Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Fourth Estate, London, 2015

Smart GC Station cover

It’s a handsome paperback edition with French flaps – always a nice touch

The title is of course an allusion to the lament of the Jewish people in exile in the first line of Psalm 137. In this prose poem novella – it’s only 134 pages, with plenty of white spaces – Canadian Elizabeth Smart (1913-86) creates something close to a collage of delirious references to amour fou from the Bible, especially the Song of Songs, myths and legends from ancient Greek and Latin sources (the narrator likens herself to no end of romantic heroines, from Cleopatra to Helen of Troy, Leda to Venus). Also in the mix are recurring references to the 15C English lyric also inspired by the Song of Songs, and known for its Latin refrain:

Quia amore langueo. The narrator glosses this:

I am dying for love. This is the language of love.

(See Clerk of Oxford blog for the text and modern version.)

Blake’s ‘Several Questions Answered’ pops up:

What is it men in women do require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

What is it women do in men require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire

and Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ teasingly ironic lyric from Death’s Jest Book, ‘If thou wilt ease thine heart/Of love and all its smart,/Then sleep, dear, sleep’ – with artful inclusion of her own name in this quotation. These are the fragments she shores up to try to articulate and contextualise her passion – and they show she knows it’s an amour fou. She can’t stop it. She knows it’s borderline blasphemy to treat it as sacred – hence all those erotic biblical citations.

A few pages later, as the lover seems to have left her to return to his wife, the narrator spins into a near-suicidal downward spiral of inconsolable longing and depression:

I am lonely. I cannot be a female saint. I want the one I want. He is the one I picked out from the world. I picked him out in cold deliberation. But the passion was not cold. It kindled me. It kindled the world. Love, love, give my heart ease, put your arms round me, give my heart ease. Feel the little bastard.

The hopelessness of her longing – for the lover, and for ‘ease’ – is savagely embodied in that cold reference in the final four words to her unborn child: she’s pregnant by the lover, and is doomed to give birth alone. (Smart went on to bear three more of Barker’s children; he also fathered eleven more with three different women. Makes me wonder whether he merited her fierce love, or appreciated its ferocity.)

My first reading of the novella was a mixed experience. There were passages of exquisitely beautiful lyricism as the narrator sings her paean to her passionate love for the unnamed man she devotes her life to, and attempts to make rational sense of this erotic, destructive madness. From as early as p. 5, when the affair hasn’t started but he’s joined her, she’s aware of the destructive nature of this intoxicating love:

I know these days are offering me only murder for my future.

Three pages later:

But he never passes anywhere near me without every drop of my blood springing to attention. My mind may reason that the tenseness only registers neutrality, but my heart knows no true neutrality was ever so full of passion.

He’s a shadowy figure in the narrative, and appears in the opening pages, ominously, accompanied by his wife.

It’s well known that Grand Central was based on Smart’s pursuit of the English poet George Barker – she fell in love with him through reading some of his poetry in a bookshop in England in 1937. Three years later, after a patient, amorous campaign, aided by Lawrence Durrell, and a lengthy correspondence with the object of her desire, she paid for Barker and his wife to leave Japan, where he was unhappily teaching, and fly to California. They set up a bizarre ménage à trois.

As in real life, the novella depicts the woman following her lover from Monterey to Europe and war-scarred England. There’s a painful interlude alone in Canada, where her parents are scathingly judgemental of what they perceive as her crazy infatuation.

On second reading I began to find my way into this wildly idiosyncratic narrative. Interspersed with the dizzy, intoxicated outpourings of erotic passion (‘set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm, for love is strong as death’ – from the Song of Songs, appears more than once, plus the next line, ‘Jealousy is fierce as the grave’) are brutally contrasting passages of banal incomprehension and cynical dismissal from everyone else she meets, who either disapprove of her dangerous love, or see it as sinful or criminal.

In Part 4, for example, appears the most hilarious and oddly moving of these jarring dichotomies of register. She and the lover had been arrested at the border of Arizona on charges of moral turpitude. Extra-marital sex was (and still is, apparently) a crime. The crude, cruel questions from the leering cops are intercut with soaring verses from that same Song. Not only is this section very comical, bordering on farce, it movingly portrays the woman’s resolution to preserve inside herself her treasured holy passion, even when threatened and bullied by the agents of the secular unromantic state. From her jail cell she fumes:

The eyes of the jealous world peer through the peephole in the door, in the eyes of the keeper. But still the only torture is [the lover’s] absence. (p.45)

Taunted and berated for her illicit love by her interrogators, she returns to her justifying refrain: What do you live for then?

I don’t go for that sort of thing, the officer said, I’m a family man, I belong to the Rotary Club…What a cad [the police inspector] said, and the girl’s a religious maniac.

