Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Smart Weeping

I've just reread the tiny book by Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. (on the suggestion of Yann Martel) This was a poetic novel she penned based on her passionate love affair with a married poet, George Barker, whom she fell in love with through his poetry. Smart was from a fairly well connected Ottawa family, who were sensitive about their social position. When she first published this (1945) her mother was horrified and used her connections to officials to have publication banned in Canada; any copies that slipped in from elsewhere were sought out and burned.

I read this first in university, lo these many years ago, and reading it again was quite a different experience. I read it the first time for the story of overwhelming passion and self-pity, love and loss; this time around it was much more about the language. It is an extended prose poem, with echoes of the Song of Solomon recurring throughout, and the title drawing on the Psalms. When I was 19 I was swamped by her longing, her agonies of love; this was passion, I thought. Upon rereading at an more advanced age, I realize I just wanted to smack some sense into her. "He's not worth it!" I wished I could yell at her. He was older, married, and much practiced at seduction. I imagine his Frequent Philanderer points were sky high. He seemed to be an addiction for her; he was a heavy drinker and so was she when she was with him. As it happened, it was a typical but long-standing affair; promising to leave his wife, he never did. Smart had four children by him.

That sordid summation is not really what the book is about, however. It is about how it is written. Smart (or her narrator) seemed to want someone to act as the focus of her infinite capacity for love; she decided upon Barker. The language is baroque in its ornamentation, pulling in the whole world, natural and literary, to describe and reflect their passion, glorious and squalid simultaneously. Read it as a poem and it carries you along on waves of emotion. The images crowd in upon each other, and some of them are startling, catching the eye like a diamond in the setting of golden prose.
Fear will be a terrible fox at my vitals under my tunic of behaviour.

My heart is its own destructive. It beats out the poisonous rhythm of the truth.
But I have become a part of the earth: I am one of its waves flooding and leaping. I am the same tune now as trees, hummingbirds, sky, fruits, vegetables in rows. I am all or any of these. I can metamorphose at will.

For an extended vision of the interior life of a woman in the throes of an unquenchable passion, read this cult classic. Admire her facility with language, if not with life.
Update: over at DoveGrey Reader, she talks about an essay by Ali Smith:
Relating the tale of Angela Carter's inclusion on the editiorial committee of Virago Books in the mid 1970's and the reason she gave for joining, "by the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in a position to write By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, exquisite prose though it may contain. By Grand Central Station I Tore off His Balls would be more like it I should hope"


  1. One of Smart's and Barker's sons has written a memoir about his parents that I'd like to read.

  2. I had to read your review based on the title alone - which was intriguing. I laughed at your description of your own change of perspective from having read this in college 'till now.

    I can't say that this is a book I would read, but I did enjoy your review. Thanks!

  3. Bybee - That would be a riveting memoir! I'm going to look for it.

    Carrie - Glad you enjoyed the review! It's funny how books change depending on when you may read them, isn't it.

  4. This sounds pretty good! I hadn't heard of it before.

  5. I would love to read that Ali Smith essay! It's been years since I read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Perhaps it's time that I had another go at it. Like you, I suspect that I would be relishing the aesthetic experience more the second time around. Have you read Rosemary Sullivan's biography of Smart? It's a riveting read, as are all of Sullivan's biographies.

  6. Kate - I'd love to read that full essay too... I haven't read the Sullivan bio, but I think pairing it with her son's memoir and maybe a bit of her journals would make an interesting reading theme. I met Rosemary Sullivan at a reading and liked her stuff, so I'll have to look into this one.


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