On 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.”