By Grand Central Station, by Elizabeth Smart

smartOn Canada Day last summer, the Globe and Mail arts section published one of those features that newspapers love:  Ask 25 novelists what they think is the Best Canadian Novel.

A visiting (female) house guest, my wife and I settled in to see how many we had read.  Only one book — By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart — was mentioned three times.

“I remember that from university — great book,” said the house guest.  “I remember it too,”  said my wife, “and I should read it again.”

Not only had I not read the book, I had not even heard of it.  On the one hand, I could argue that as a leftish student of the 1960s I was preoccupied with Durrell and Lowery and Updike (not to mention Marcuse and Gramsci) and didn’t have time for the chick-lit of the day.  On the other hand….

My gross oversight has now been rectified and I have read By Grand Central Station.  I now have some appreciation for what I was missing.

Elizabeth Smart was born in Ottawa in 1913.  She attended King’s College, University of London and one  day while browsing in a bookshop fell in love with the poetry (and poet) of George Barker.  Eventually she flew both Barker and his wife from Japan to the United States — they never married but she bore him four children.  Their relationship is the inspiration for this amazing book.

First published in 1945 (and it does contain some references, mainly offhand, to the war) By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept acquired an underground reputation but did not enter the mainstream until it was republished in 1966 — it has been in print ever since.

The slim volume is a meditation on love.  For Smart, love is more an affliction than an emotion, but it is both.  The book chronicles, in poetic prose, the thrill of love found, the joy of love realized, the sadness of love lost and the horror of love rejected.  The narrator’s lover is married and returns to his wife in New York; she is left utterly alone and pregnant.

He kissed my forehead driving along the coast in evening, and now, wherever I go, like the sword of Damocles, that greater never-to-be-given kiss hangs above my doomed head.  He took my hand between the two shabby front seats of the Ford, and it was dark, and I was looking the other way, but now that hand casts everywhere an octopus shadow from which I can never escape.  The tremendous gentleness of that moment smothers me under; all through the night it is centaur-hoofed and galloping over my heart:  the poison has got into my blood.  I stand on the edge of the cliff, but the future is already done.

There is a lot of mythology in this book and a fair number of biblical references — I was aware that I was missing more than I was getting.  Having said that, a real character emerges, as do the elements of a real affair, as does the notion that love can move from being an emotion to becoming an affliction.

That certainly does not make By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept a cheery book, but it does make it a fascinating read — even for a 60-year-old male who missed it when it perhaps might have been more appropriate.  Would it make my shortlist of great Canadian novels?  No, but I can now understand why it makes that list for others.  It is a gem of writing that deserves to be read.

I read cover blurbs with interest (and should note that Flamingo goes out of its way in the version I read to try for gender balance in the blurbs) but don’t usually quote them.  Angela Carter, however, has one on this book that deserves repeating:  “Like Madam Bovary blasted by lightning…a masterpiece.”

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15 Responses to “By Grand Central Station, by Elizabeth Smart”

  1. Trevor Berrett Says:

    Definitely didn’t need that shout out to Madame Bovary to pique my interest, but I guess it might have helped. The title and your write up have intrigued me, Kevin. I’m trying to expand my knowledge of Canadian literature beyond Atwood, Alcott, and Munro, and this classic seems a great piece of foundation.

  2. Trevor Berrett Says:

    By the way, here is an interesting piece on the book I found while looking into it a bit more.

  3. adevotedreader Says:

    I’m another who just hasn’t gotten around to this yet Kevin. It sounds like I should change that soon.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for that link Trevor — it does fill in a number of the mythology and biblical gaps that I knew I had while reading the book. I also found it interesting that I had considered including the exchange with the Arizona police as a quote but decided against it because I wanted to keep my review short. Now that I have seen that essay, I will give the book another read (it only takes an hour or so) and see how it stands up. I do wonder about claiming Smart as a “Canadian” given that (much like Nancy Huston) she left at such an early age (later than Bellow, however) — but there is no doubt that a number of Canada’s female authors certainly regard this book as part of the heritage.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I certainly would not discourage you, adevotedreader.

  6. Jules Says:

    Great! This book is published in French as well! I’ll try to find it since I want to read more canadian authors in general, not just from Quebec…

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did not know it had been translated, but the news does not surprise me. If you do find a copy, let me know what you think.

  8. Myrthe Says:

    Thank you for the review, Kevin. You keep pointing me to interesting books and writers that I had never heard of before. I love that!

  9. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    Kevin;

    it turns out that “chick lit” endures, and ages very well.
    The universal themes of this book are powerfully explored…..
    Im glad you read it, already.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Myrthe, Sheila: It is a most interesting book and one that I should have read a long time ago. I am glad that I have finally caught up with it. Kevin

  11. dovegreyreader Says:

    This book started me off on a real ‘Find Out About Elizabeth Smart’ phase, biogs and journals etc and it’s time I re-read it because it didn’t knock me for six first time around and I think it might do now.Also with Trevor’s helpful link perhaps I’ll grasp the depths that definitely eluded me before.

  12. Stewart Says:

    This is one of those titles that every time I’m browsing the book store I see it and wonder if I should buy it. It’s the title, it’s so intriguing. In my head I’ve resolved to buy it one day (but always not now), and all this without even picking it up to read what it’s about.

  13. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    My gooodness – you do travel in exalted, if psychic circles. Now Don
    Quixote is endorsing your blog. Given your connections, would you happen to know this week’s lottery numbers?

  14. Paul Says:

    I’m puzzled by the last commentators reference to Don Quixote… But Cervantes aside I wanted to mention that having a soft spot for Canadian literature I was surprised by this entry and it is a definite must on my to be read list now. Also congratulations on your active readership after such a short time with the blog.

    I can add an interesting footnote because I just started reading “Mantrapped” by Fay Weldon and I learnt that Elizabeth Smart once shared an office with fay Weldon as a young copywriter. I get the impression she was quite the influence on her, and there’s a comment that her novel was rather influential in allowing women to express themselves and setting the scene for feminism. No doubt she was formative for Ms Weldon and it sounds like she was a woman ahead of her times. I do hope Carol Shields may have featured among the greats – since Atwood, Alcott and Munro get mentioned I wanted to name drop that one too, and I think of Annie Proulx as Canadian, but I know she misses the cut by a generation!

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The Quixote reference comes from my header tag line which I change every now and then to amuse myself and others who drop in regularly.

    One of the authors who did pick Smart’s book as her favorite was Joy Kogawa so you might want to contemplate that. I do agree that Smart was an early influence on feminist Canadian writers. I’ve seen nothing that says she directly influenced Shields but I am sure that Shields read her. The Stone Diaries and Unless (particularly the latter work) are very consistent with some of the themes in this book.

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