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A Year with Short Novels: Elizabeth Smart; Queen of Sheba

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By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

By Elizabeth Smart
Originally published in 1945
Currently in print through Flamingo and Vintage

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 fever-dream of a novel, is composed of exaggerated contours. Smart’s hallucinatory depiction of a love affair begins when the narrator meets the married man who will become her lover. (None of the main characters are ever named.) His wife has “Madonna eyes, soft as the newly-born, trusting as the untempted.” Under the gargantuan redwood trees and steep cliffs of the California coast, she prepares herself for the inevitable denouement. When she sees the man, “every drop” of her blood springs “to attention.” He feels the same way. She foresees the despair their love will cause his wife. That foresight feels like “a slow motion process of the guillotine in action.” When he kisses her for the first time, “all through the night it is centaurs hoofed and galloping over my heart: the poison has got into my blood.”

Being loved by him makes her powerful and invulnerable, “empress of a new-found land.” She alternately relates to Helen of Troy, the Queen of Sheba, and Cleopatra. Months into the affair, she looks at herself in the mirror, to gaze at “the face that launched a thousand nights of love.”

When her lover returns to his wife, she writes beseeching letters and squeezes “the pain from side to side in my caged head.” Wandering war-blasted London, pregnant with his child, she is haunted by memories of his family killed in bombing raids. But love is the true devastator: “I am the last pregnant woman in a desolated world. The bed is cold and jealousy is cruel as the grave.” If he returns, she vows to forgive him: “every scar will have a satin covering.” In the final section she goes to New York in a desperate bid to get her lover back. She finds everything charged with operatic grandeur. Grand Central Station is “lit up…like a Judgment Day.”

The power of emotion to transform one’s perspective on the world—to make train stations become holy sites, to find in betrayal a guillotine blade, to turn one’s gaze away from war-torn streets to the shreds of one’s heart—is the theme of this wildly poetic novel. The inspiration for Smart’s classic work of prose poetry is just as famous as the book itself.

In the 1930s, Elizabeth Smart, a diffident, talented, and young writer from a prominent Canadian family, came across a book by poet George Barker in a London shop. She instantly fell in love with his incantatory verses, and resolved to marry him and bear his children. (In her 1936 journal, four years before meeting Barker, she wrote, “I must marry a poet. It’s the only thing.” Feminist scholarship has made much of Smart as an example of a woman who pursued her tremendous ambitions through a man rather than fidelity to her own career). Smart pled and scrimped for the money to fly Barker and his wife back from a miserable university appointment in Japan, to the writer’s colony in Big Sur where she was staying. “I picked him out in cold deliberation,” the narrator in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept writes, mirroring Smart’s experience of how the affair began. “But the passion was not cold. It kindled me.”

Their affair ricocheted between the United States, Canada, and UK following their meeting. Between 1941 and 1947, she would have four children by Barker—in the novel, two or three pregnancies are condensed into one. Barker would ultimately have 11 other children by three other women. His tempestuous, on-and-off relationship with Smart continued for 18 years. Christopher Barker, Smart’s second child, would later write that “All through his adult life, through all his other affairs, his outrageous behaviour, their spectacular rows, he remained a Christ-like figure to her.”

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a paean to that love. Smart’s words again and again take on shades of pious devotion because for Smart, loving Barker was a form of religion. Though knowing the bare facts that engendered the novel helps one trace an outline beneath Smart’s effusions, the novel stubbornly emphasizes subjective experience over story-line. Not only is the lover unnamed, he is barely described. “His foreshortened face” and “soft shadow” are present, but the lovers exchange direct dialogue only twice in the whole novel. We are more frequently party to words from the narrator’s dry, conventional landlord, Mr. Wurtle, than from the love-object himself.

There are none of the orienting details and anecdotal explanations a reader would find helpful in learning how the pair met, or what precipitates their parting. The brief story never wavers from a pitch of intensity where kisses contain poison and intimations of high-flown myth. The lyrical charge is instantaneous, over-wrought, and often irresistible. As we chase the narrator through ecstasy, obsession, and abandonment, her words conjure the alternately unsettling and empowering force of love, which can embolden one us to go beyond the confines of the workaday world, or make us harmfully oblivious to others.

Waves of disapproval and approbation have trailed By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept since its initial publication. Depending on whose opinion one trusts, the novel is either “a violent and adroit piece of home-wrecking” (Cyril Connolly, 1945) or “like saying a tragic, pagan erotic rosary” (Brigid Brophy, 1966). The novel is wildly praised as a work of linguistic inventiveness and beauty, but beyond that, responses often divide based on the love affair itself. Allies of Elizabeth Smart’s romantic vision include Yann Martel, Michael Ondaatje, and ex Smiths-frontman Morrissey.

Other express reservations. When the book was reissued in the late 1960s, novelist Angela Carter praised the novel in a Guardian review as “like Madame Bovary blasted by lighting” but later wrote privately to her friend, critic Lorna Sage, that one of her motivations for founding the feminist press Virago was “the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in a position to be able to write BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT[sic], exquisite prose though it might contain. (BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I TORE OFF HIS BALLS would be more like it, I should hope.)”

