Synopsis: One day, while browsing in a London bookshop, Elizabeth Smart chanced upon a slim volume of poetry by George Barker – and fell passionately in love with him through the printed word. Eventually they communicated directly and, as a result of Barker’s impoverished circumstances, Elizabeth Smart flew both him and his wife from Japan, where he was teaching, to join her in the United States.
Thus began one of the most extraordinary, intense and ultimately tragic love affairs of our time. They never married but Elizabeth bore George Barker four children and their relationship provided the impassioned inspiration for one of the most moving and immediate chronicles of a love affair ever written – ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept‘.
Title: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
Author: Elizabeth Smart
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Pub Date: First published in 1945
“Perhaps I am his hope. But then she is his present. And if she is his present, I am not his present. Therefore, I am not, and I wonder why no-one has noticed I am dead and taken the trouble to bury me. For I am utterly collapsed. I lounge with glazed eyes, or weep tears of sheer weakness.”
I find it very hard to review these types of books; I never studied English at university and often feel a sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ when trying to analyse something that’s deemed a modern masterpiece. Neither have I read Madame Bovary – the book this seems to be compared to.
What I do know is that you shouldn’t read this on the go – being squeezed onto trains and changing lines at 20 minute intervals are not conducive to connecting with a novel such as this. A quick-paced thriller? Yes. This? No.
This book deserves a bit of time and respect. An afternoon in a coffee-shop, snuggled up with your favourite hot drink; phone turned on silent and hidden away. This book needs to be read in one sitting, time and attention given wholly to letting Smart’s poetic prose sink in.
“Only remember: I am not the ease, but the end.
I am not to blind you, but to find you.
What you think is the sirens singing to lure you to your doom is only the voice of the inevitable, welcoming you after so long a wait. I was made only for you.”
Part of me, the hidden, hopelessly romantic side, adored this book. A love that is inevitable; one that changes the very axis upon which the world – and you – exist upon; who can say no to that?
The other side of me – we’ll call it the realistic side – wants to shake her and tell her to get a grip. There are plenty more fish in the sea, who will not be married and who won’t leave you again and again.
Which side wins? I’m not quite sure. The love Smart feels for her writer is moving and beautiful…and one-sided (if actions are anything to go by!). And this is what I can’t abide. Catherine and Heathcliff’s love is tragic, all-encompassing (and fatal), but at least it was shared. Can it really be ‘love’ when it’s so one-sided? Or is it just a fatal dependence?
Whichever part of you wins the debate, however, there are a few things you can’t argue. The prose is poetic, elegantly written and, most importantly of all, hauntingly beautiful in its honesty.