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The Archivist ()

In this novel, Matthias Lane is the 60-something curator of Princeton University's collection of letters between T.S. Eliot and Emily Lane, an American woman with whom the poet corresponded for years.  Scholars believe that they may contain many revelations, particularly since they cover the period of Vivienne Eliot's institutionalization, but the letters are sealed until the year 2020.  Matthias himself retreated to this cloistered world after his own poetess wife committed suicide while she was in an asylum in the early 1960's.  Like the collection, Matthias guards himself from exposure to the outside world, leading a solitary and emotionally remote widower's existence, until the day when Roberta Spire, a young graduate student, asks to see the letters.

Roberta is fascinated by Eliot's conversion to Anglicanism, in fact, she is obsessed with the concept of conversion because her own parents, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, converted to Christianity before she was born and raised her as a Christian.  Also, she regards this as a form of betrayal on their part and views Eliot's decision to have his wife committed as another instance of betrayal.

Matthias initially resists Roberta, but she reminds him of his own wife, who, it turns out, was raised by an Aunt and Uncle who initially pretended to be her real parents and then concocted a false version of how her parents had died, when in reality they were Communists who went to Europe during the War and were killed.  Upon learning the truth, she became obsessed with the Holocaust and began keeping an extensive collection of clippings detailing the Nazi's crimes and subsequent War Crimes trials.  As she sunk further into a spiral of manic-depression, she agreed with Matthias urging to seek help in a mental institution.  Eventually, put off by her madness, Matthias put considerable distance between them.  The middle section of the novel consists of her journal entries from this period, culminating in her suicide.

In the third and final section, Matthias comes to terms with his feelings about his wife, his treatment of her and his burgeoning relationship with Roberta.  The story culminates with him undertaking one extravagant act, a sort of generalized attempt at redemption.

This much hyped and thoroughly praised first novel is said by the critics to be a novel of ideas and one that wrestles with moral questions.  Would that it were.  Oh sure, there are some big ideas in the background--Eliot, the Holocaust, insanity, jazz, etc., but Cooley never actually engages with them much and when she does she stacks the decks in favor of one viewpoint, however insipid.  Take just a couple of points; first, the Holocaust.  For Matthias, Roberta's parents and Vivienne's Aunt and Uncle, the Holocaust is a peripheral issue, a horrible crime, but not something to dwell on.  To Vivienne, the Holocaust is the central fact of her existence and the failure of others to put it at the center of their lives indicates something loathsome about them.  The relative lucidity of her journal entries serves to give Vivienne's viewpoint an intellectual heft that it obviously does not warrant.  The Holocaust, horrible as it was, is in no sense the most significant event of this Century.  It was part of a larger pattern of violence by the State against citizens, in many ways one of the smaller parts.  Turning it into the animating concern in your own life is typical of the really disturbing tendency towards personalization of human affairs in the past 100 years.   The Holocaust is monstrous because of the human lives that were destroyed and because of the degree to which the population of most of the West was implicated in its perpetration, not because one middle American poet is bothered by it.

As to Eliot himself, Cooley feels compelled to strip him of all meaning except for the ludicrous feminist notion that seems to hold that he and Ted Hughes are defined by the mental illness of their wives and their alleged insensitivity in dealing with these addled spouses.  Thus, Roberta is completely dismissive of Eliot's Christianity and the religious, cultural and political meanings in his poetry.  She does not even take his conversion seriously:

    Conversion strikes me as something done out of desperation--an attempt to deny something you're
    stuck with--something that can't be changed by an act of will...You know that Eliot converted to
    what is sometimes called Anglo-Catholicism, to the Anglican Church.  It's up there next to
    Catholicism in terms of rite and liturgy.  I want to know what that conversion cost him.  There are
    clues in his work, of course, but I'm sure he wrote about it in detail to Emily Hale.  Also about
    Vivienne's role in his conversion.  It happened when his marriage was falling apart.  I think he was
    driven from the arms of his neurotic wife into those of a neurotic church, and I find that an
    interesting swap.

Actually, as you can see by that, she does not take the idea of religious belief seriously.  Religious status is kind of a genetic deal in that view; if you are born Greek Orthodox, you are Greek Orthodox, regardless of what you think or believe.  It's odd, to say the least, for a book of "ideas" to fail to grasp the power of religious ideas.