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept remains a howl of a book, shot through with vivid imagery and ecstatic language, alternately exasperating and invigorating. Smart’s mission is nothing less than to rend grand myth from her modern day-to-day life. The novel flaunts lyrical intimations of everything from Song of Songs to Shakespeare to Rilke’s elegies. The basic emotional progression is imparted either on the levels of instinctive emotional experience or flowing shifts in scenery, from the fecund redwoods of California to the radio announcements of gray, wartime London. Just as a young Elizabeth Smart sought a poet and happened to find Barker, the book is in many ways the recounting of a quest for passion, with the interpersonal nuances ancillary to love itself. It focuses on her experiences with near-mystical intensity. The narrator recounts the yearning that preceded her love affair with language that recalls St. Paul’s epistles:

Once I skulked wistfully through dim streets, aching after this unknown, hoping to pass by unnoticed in my drab dress and lopsided shoes with high heels, hoping, thus surreptitiously, to come upon it. But I was afraid, I was timid, and I did not believe, I hoped. I thought it would be a like a bird in the hand, not a wild sea that treated me like flotsam.

The book’s strength and singular beauty come from the intrusions of the everyday, modern world — the pilgrim here wears a pair of lopsided high heels. The narrator is able to flout convention (and indeed, the law) through nothing less than faith. Were it not for the hugeness of what she opposes, her proclamations would descend into adolescent theatrics. But the setting is mid-20th-century North America and Britain, where sex deemed “immoral” was illegal under U.S. federal law and birth (and birth control) outside of wedlock were forbidden. Her actions gather force because of the social structures that surround her: “They eye me. They bore a hole in my wedding finger because it is bare and they measure my belly like tailors, to weave a juicy bit of gossip.”

Smart’s romantic ideals and self-magnification may seem impractical (trailing one’s lover around the world), unhealthy (“kisses whose chemicals are even more deadly if undelivered”), and outmoded (pregnancy is the immediate result of the affair). But few books about love are as viscerally intense and unfiltered as this one. It is easier to narrate romantic feats and sexual obsession from the cool remove of retrospect than amid the throes of passion. The novel’s assertion of love as both irrational and central to life illuminates the deeply individual nature of love as a more realistic novel could not.

The problem with reviewing Smart’s book—set beside Smart’s lyrical peregrinations, any reviewer’s prose either seems dull as a classified ad, or makes Smart’s seem horrendously inflated—is tantamount to the larger discord Smart’s novel so eloquently explores: the collision of the dramatic with the prosaic. Smart shows the gulf that exists between great individual experiences and those who exist outside them. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is populated not only by the lovers and the shunted wife, but by all-night café waiters, nosy old women, and rough federal agents. The novel’s achievement is to ennoble the disjunction between their unromantic world and the narrator’s own experience of love, where intensity is all-pervasive.

The most memorable instance of this is the narrator’s encounter with agents at the Arizona border, where she and her lover are arrested for “immorality” (under the Mahn Act, a federal sex-trafficking law that still exists in narrowed-down form). She juxtaposes passages from Song of Songs, the famously sensual Biblical tribute to love, against bland, official questioning. The result is comical and moving:

But at the Arizona border they stopped us and said Turn Back, and I sat in a little room with barred windows while they typed.

What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies).

How long have you known him? (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies).

Did you sleep in the same room? (Behold thou art fair, my beloved, yea pleasant, also our bed is green).

Did intercourse take place? (I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste).

When did intercourse first take place? (The king hath brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love).

Were you intending to commit fornication in Arizona? (He shall lie all night between my breasts).

Behold thou art fair my beloved, behold thou art fair: thou hast doves eyes.

Get away from there! cried the guard, as I wept by the crack of the door.
(My beloved is mine)

Better not try any funny business, cried the guard, you’re only making things tough for yourself.
(Let me kiss him with the kisses of his mouth).
Stay put! cried the guard, and struck me.

The scene’s dichotomy between bland bureaucracy and sensual poetry is deeply effective. The guard instantly seems small-minded, reacting brutishly to a sublime experience he cannot understand. But on which side does the irony here most deeply cut? Instead of martyrdom, the narrator is arrested and roughed up, and is aware of all the conventions her fierce love transgresses. Shift your loyalties and she seems absurdly out-of-touch, seething with love and poetry in a context completely unsuited to them. The inspector’s judgment—“What a cad, he said, and the girl’s a religious maniac”—may be petty and ungenerous, but it is also apt. The narrator’s passions can seem as foolish as puritanical officialdom.

It is exactly this tension that lends poignancy to Smart’s vision. Throughout By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, skeptics crowd in while the narrator invokes great romantic heroines to counter them. She embraces a strongly-felt present against whatever the future brings. But part of why she clutches her experiences so tightly and proclaims their importance so loudly is that she senses all that could rob her of them, including her lover’s callousness. After all, lyrics of great love can be extinguished by the grind of intolerance and routine. Awareness of this fact lurks always at the story’s edges. As the novel ends in New York, the narrator, still yearning for her lover, watches “the early workers overrun the world they have inherited, tramping out the stains of the wailing, bleeding past.”

Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.