This is Holden Caulfield’s pompously indignant ‘phoney’ territory – and very funny, because part of her knows it is – but she prefers her crazy love to their mediocrity. And as she says, they’re hypocrites:

But are all Americans virgin and faithful ever after?…The thin-lipped [inspector] was livid with hate of our lineaments of gratified desire [that’s a Blake bombshell lobbed against the philistines again]

Or there’s her landlord, Mr Wurtle, quizzing her on the possibility of the existence of love, her love in particular:

I cannot hear beneath his subtle words the beginning of the world’s antagonism: the hatred of the mediocre for all miracles.

Near the end, the woman now alone and desolate, the novella’s title finally appears, followed by this:

I will not be placated by the mechanical motions of existence, nor find consolation in the solicitude of waiters who notice my devastated face. (p.119)

Even in the extremities of despair she refuses to betray her love. Unlike ‘everyone’, she will not acquiesce or compromise.

Smart portrait back flap

Smart the ‘good-looking blonde’, as the narrator is leeringly called at one point: photo on the back flap

One of my problems on that first reading was a failure to tune in to the subtleties and ironies I’ve just mentioned, and a not very generous inclination to find the woman’s outpourings a little, well, morbid and hysterical – like that whiny ‘They don’t know about us’ pop song – or is it more like the Stranglers’ “La Folie”? Now I notice she’s aware of the potential ridiculousness of her obsession: this is from p. 126, as she continues to voice her attempts not to succumb to despair at being abandoned:

No morbid adolescent ever clutched toward melodramatic conclusion so wildly…Oh yes, it is hysteria that whips me with his name, that drives me with the insane loneliness of the first split amoeba, to shriek beneath his window.

See what I mean? And yet that same quotation shows what still causes me to doubt that this is the masterpiece it’s touted as in the puff quotes on the jacket. The sentences linger just a little too long, engendering more sentences that veer off into surreal imagery that’s often reminiscent of the weaker, more self-indulgent, obscure parts of Dylan lyrics (compare this on p. 28: ‘The parchment philosopher has no traffic with the night, and no conception of the price of love. With smoky circles of thought he tries to combat the fog and with anagrams to defeat anatomy’), or the amphetamine-flow of the Beats. Sometimes she sounds like Sylvia Plath on a bad day, or Whitman on a good one.

Then a few paragraphs later she refers to her inner cradle – I think she means her capacity for consoling herself and her unborn child? – like this:

It buffets me off the road of planned elegance. Girls in love, remember to keep your heads, keep calm, plan your campaign, yours sincerely, Dorothy Dix. Girls in love, be harlots, it hurts less.

(Had to Google D. Dix: seems she was a famous agony aunt.) That first sentence is terrific, wittily self-aware, brilliantly showing the indomitable spirit that’s never quite extinguished among the vicissitudes of the dingy cafés she frequents, as well as her habit of solipsistic wallowing. Maybe it’s just impossible not to sound like a hysterical adolescent when expressing transcendent love for a bastard. Angela Carter certainly disapproved, preferring in this situation to cut his balls off, not weep.

When I started drafting this piece I thought it was going to be a demolition job. It’s turned into something much more appreciative. I still think the book is flawed, but it’s an extraordinary piece of prose, and I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it thought of it.

Apologies: I had no idea this post would turn out so long. Maybe the book is better than I think.

 

 

 

 

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24 thoughts on “Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

  1. Youch. Nice job, Simon. Just a few random items.

    * (“Smart went on to bear three more of Barker’s children; he also fathered eleven more with three different women. Makes me wonder whether he merited her fierce love, or appreciated its ferocity.”) Reminds me of “talking down” a poor heartsick girl one night at a pub… I was scared she might do something desperate, she was so inconsolable. The answer is basically always “NO”… it is a longing from within (Jung’s anima?) that picks its target and sets off on its course. But that doesn’t make it any less devastating. Did you by any chance ever see what might be Pedro Almodovar’s best film, “Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”? It had the same theme, with a wonderfully colorful Spanish brio.

    * “The sentences linger just a little too long, engendering more sentences that veer off into surreal imagery that’s often reminiscent of the weaker, more self-indulgent, obscure parts of Dylan lyrics.”

    Yep. I just can’t get into him. I will never accept that for some reason Dylan “deserves” the Nobel Prize for Literature that Chinua Achebe did not.

    * Oh man. That is merciless but spot on: [“Sometimes she sounds like Sylvia Plath on a bad day, or Whitman on a good one.”]

