Tuesday, October 17, 2017

By Grand Central Station: Learning life's lessons rather than weeping!

By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept






As book titles go this one is a stunner.  I always wanted to find and read this elusive book because I loved the title so much.  So seeing it recently in an Oxfam bookshop, I grabbed it with joy. 

I started to read it the other day.  The forward by Brigid Brophy seemed promising. 

"I doubt if there are more than half a dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world.  One of them, I am convinced, is Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept...which was first published in 1945..when to the shame of those professing to practice criticism at the time, it made small stir..."

However, a few pages into the turgid and over-inflated prose and I was ready to throw it into the bin.

'On her mangledness I am spreading my amorous sheets, but who will have any pride in the wedding red, seeping up between the thighs of love which rise like a colossus, but whose issue is only the cold semen of grief'

'I am overun, jungled in my bed, I am infested with a menagerie of desires; my heart is eaten by a dove,a cat scrambles in the cave of my sex, hounds in my head obey a whipmaster who cries nothing but havoc as the hours test my endurance with an accumulation of tortures.  Who, if I cried, would hear me amongs the angelic orders?'

 This is a masterpiece, a cult literary classic?  Some of the images taken separately are amazing but altogether, page after page of this sort of prose is just too much to bear.  it alienates instead of inspiring pity.

I have to confess to a dislike of so called 'stream of consciousness' style novels.  I recently read - because required to for study, not by choice - William Faulkner's As I lay Dying.  I utterly disliked that book, disliked the characters, the setting, the whole point of the tale and the pretentiousness of those who felt it to be an epic odyssey of some sort.   As far as I was concerned, it was dreary, holding out little hope, joy or meaning. Yet, as some wit pointed out, 'you may hate the book or love it, but you'll never forget it.'  So true, because I haven't.  I class By Grand Central Station as one of those types of books that annoys you but makes you wonder, think, query, consider and oddly, in the end, even begin to understand.

Elizabeth Smart


I'm not sure I will ever understand Faulkner.  He is too alien for me.  But Elizabeth Smart was a woman, she was a woman truly, madly, deeply in love with a man who belonged to another.  The whole set up was doomed to unhappiness.  I have like many another woman experienced intense love, the pain of separation, passion, grief and anguish.  So I could relate to what Smart was attempting to express.  She wrote the book at a time when her married lover, the English poet George Grenville Barker, left her to return to his wife.  Apparently he returned through pity for the wife despite his love for Elizabeth but I feel cynical about that.  He seemed a man who tired of the same partner and had many an affair.  He was also a lapsed Catholic and his wife never divorced him despite his serial womanising and he managed to father fifteen children with various women!   (I've observed that women often want to bear the children of these poetic but faithless men as if to keep a portion of the man close to them in this way.) Smart bore him four of them and when asked if the children came first or her man, replied at once, ' My man.'   Yet George Barker wasn't an admirable sort of person at all.  He was a poet, it's true, compared often to Gerard Manley Hopkins.  His poetry has the same mythic, mystical overtones that so appealed to Elizabeth Smart and which profusely invades her own work.  It was his poetry that first drew her to him and she declared she would marry this man some day.   She was utterly determined to have him, wife or no wife, have his soul you might say.

George Grenville Barker

Barker was indeed gifted but vain and convinced of his own genius, a genius not to be wasted in wars and fighting.  Thus he managed to escape Britain and World War Two, by firstly accepting a post in Japan.  There he realised he was in the midst of something even more frightening than the European conflict and recalling this women who had expressed so much excitement over his work, he made good use of Smart's infatuation for him by persuading her to finance his escape from Japan  to America.  He never worked, he never fought but Smart always made allowances and even when he left her to return to his wife, stayed true to him. Even her son couldn't understand why his mother loved his father who, as he said, was almost a Christ-like figure for her.   Barker came and went as the impulse took him, was a drinker, could be violent and unpredictable and they often had vicious rows.  Smart even bit his lip once in a fury (shades of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath but Smart was a tougher cookie than the already suicidal Plath)


Her son wrote that he never understood her book either and Smart's mother was horrified and managed to have sales of the book banned in Canada, burning as many copies as she managed to get her hands on.  People weren't used to such a raw, honest declaration of love and passion, so personal a book.   I just wish she'd made it a proper story rather than couching it in the overblown, often meaningless metaphors and images of her prose which Brophy so admires.  Despite all, there is a sense of the passion; the vulnerability and intensity that lovers feel in that time when they are swept along by a mutually projected archetypal image from within themselves upon the mere mortal before them.  The mortal is still a God in their eyes, not yet a fallible human creature like themselves.  Elizabeth never seemed able to take back her God-like projection upon George till much later in life, if ever.  It had been so deep, painful, joyful, an almost mystical experience which would forever leave its indelible imprint on her soul.  One felt she would meet him again in another life, that maybe they had chased one another through myriad lives before, perhaps till the end of time, a novel in itself.  I understand all that.

I also understand her half -mystical, religious, inflated, archaic style of writing.  My first writings were of this nature but now seem almost incomprehensible, even to me.  My Little World is the first  novel  (starting it in my teens) I ever wrote - and then re-wrote and wrote again.  As Ignazio Sillone put it, 'I would willingly pass my life writing and re-writing the same book . . . that one book every writer carries within him . . . the image of his own soul'   However, it's not a story I want to publish, it's my 'cupboard book' as my daughter puts it . . . not one to inflict on others who would criticise, mock, love or hate those feelings that are meaningful and magical to me alone.  It's too personal and precious though presented in the form of an anguished love story with a resolution of sorts and as such, readable at least.   Which Grand Central isn't . . . that's just a meandering cry of anguish.   My male characters are certainly my inner ones, images of the splintered animus within my breast, yet at the same time they are feelings and insights about real people I have loved and hated, now clothed differently, given a different life.   And through writing this, I discovered so much about myself and my motives in life. 

In my opinion, Smart should have put this slight, yet intense and yes, feeling book into a cupboard and pondered on it as life went on, rather than indulging in a sort of vain longing to have others see her as some tragic heroine in a story from the past.  Tristan and Iseult she may have felt herself to be as I always felt the story of Cupid and Psyche, Beauty and the Beast so strong in myself.  Jung said we all lived out a particular myth and he is right.  But this is for each person to discover and understand.  Know Thyself is a vital key to life, the injunction over the gateway to Apollo's Delphic Temple.   I feel Smart never truly understood herself or the true meaning of her tortuous love affair.

3 comments:

Thomas Driscoll said...

Good post

Thomas Driscoll said...

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