Thursday, April 14, 2011

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Sometimes when I'm reading I don't want to think about the bigger picture of the book, I just want to be plunged into the life and emotions of one character and then spend the day there. It's escapism in its purest form, because to experience the intensity of emotions rolling around in someone – fictional or no, because biographies can be great for this too – is a kind of catharsis rarely available to us; rather than reliving moments from our own life, we can simply experience moments from theirs. Perhaps the best novel for this kind of immersion is Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Written entirely in prose poetry, Smart's novel tells a fictionalized account of her real-life love affair with the English, married poet George Barker, with whom she had four children (for the purposes of scale, he had fifteen children, with various women). In the novel, the unnamed narrator is a young woman who falls in love with a married man and, in the short version, she becomes pregnant, has the child, but never sees him again except in her imagination – he, it seems, is institutionalized. It is a heartbreaking story, if a familiar one. What sets By Grand Central Station apart from the genre of cliché love-triangle narratives, though, is the voice at its centre.

Grief and anger and confusion and bliss and myriad other emotions bubble, not under the surface, but in force throughout this story. The narrator is written with such passion that her feelings read like the purest, most broken expressions of loss and love ever committed to the page. She is not a cliché character; she is a woman in love who has been decimated by it, rejected from society as an unwed mother. Smart's descriptions of her narrator are beautiful in their ability to place you in her position, wondering what will come next and unsure whether the fantasies are real life, what's yet to come, or devastating and impossible dreams. 

In the forward – and I recommend you pick up a copy of this book that has one – Brigid Brophy lays the novel bare. Her writing is perfectly matched to Smart's and the cadence and imagery that she sets up in her note prepares you to enter the encompassing world of Smart's prose poem. I rarely read forwards because I don't like to have the story spoiled, but Brophy has no desire to tell you what to think about By Grand Central Station; rather, she wants you to read it with your eyes open, so you can experience the story on two levels: that of the narrator, and that of Smart's own experiences.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a novel in which it is not so much the story itself, but the way it is delivered that draws you in. Knowing the back story is almost a prerequisite to understanding the novel, because Smart doesn't waste her breath laying things out for you. This is not a step-by-step confessional, this is a rolling, turbulent and vivid account of the defining moments of this young woman's life. The story is, of course, present, but its details are not always clear. And that is maybe one of the defining things about grief, anger and love: our feelings are so raw and real that we cannot believe that everyone else isn't feeling them too.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
by Elizabeth Smart
First published in 1945 (cover image shown from Grafton Books edition)

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