The Archivist: Do I Dare?

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
       T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Archivist by Martha Cooley…I’m struggling with how to summarize this book, which is why it has taken me over a week to post about it.  It was an odd little book.  Ok. Let’s try again.  The Archivist is about Matthias “Matt” Lane, a rare book/documents archivist at a unnamed East Coast university.  The letters of TS Eliot to Emily Hale make up a key piece of the collection; the letters, though, are sealed until 2020.  In his late 60s, Matt has been a widower and contentedly alone and isolated since his wife’s suicide in 1965 (the book is set around 1985), but the arrival of young poet and graduate student Roberta Spire asking to see the letters gives Matt the opportunity to right many wrongs in his past.  For Roberta reminds him of his late wife.  Both women were poets.  Both women struggle with their connection to Judaism, the horror of WW2, and the truth of their parents’ pasts.  Matt, Roberta and Judith (his late wife) also share a love for Eliot’s poetry, and there are also parallels between their lives and Eliot’s life.  Ultimately, Matt, a quiet, solitary, passive man, must find the courage to to do what he thinks is right, to finally act

Sometimes it is uncanny how you  stumble across a book.  I found this book at the county library book sale in 2006 but hadn’t read it yet.  After I read The Secret of Lost Things, I noticed that several reviewers said that it was in the tradition of The Archivist but not as good.  So remembering that I had the book, I decided to squeeze it in. 

It wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be.  I expected it to be more about Eliot.  It was, but he and his writing were in a way just a plot device for the characters and their lives.  The Emily Hale letters actually exist.  Emily Hale bequeathed them to Princeton University, and in reality, they are sealed until 2020.  I am fascinated at the thought of what might exist in those letters.  It seems so rare that we have the opportunity to find out new information or insights about literary greats.  Let’s just say that I hope that those letters avoid the fate they have in the book…when Matt Lane decides to act, he truly ACTS. 

I must admit that I was at times uncomfortable with the Jewish part of the plot–which was a BIG part.  I think my discomfort springs from first of all, a complete inability to comprehend what it must have felt like to be Jewish in America during and after WW2, especially when the revelations about the Holocaust were occurring, a key time in Judith’s life.  The guilt at being in the USA and being isolated from those events and ultimately surviving; the passivity of anyone doing anything to prevent it; the horror at realizing your religion was so despised that members of it had been intentionally exterminated, deemed unworthy to live or exist.  Or the betrayal you feel when you discover (as Roberta does) that your parents were Jewish but converted to Christianity after escaping Germany; your whole life has been a lie.  I can try to imagine what that must feel like, but I feel like my imagination is insufficient for that task.  Some wounds go too deep.  In some ways, perhaps my discomfort is good.  It has made me think, and the Holocaust and other horrors of WW2 have come alive to me in ways they hadn’t before.

Trust, privacy, betrayal and conscience are major themes in the book (between husbands and wives and parents and children), but it was interesting to see them applied to the artist as well.  T.S. Eliot wanted Emily Hale to destroy those letters.  They were his private correspondence not meant to be made public.  Does the artist have a right to privacy?  Where does the art end and the person’s private life begin?  Is it right that we make those letters–any letters–public knowing that it wasn’t what the artist intended even though the artist has long been dead? Eliot felt betrayed by Hale’s decision but she felt betrayed by his decision to end their friendship years before.  I don’t have the answers to those questions.  I’m rather nosy and want to know as much about an artist as possible and what better way than with their letters or private papers?  But do we have a right to them?  Even though Eliot will have been dead for 55 years when the letters are unsealed, is some cosmic wrong or injustice being done in going against his wishes?

 It was a really good book, but I’m not sure if I liked it.  It made me uncomfortable, which is probably a good thing, and I can’t stop thinking about it, which is always a good sign. 

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One Response to The Archivist: Do I Dare?

  1. Stefanie says:

    What a good, honest review. Sometimes the books that make us uncomfortable are the best because they help us gain new insights and understanding that we didn’t have before.

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