn snippets of background information here and there, mostly through conversation, and this felt very natural and free-flowing.

Julia Strachey also seems like quite an interesting character, and I very much enjoyed reading about her in the introduction written by Frances Partridge (who knew her in real life). It has sort of renewed by interest in the era – I say sort of because I know I’m not about to go on a Bloomsbury set spree – and I will definitely read some more Persephones. On the same day I bought Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, which I am really looking forward to.

I would also love some other Persephone recommendations if you have any…

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Originally published in 1932 by the Hogarth Press; reprinted by Persephone Books in 2002 and as a Persephone Classic in 2009.

Notes: Mrs Dalloway and The Hours

I have just finished reading Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf… and oh I am swept away. I hadn’t actually sat down to read Woolf since studying her at university when we read The Waves and To The Lighthouse for a course on Modernism and the concept of time (I forget the official course title), and that was, well… two years ago (ish). I LOVED To The Lighthouse, and found The Waves a bit impenetrable – but I suppose that is meant to happen. It is a novel that isn’t really a novel but a ‘playpoem’, and is meant to be hard. I still think it’s brilliant and ingenious though. Of course. I even wrote about it here.

Virginia Woolf. Image: wikipedia.com
Virginia Woolf. Image: wikipedia.com

My older sister once recommended Orlando to me. I read half of it, and got so fed up I gave up on it. It is incredibly dense and longwinded, and frankly, a bit self indulgent. Sorry. Luckily, my reading of Woolf at university, and a brilliant lecturer, means I love her now. The film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s beautiful novel The Hours was on TV the other night and I caught the last 40 minutes or so. As per, I cried at the end. Oh Meryl! And Julianne Moore… Also I could look at Claire Danes’ face forever.

Claire Danes as Julia and Meryl Streep as Clarissa in The Hours. Image: imbd.com
Claire Danes as Julia and Meryl Streep as Clarissa in The Hours. Image: imbd.com

What Michael Cunningham does is so beautiful; he clearly adores Mrs Dalloway, and in The Hours (named after an early title for Mrs D) he translates the story of that day in June 1923 into the lives of women outside the novel, including Woolf herself. He makes the lives of Mrs Dalloway, her friends, and that of Septimus Smith and his wife Rezia, universal – he demonstrates that the same feelings and thoughts, the same issues, and the same problems, permeate life beyond the pages of Mrs Dalloway. While Woolf’s novel has a wide wingspan, covering all these experiences across London in one day, it is limited by time and place. Cunningham takes us to America, and through the twentieth century, to his world and the possible people within it. The Hours moves us because we recognise elements from Mrs Dalloway; because the stories of Virginia, and of Richard and his mother, are so incredibly sad; but also because we can all relate to something we see in the story, in some small way.

Image: awesomestories.com
Fourth Estate 2003 edition of The Hours. Image: awesomestories.com

Watching the wonderful film adaptation reminded me that I had a long unread copy of Mrs Dalloway in my bookshelf. Having just finished the unsatisfying This Is Paradise, I was unsure of what to read next, and read Elaine Showalter’s introduction to the 2000 Penguin Modern Classics version of Mrs D that I own. I just simply had to keep reading. Showalter’s introduction reintroduced me to Henri Bergson’s theory of human or physical time, as opposed to clock time, and also the feminist issues within the novel. My academic mind was given a prod and I was reassured that literature is wonderful and important. Woolf is simply brilliant at capturing all the little things that fill our lives everyday, that seem insignificant but often mean so much more. Nothing is washed over or forgotten; but then I think she does not over-think things or overanalyse things – she simply pays more attention to what really can make us happy or unhappy.

Penguin Modern Classics edition of Mrs Dalloway. Image: penguin.com.au
Penguin Modern Classics edition of Mrs Dalloway. Image: penguin.com.au

I recently also bought myself a copy of Selected Essays by Virginia Woolf, as I have never read them. It was her birthday on 25th January, and this piece on For Books’ Sake about two of her essays, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, has made me want to read her non-fiction even more. I’ve decided to read more non-fiction this year, and started with Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, and am looking forward to VW’s essays immensely.

I am very glad to have ‘rediscovered’ Virginia. What do you love about her? What other writers like her do you love?