Book Review

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept by Elizabeth Smart

I’m not at work, so I should be writing real prose, doing something creative, emailing pitches for articles through to newspapers and magazines, making some sort of kooky online video in the hope that it’d go viral, doing something, y’know, something literary and forward-looking. Instead I’ve spent the day trying to ignore the absence of my hospitalised dog by doing housework and reading the latter half of a short, literary novel.

It hasn’t worked, I keep thinking about Cubby. I also keep getting work emails, which I’m (out of habit) checking if they can be ignored and most of the time just responding to them anyway. I’m not in a position to make Art when I’m two thoughts away from dog-craving despair and my work account receives a message every five minutes or so.

By my kitchen table I have sat down and wept. But no tears today. I don’t think I have many left – you only get a bucket a lifetime, right? Or is that semen?

To undigress:

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a beautiful, poetic novel about love and passion and desire. It is about romantic obsession, it is about literature and it is about [the in my opinion false notion that] the highs of life are sufficient enough to make up for all the shit. This is an emotive book, a literary book, a piece of High Modernism about people living international lives decades before that was acceptable, about infidelity, about sexuality, about pregnancy and about the Second World War. That’s right, destructive love in the foreground, actual destruction burning away in the back and getting nearer and nearer and-

This new edition has been pushed heavily by bookstores. I’d seen it on prominent display and fingered it on two separate occasions before I finally took it home*, and I was quite surprised to discover the age of the text when I looked in deeper than the cover. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was published in 1945, but it feels like it’s from a very different age. It reminds me of both Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Smart’s novel is about people of the same milieu as the Firmins (who were based on Lowry (twice over – two brothers) and his first wife), and was published in the same decade and acclaimed by similar critics: it is high modernism, too, it too reads like poetry, is dripping with biblical and classical allusions (no Marlowe, though, sad face) and it offers an uninhibited insight into “outsider” characters during a period when society was broadly repressed and conservative. Whilst Lowry covered alcoholism, Smart wrote about love and desire outside of marriage; her autobiographical protagonist (also a similarity with Lowry) is in love with a married man, who she pursues, has children with, and watches, heartbroken, as he returns to his wife, then to her, then back to his wife, time and time again. She is an unmarried mother in 1940s small-town America, then an unmarried mother in mid-blitz London. But she is unrepentant and unapologetic, because she has experienced love. She doesn’t mind working to look after her “illegitimate” children (the number is confusing – she seems to give birth at least twice, though most could have been allegorical, though she definitely has a son) because she has had the world-changing experience of romantic and sexual love with a man she has desired.

I missed the point I was originally moving towards above, which was that the similarity to Eimear McBride is tone as well as literariness: there is an openness to discussion of sex and the body in this novel, which is also in some ways a coming of age, a voyage of sexual and self discovery, etc, y’know. The narrator pursues the man she has chosen across continents, being with him whenever she can, competing with his wife, patronising his wife, pitying his wife, hating his wife… This is another novel where the lover’s love is more intense, more valid and more important than the marital love, where the sex that is had is open and free and rewarding and worthwhile. The children may bring financial and literal stress, but they also bring love and evidence a previous love that was deeply significant. The narrator enjoyed love with such fullness that she is prepared to receive anything she gets in return.

Love makes life worthwhile, Smart writes. Love and sex create joy and if love doesn’t work out, if life doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter, for the happiness that happened in the past will be with the individual forever: that will never depart.

We don’t go so much for love.

But what is important in life, what is it for?

It’s optimistic, isn’t it? It’s “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Which is bullshit, in my opinion.

If love is the best thing in the world, why is everyone so fucking unhappy? Everyone “loves” something or someone, but everyone is angry and dissatisfied and sad. If love was what people wanted they wouldn’t care about material possessions and they wouldn’t care about going viral or not and they wouldn’t care about balding.

If love was all people wanted, everyone would be happy, the world would be like a rave, massive grinning gurning faces spewing out platitudes and optimism and telling those around them how glad they are they exist.

But the world isn’t on a massive mandy high, the world isn’t full of love, it is full of aggression and avarice and lust. And most lust is selfish and self-serving, most people now would read a book like By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and see the wife of the man as a victim who should leave her priapic, bisexual, adulterous husband. Desire destroys, it creates nothing but the continuation of the species, which is the most destructive thing humanity continues to do. More people equals more destruction, more death, more despair, more damage.

I have visited New York only once, but I don’t think I cried there and I certainly didn’t weep by Grand Central. But I have cried in a shitload of stations in London. Coming in, going out, transportation, journeys, are often quite emotionally weighted. Travelling away from people one cares about; travelling to and then returning from a funeral; arriving back into a life one despises after a peaceful holiday; seeing others around you content in the life you abhor and feeling that you shouldn’t be having a panic attack by the bins at the back of Waterloo, you should be dressed in a cheap suit and travelling home from an office too. You walk through these major transportation hubs that you use only idly, you use them to go on stupid literary pilgrimages, you use them to go and see dead whales two hundred miles away, or you use them to chase aeroplanes that can take you far away, take you away but also bring you back. On the Heathrow Express platform at Paddington I sat down and wept; by Marylebone station I threw up and wept; by Euston I had multiple panic attacks whilst working a temp office job during the Easter break of my MA and fearing that would be my forever life a few months later (it hasn’t been, but am I happy in my bleakness? I care less about things, which is why I weep less now, but I feel that hollow hole, that vacuous, hollow hole that calls for-)

Smart’s protagonist cries by the station as she journeys towards her lover, knowing the relationship’s impossibility. Even the good times start to become tainted by the bad, but that is Hope being crushed, not love.

Hope is the thing we lose when we truly become adults: the acceptance of mediocrity is a far more significant development than the acceptance of mortality. There is no brighter tomorrow, and once that is accepted one can move on, continue as one is with minimal in-station weeping. This is where I am now. My dog, meant to be a late saviour of my corrupted soul, has proven to be another anchor dragging me into the foamy depths of the void. There’s no point in wishing or hoping for better: this is it, every attempt to make a change fails. And, thusly, there’s no point in getting upset with life. It is what it is. And it’s rubbish.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept is a beautiful book, in part for its construction of an accurate wartime reality: of course ones personal love life would’ve weighed heavier than the collapsing planet. Elizabeth Smart writes of someone who appears selfish on the surface, but in fact she has given up self-interest in the pursuit of an idea, an ideal: Love with a capital L. And she finds it, and it makes her happy. And one shouldn’t begrudge anyone that…



* That innuendo was below me, I know, I know, I know. But I’m at an point where thought and self-critique is becoming dangerous. I’ve been trying to complete a short film I made last week that only requires an edit to the soundtrack, but that has proven too much for me. It’s a video about having no hair, not much of a life but having a dog. In the days since filming it, my dog has been taken away again and staring at the concluding montage of my adorable little pupstar is too weighty, man, and my will to create the 40 second Hip-Scott upbeat dog song that the m-m-m-movie requires disappears like dust on a ship leaving dry dock. This weird simile is perfectly apt, for in that example the dust still exists, it’s there, somewhere on the surface of the water, but no one can see it and no one even cares.

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