Amore (that’s love, stupid) this week with Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart’s (1913 – 1986) cult prose poetry book By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Now our Book of da Week feature isn’t always about books we flat out love, as we have serious reservations about this one. However, we do like to highlight notable works our readers may want to pick up and give a go.
There’s a fine line between high artistic value (such as the film Titanic) and being pretentious (the Queen of England), but for us this one veers too often into the latter world. Not everyone will agree with us (there’s plenty of acclaim for Smart’s work); perhaps we’ve been negatively swayed by the writer’s self-centred and family destroying behaviour. Let’s have a look – here we go, this one gets scathing!
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
Although the book doesn’t explicitly state what’s going on, what happened is Smart became besotted with the English poet George Barker (1913 – 1991) after reading his work. She had no idea who he was or what he looked like, but she fell head over heels in love with the dude, who was living in Japan at the time with his wife.
As he was facing difficult financial circumstances, Smart (totally loaded) eventually flew Barker (along with his family) over to the US to live with her, sparking off an intense love affair with all the associated mayhem – including the arrival of four new children. In the acrimonious aftermath, she completed this book.
It’s written in an ethereal style, which conjures up all manner of fantastical and powerful imagery. However, our beef with it is Smart’s behaviour was simply callous – she destroyed Barker’s marriage. Not that he was blameless (pretty young rich blonde girl turns up out of the blue and displays unconditional love – score!), but according to Edna O’Brien Smart penned this as a “paean to love”.
From our perspective, her actions were simply narcissistic and irrational and the resulting text has to be considered with her idiotic behaviour in mind. Brutal? Yes, but she behaved like a prat, and penning a sprawling, cryptic poem jammed full of innuendo was the culmination of the whole sordid affair. Harumph!
Lyricism & Punch Ups
Despite our issues with By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, there’s no denying Smart was an excellent writer – lyrical and majestic at times. This creates a separate issue, however, as we found her writing style to be increasingly self-indulgent. Here’s an example:
“Every brick was blood. The spire gored her for christening, even while her upturned face expected the kiss of Christ. The stones are smooth because her agony rolled them out. She was spilt as offering. Three times she was martyred, but the third time she truly died. He stands paralysed, watching her hang. Her dying eye rolls round and sees how her god betrays her. But she murmurs, ‘In la sua voluntade…’”
When taken out of context and displayed as an extract, this may appear rather marvellous. Yet this style, which never lets up, became an irritation for us. Here’s another example:
“I will not be placated by the mechanical motions of existence, nor find consolation in the solicitude of waiters who notice my devastated face. Sleep tries to seduce me by promising a more reasonable tomorrow. But I will not be betrayed by such a Judas of fallacy: it betrays everyone: it leads them into death. Everyone acquiesces: everyone compromises.”
The whole book rants in a similar manner, which kind of hints she was a tad irrational about the whole affair. Indeed, during one of the couple’s drunken fights Smart bit off Barker’s upper lip. The man himself penned some literature about the affair, although we’ve not read this yet.
Okay, so you may well flat out adore the thing. Morrissey certainly does! This is why we’re recommending it, as the book certainly has a devoted following: “Like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning… a masterpiece” hoots Angela Carter, “At some point every good reader comes across By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. And he or she recognises an emotion essential and permanent to us” grunts Michael Ondaatje.
It should be noted the novelist Carter later acknowledged to a friend: “No daughter of mine should ever be in a position to be able to write By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, exquisite prose though it might contain. By Grand Central Station I Tore Off His Balls would be more like it, I should hope.”
There’s a similar theme in Stefan Zweig’s novella Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman – in this book, a woman mulls over the consequences of another woman running off with a man and abandoning her family. For Smart, she didn’t need to mull over the consequences, she simply barged her way in, wreaked havoc, and the result was immense and superfluous emotional distress.
We have a love/hate relationship with the book as we simply can’t condone the Smart’s behaviour. You can dress it up in fancy language and squawk about your dismay if you wish, but we’d be embarrassed to admit we were so blatantly narcissistic and destructive. Yet Smart had the temerity to stand by her actions – bloody cheek!
We can recommend it all the same – this is the joy of opinions. Get it read – we’d love to hear what you think so we can all debase ourselves with a furious bout of online bickering. Now that would be a paean to belligerence!