Finally, there is the actual idea of the librarian or archivist.  As Matthias says:

    I saw myself then, and still do, as inheritor of a rich tradition, one that straddles the line between
    mind and spirit.  The great librarians have all been religious men--monks, priests, rabbis--and the
    stewardship of books is an act of homage and faith.  Even Thomas Jefferson, the most rational and
    ingenious of librarians, revered what he called the Infinite Power.  It's impossible to be a keeper of
    books and not feel a gratitude that extends to something beyond the intellects that created them--to a
    greater Mind, beneficent and lively and inconceivably large, which urges reading and writing.
    Judith used to complain that libraries are full of too many false, banal books--and she was right, of
    course, though it's never bothered me.  A library is meant to be orderly, not pure.

This is a compelling image, the librarian as faithful guardian of the collection of ideas from which man derives his power, the collected knowledge as a supreme mind.  [Special note:  if you plan on reading this book, don't finish reading this paragraph.  Those of you who are especially dense might be surprised by the book's ending, which is hinted at here.]  But this statement is impossible to square with Matthias's eventual cathartic action, an act of such profound selfishness and intellectual arrogance that even though you see it coming, you pray that he'll be stopped.

Ultimately, the unlikeability of the characters, the shallowness of the analysis of the ideas that are raised, and the reflexive political correctness of the views expressed all combined to make this book really hard to enjoy.  Instead, why not pick up some of Eliot's poems.  Even a short poem like The Hollow Men (see Orrin's review) is crammed full of more serious ideas than this entire novel.


Grade: (D)


See also:

Women Authors
Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: Martha Cooley: Inside T.S. Eliot's Brain (Nicholas A. Basbanes, Lit Kit)
    -EXCERPT: The Archivist
    -READING GROUP GUIDE:  The Archivist  by Martha Cooley
    -REVIEW: of  THE ARCHIVIST By Martha Cooley (Brian Morton, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Archivist  by Martha Cooley (Miranda Schwartz, Hungry Mind Review)
    -REVIEW: (Adam Kirsch, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: (Julie Checkoway, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: A Passionate Debut: Memories -- of T.S. Eliot and others-- and a leap toward the future (Dolores Donner, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
    -REVIEW: Woman searching for answers yanks archivist's nose from dead files (HARVEY GROSSINGER, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: (Cathy Henderson, Austin Chronicle)
    -Book Review: Holocaust looms over woman's madness in new novel (SARAH COLEMAN, Jewish Bulletin of Northern California)
    -REVIEW: (Harriet Klausner, Under the Covers)
    -Review: The Archivist - Martha Cooley (Guy Teague, GT Web)

    -Academy of American Poets: T. S. Eliot
    -Nobel Laureates: Thomas Stearns Eliot
    -Literature Online: Addison-Wesley's Literature Online--A site to support Kennedy & Gioia's Literature, 7th Edition.
    -T. S. Eliot Poems
     -Literary Research Guide: T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: NY Times Book Review
    -ETEXT: The Hollow Men
    -ETEXT: Annotated
    -LECTURE: The Politics of T.S. Eliot  (Russell Kirk, The Heritage Foundation)
    -ESSAY: A craving for reality:  T. S. Eliot today (Roger Kimball, The New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: TS Eliot's Hollow Men (AMANDA J. WAGGONER)
    -ESSAY: What T.S. Eliot Almost Believed  (J. Bottum, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Pun and Games:  A New Approach to Five Early Poems by T. S. Eliot (Professor Patricia Sloane, New York City Technical College of The City University of New York)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot: Poet and Critic as Historical Theorist (Scott Weidner)
    -ESSAY: Was T.S. Eliot a Scoundrel?  Although the poet's anti-Semitism is beyond dispute, its centrality to his work is open to question (John Gross, Commentary)
    -REVIEW:  Louis Menand: How Eliot Became Eliot, NY Review of Books
        Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 by T.S. Eliot and edited by Christopher Ricks
        The Waste Land, the 75th anniversary edition by T.S. Eliot
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT: A Study in Character and Style By Ronald Bush (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of ELIOT'S NEW LIFE By Lyndall Gordon (Denis Donoghue, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT. A Life By Peter Ackroyd (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT A Life By Peter Ackroyd (A. Walton Litz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Louis Menand: Eliot and the Jews, NY Review of Books
        T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form by Anthony Julius
    -REVIEW: The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (Hugh Kenner, NY Times Book Review)