By Grand Central station I Sat Down and Wept is a novel of prose poetry written by the Canadian author Elizabeth Smart (1913-1986). The title itself is a foretaste of Smart’s poetic tendencies, alluding to Psalm 137 “By the Waters of Babylon , We Lay Down and Wept”
The novel is commonly believed to be based on the author’s passionate love affair with British poet George Barker. Their affair ricocheted between the United States, Canada and the U.K., with their relationship continuing for eighteen years. Barkers son claimed that all through the affair Barker remained a Christ-like figure to Elizabeth. She bore four of his fifteen children, although in the novel her four are limited to one pregnancy, with many specifics of the affair omitted entirely. Even the lover is un-named.
This lover returns her ardour for a time, eventually returning to his ailing wife. The devastated narrator discovers she is pregnant and imagines suicide, but with the narrative so ambiguous and oblique the plan remains unknown. With operatic grandeur the reader must infer action from scraps of information mingled with sensuous descriptions of dreams, nightmares and fantasy.
Written in the first person this novel is a hymn to love, and to its supremacy above all other emotions and worldly practicalities. The writing emphasises subjective tendencies over the story line. Smart manages to conjure grand myth over the everyday: her scenes go from the fecund redwoods of California to the radio announcement of grey,war-torn London. Some experiences are mystical, with language copying St. Paul’s epistles.
At times the language, so rich in classical, biblical, literary and Freudian reference just overwhelms. While most of our readers appreciated the passion and beauty in the language of this book, it was not a book for today. Its entirely subjective focus was stinted. Being as heavily obtuse in wordplay, metaphor and reference made it a novel of limited appeal.
Next month we get together on November 14th at Preece House, to discuss The Vegetarian by Korean writer Han Kang, winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Hope to see you there and happy reading.
Ratings: Denise 3, Di 2, Gail 2, Janet 2.5, Margie 2.5, Penny 2 and Viv 2.5.
We are a group that gets together once a month to discuss good books. Each of us gets to choose a book on a rotational basis, preferably one outside our personal comfort zone – we try to keep the trash to ourselves. After the discussion, we comment on other books we read that month. Most of the time we remain friends after the meeting.
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