The Archivist , by Martha Cooley. Little, Brown & Company, 328 pages, $22.95.
Not every day does an ambitious, intensely literary first novel get a big push from a big publisher. But here we have Little, Brown & Company (and behind it the might of Time Warner Inc.) peddling The Archivist , an egghead’s delight, a drama played out in the hush of a university library’s special collections room. The Archivist is steeped in the poetry of T.S. Eliot-not the fun, reader-friendly Eliot of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or the engrossing, operatic Eliot of The Waste Land , but the knotty, abstract Eliot of Four Quartets . The poet comes lumbering along with his bulky psychosexual baggage, his high-octane theology, his anti-Semitism; Martha Cooley, a Brooklyn-based beginner, handles him with calm intelligence, the aplomb of a seasoned pro.
Little Brown’s catalogue copy hopefully classes The Archivist in “the masterful tradition of A.S. Byatt’s Possession .” The bright idea is that Ms. Cooley’s novel will become a coffee-table ornament, a badge of intellectual engagement. Odds are the publisher’s commercial strategy will fail: The book jacket, though elegant, isn’t gotta-buy-it gorgeous-in the tradition of Possession . And yet anyone who actually read Possession in its entirety and enjoyed it (a tiny percentage of those who merely displayed it) will want to read The Archivist , which is almost as good as it is intelligent. Fans of literary fiction will want to make the acquaintance of the talented Ms. Cooley; once they’ve done so, they’ll start wondering about her next move, her post-Eliotic phase.
The archives in The Archivist contain the many letters Eliot sent to his old friend Emily Hale. Those letters really exist, more than a thousand of them, sequestered until Jan. 1, 2020, in the Princeton University library. Nobody knows what’s in them. It may well be, as Ms. Cooley would have us believe, that the correspondence will spill Eliot’s intimate secrets. By Jan. 2, 2020, we may be privy to his inmost thoughts about his disastrous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood (recently rendered on celluloid as Tom and Viv ), and about his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. The letters may reveal his state of mind in the 30’s and early 40’s when he was at work on Four Quartets , when the world was sliding into war and genocide, atrocity on a hitherto unimagined scale.
The university in Ms. Cooley’s novel is not named; it’s a train ride away from New York. The time is not specified, but if you put two and two together, you know it’s 1990. The principal players are Matthias Lane, an aging archivist, and Roberta Spire, a young poet. Matt, elaborately formal and emotionally distant, is the gatekeeper who guards the Eliot-Hale letters (he is also our narrator); Roberta, vibrant and impulsive, is the eager scholar who wants to see them. They both have good reason to be obsessed with Eliot.
Just after the war, when Eliot was the undisputed king of the literary hill, Matt, a Christian, was married to a Jewish, Eliot-worshiping poet named Judith. Matt and Judith shared a brief moment of wedded bliss, then Judith went mad. The proximate cause of her madness was an obsession with the Holocaust. Manic-depressive and compulsive, she became an “archivist of evil.” Matt had her committed to a comfy loony bin.
Matt and Judith distantly re-enact the drama of Tom and Viv -Vivienne also went nuts and was also committed by her husband. Judith and Vivienne both died while locked away. Both Matt and Tom felt bad about the fate of their late, batty wives. Remember the stunning lines from “Little Gidding” in which the poet is warned of the “gifts” reserved for his old age:
… the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been;
Of motives late revealed, and the
Of things ill done and done to others’
Which once you took for exercise of
So-you put her away in an institution for her own good? To cure her? A virtuous act. And now she’s dead-“things ill done and done to others’ harm.”
Roberta tells Matt that she’s “very interested in the experience of conversion-all kinds, but especially religious.” Her parents, assimilated German Jews, survived the Holocaust and then, shortly after they reached America in 1948, converted to Christianity. They hid their Jewish origins from their daughter. She has recently discovered the truth about her parents. Now, she says, she “need[s] to know what it cost Eliot, mentally and emotionally, to convert.”
In many ways, this is a novel made up out of the argument between Christian and Jew. Eliot gets roped into the argument, not because of his anti-Semitism (though that scrap of ugliness flaps noisily in the background), but because Christianity is so crucial to the poems he was writing at the very moment when Europe’s Jews were being systematically slaughtered. Judith may be mad, but her ravings hit home: “Millions dead.… A whole culture obliterated in less than five years, and Christians still talk about salvation? Where was everyone in Europe?” She pushes her point: “Either you’re a Christian who admits that most Christians in Europe looked the other way, or you’re not a Christian at all.”
Judith keeps a journal, and the record of her illness makes up the middle third of the novel. She comes to think of herself, in her asylum, as a persecuted Jew, jailed by Nazis and collaborators. The enormity of the Holocaust can’t quite fit between the covers of The Archivist , but thanks to her journal, Judith’s suffering can. It is a sad and scary document, an accusing voice echoing out of Matt’s past.
In the present, he is deeply moved by his encounters with Roberta, who reminds him of Judith and stirs troubling memories and longings he can scarcely acknowledge. The tension between the two ratchets steadily; there’s much stressed lighting of cigarettes, tapping of ash and earnest, high-flying talk. He is acutely conscious of her face and body, and the catalogue of details works wonders. If Ms. Cooley had been unable to make the fraught connection between Matt and Roberta feel real and somehow dangerous, all the intellectual apparatus of the novel would have seemed irrelevant, like literary window-dressing. As it is, the interaction of the elderly archivist and the young poet conjures up ideas-complicated ideas about personal and collective guilt, about redemption, about madness, about privacy, about the roots of poetry and the poet’s experience-ideas that matter. When Matt and Roberta quote poetry-complicated poetry-that matters, too. Judith’s ghost, and Vivienne’s, hover in the room. And, of course, so does Eliot’s.
A quibble: Ms. Cooley has goofed up with her fictional chronology. Matt lets us know that he was born in 1918, but later suggests that he’s now (in 1990) in his 60’s. He ought to be 72, which makes the possibility of romance with 35-year-old Roberta still less likely. Also, Matt refers to his parents’ “adolescence” in the 1920’s-two years after the birth of their son. Remember that this book takes the past very seriously, and Matt is a fastidious man.
Which suggests a further quibble: The here and now inhabited by Matt and Roberta is annoyingly vague. They themselves are vividly present, but their surroundings, both the place and the moment in time, are a blurry absence.
The Archivist is a solid accomplishment and should fuel Ms. Cooley’s writerly self-assurance. She has looked back in time with a steady, penetrating gaze. Now, if she wants, she may look ahead with confidence. Enough musty library air, enough Eliot. By leaving old Tom behind, she could in fact fulfill his prophecy: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language/ And next year’s words await another voice.”