By Grand Central Station I Lay Down and Wept
A new book this week, Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 novella, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, weighing in at one-hundred and twelve pages in the 1992 Flamingo edition.
I became aware of Grand Central via my son, who read it in a literature class at McGill University and recommended it to me. Elizabeth Smart was a Canadian writer whose life took a dramatic turn when she picked up a book of poetry in a London bookshop written by George Barker. She loved it, and eventually loved the married Mr. Barker, embarking on an affair with him that produced four children and this book, the somewhat fictionalized account of at least part of their affair. Ms. Smart died in 1986.
How’s that for drama?
George Barker, who fathered a total of fifteen children with three different women (busy, busy) published his own account of the affair with Ms. Smart, The Dead Seagull. After Ms. Smart became pregnant with their first child, Mr. Barker attempted to visit her in Canada but was turned back at the border for “moral turpitude.”
The story of this couple’s passion is probably a good example of the sometimes risky project of having writers as romantic partners. Everything’s going along great and then you realize the latest blockbuster novel is all about you and how you leave your dirty socks on the bedroom floor.
However, Grand Central Station is no blockbuster, and has never aspired to be. After 1945, it languished for twenty years before it was re-published to greater acclaim. Of course, part of the reason it languished was because Ms. Smart’s mother bought up as many copies of the two thousand initial printing and burned them. I guess she didn’t like it.
Grand Central asks a lot of the reader. Umberto Eco talks about the Encyclopedia of knowledge that each reader brings to a reading and that may be used to understand texts. Thus, if you have some knowledge of dog grooming and you read a novel about a dog groomer, you’re reading will be informed by your own Encyclopedia with its entry under Dog Grooming. Ms. Smart’s story requires the reader to have knowledge of The Psalms (from which the title is derived), The Song of Solomon, the story of Tristan and Isolde, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the poetry of Rilke, and Greek myth in general. (probably more I don’t know about). Now, if you’re not up on these things, you can still read Grand Central, but if you do know them, your reading will be enhanced. Does that make Grand Central snobby and elitist?
By way of answer, let’s look at a couple of specifics.
The title refers to Psalm 137 in the Bible—“By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept…” The “we” here are the survivors of the Kingdom of Judah who were deported to Babylon after being conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar and are grief stricken over losing their home. I didn’t know this reference, I read about it in the fine introduction to Grand Central by Brigid Brophy. Before this, I thought the title was about someone in New York City who was grief stricken, someone who expressed themselves poetically. In fact, I thought the book was about this someone, and, of course, it is. But if you understand the reference to the Psalms, your understanding of the book is deepened. The protagonist is experiencing not only a romantic grief in New York City, but an epic grief which is akin to the feeling of being deported from a beloved home.
Similarly, we find this passage early on:
“One day along the path he brushed my breast in passing, and I thought, Does this efflorescence offend him? And I went into the redwoods brooding and blushing with rage, to be stamped so obviously with femininity, and liable to humiliation worse than Venus’ with Adonis, purely by reason of my accidental but flaunting sex.”
Now we’ll get more into the context for the passage later but for today’s purposes, we find a reference to Venus and Adonis. Because of a slight collision with her estranged beloved, the protagonist feels she is liable to a worse humiliation than that which Venus experienced with Adonis. Sounds bad in itself. You don’t have to know the story of Venus and Adonis to get it. She’s embarrassed to the point of running off into the woods, and she associates this somehow with being a woman who because of her form can’t help but be enticing even though she doesn’t want to be.
Incidentally, “efflorescence” means “a crystalline or powdery deposit of salts often visible on the surface of concrete, brick, stucco, or natural stone surfaces. It occurs when water leaves behind salt deposits on the masonry surface.” Cool. So somehow, her lover brushing her breast in passing affects her the way a deposit of salts might mark a stone. Very cool.
The story of Venus and Adonis comes from the Metamorphoses by Ovid, although it’s also the subject of a poem by Shakespeare. “Venus, the goddess of love, is smitten with Adonis, a hunky young shepherd who accidentally dies after being attacked by a wild boar. In Ovid’s version of the tale, Adonis is the willing lover to Venus, however, in Shakespeare’s ironic and comic interpretation, Adonis does not repay Venus’ admiration and despite his resistance she still attempts to court the young man for physical intimacy.” So it seems Ms. Smart drew more on Shakespeare’s account which emphasizes the rage and shame Venus experiences at being rebuffed.
It’s interesting to learn about Venus and Adonis; it increases one’s appreciation for the story. But if you don’t know or don’t find out, what happens? A slight irritation, a feeling of insult that Ms. Smart was smarter than you? That she’s rubbing it in? A smarty-pants?
Some might even conclude Ms. Smart was pretentiously concerned with showing how well-read she was.
Come on. Don’t read it then.
I think Ms. Smart was alluding to Shakespeare in her writing not to ride on his coat-tails or be a braggart, but to provide a cue to the reader. This book, Grand Central, is a poetic work and I want you to read it that way.
Even if you have to take the energy to look them up. the allusions serve to help the reader understand the text. Instead of the protagonist saying, “He brushed my breast, and it felt like a deposit of salts on stone because he was so cold about it. I was big time embarrassed and ashamed because I didn’t want him to think I bumped into him on purpose to express my feelings about him. I’m trying to play it cool but am having a hard time.” Instead of that, we get efflorescence and Venus and Adonis. The use of the metaphor of salt deposits and of classical allusion collapses a lot of information into more compact and elegant prose.