    Sometimes, a brilliant mess like this is a lot of fun. I am simply not in the mood for mad love affairs at the moment.. I like keeping the remote control to myself! Who knows, I may yet again make a fool of myself, but it is a relief after one secret “crush” after another from age 12 to 45! Would be kind of fun to read.

    Have a great weekend Simon, this was a relief after the awful Trump stuff this last week.

    P.S. There is something rather silly and funny about great lust-affairs (not the children born of them) 30 or 40 years later when you run into The Adonis Who Got Away and he is as fat as you, and even more bald! At the end of his life, when asked about Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton sort of sighed and said he didn’t remember a lot of it but it was an awful lot of bother, and it exhausted him to even recollect!

    But what the heck, without all that hormonal fire, we would run out of humans, Mother Nature is cunning.

  2. Hi, Simon, long time no comment (I’m trying to avoid book blogs because I’m currently in a manic culling phase and CANNOT BUY ANY NEW BOOKS), but I read this post and loved it…especially the last sentence. Isn’t it wonderful how a book you might not have liked as you first read it can creep into your imagination? So much to ponder here. For a book you intended to pan!

    • Paula: good to hear from you again. I know exactly what you mean – just ordered several more books, several as a consequence of reading reviews by bloggers whose taste I trust. Yes, it’s one of the good things about posting: as I ponder putting into words what it is about a book I’ve just read that represents its style and impact, I find myself modifying and amending first impressions. These are not book reviews, after all, but impressions, conversation pieces.

  3. Very interesting post, Simon. I have seen this book on the 1940s table in Waterstones Piccadilly (they have tables for each decade in the fiction section) without really knowing very much about it. Now that I’ve read your piece, I’m pretty sure it isn’t for me! Thank you – I’m all for trimming down the virtual TBR list 🙂

    • Oh dear, Jacqui, now I feel guilty. It’s not my intention to put readers of this blog off the books I write about. As I just replied to Paula, they’re impressions, conversations, not recommendations. I’m sure the people who’ve raved about this novella saw something that was just not entirely to my taste. As i hope my post suggested, there are some really strong qualities in it. Some not so strong. But it’s risky and edgy, sui generis

      • Please don’t feel guilty, Simon. The strengths come across, for sure, but it’s probably a question of personal tastes. As you quite rightly say, what we are often doing here is writing about our feelings and impressions of a book rather than constructing a purist ‘review’ (whatever that may be). Anyway, I’m glad you shared your thoughts on this. They’ve helped me to figure out that this book probably isn’t right for me!

        • I think the way the post became so long was a reflection of my difficulties with the book. It’s a really strange one. I wouldn’t advise against reading it – maybe try the first couple of pages in a bookshop, see what you think. An old friend of mine used to spend hours in his local Waterstones and read whole books in there!

  4. I agree about the word ‘review’: we need a new word for what we do here online.
    I don’t think this one is for me: love, forbidden or otherwise, is not enough of a subject to interest me so I would be reduced to teasing out all those allusions when I might be better off reading the works from which they come…

  5. I tried with this novella some years ago, but gave up after a few pages. It’s not a book for me with all its allusions and intertexuality relating to other authors and books I’ve no knowledge off, and the biblical stuff. However, I really enjoyed reading your ramble about it.

  6. Really interesting post, Simon. I read this decades ago – well, I ought to say tried to read it because I really didn’t get it, and I obviously missed all the references and nuances you pulled out. There’s a fine line that I think Smart crossed over – the Plath/Whitman analogy you make – and I’m pretty sure the book lost me. There is the risk of whininess, and I think I would also find myself wondering nowadays if I wanted to read about two such unpleasant people – both the love object and the pursuer seem to have little regard for the damage they must be causing to those around them.

    And yes, ramble away – that’s what we enjoy about all the book blogs we read! 🙂

    • Thanks for the endorsement of my rambling, Kaggsy. I know it’s not essential to like the characters we read about in order to like the book, but in this case I think you’re right – especially as this one is pretty thinly disguised autobiography. Although she professes early on to ‘love’ her lover’s wife, she harbours some pretty nasty thoughts about her, and she still indulges her obsession for the man, knowingly destroying all of their lives. In this case love doesn’t conquer all…

  7. Such an interesting review. I read this book when I was in my 20s, and absolutely loved it, re-read it, gave it as a gift to others. I think I was probably pleased with myself getting some of the references. I thought it was beautiful, romantic and breath-takingly well written. But I have no idea what I would think of it now, I might easily find it very over-written. Do I dare pick it up or should I stick with my memories?

    • Moira: I think we respond to books in different ways at different stages of our lives. Hang on to your happy memories of this one! I started rereading Tristram Shandy a year or so ago after a gap of many years; first time I loved it, this time couldn’t finish. We read with the accumulated experience of life and other books we’ve read

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