Book Review | The Archivist By Martha Cooley
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By NOIDE-NG4 10/8 16h48
Tags: synopsis book review The Archivist Martha Cooley Little Brown & Company 9780316158466
Added: 4 months ago
From: Voa Kondo 3829735
The Archivist: A Novel
by Martha Cooley
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Back Bay Books (April 8, 1999)
Matthias Lane is the proud gatekeeper to countless objects of desire, the greatest among them being T.S. Eliot's letters to Emily Hale. Now in his late 60s and archivist at an unnamed East Coast university, Matthias is--as one of his colleagues tells him--"exceptionally well defended." He's intent on keeping the Hale collection equally remote, and when a young poet first seeks access, Matthias rebuffs her with little difficulty. Still, Roberta Spire does remind him of his wife, Judith, who had also written poetry but had committed suicide 20 years earlier. And he is much taken with the student's self-possession: "Pleading never works with me," he concedes, "but authentic and angry self-interest does."
Betrayal figures heavily in The Archivist. For starters, Roberta feels betrayed by her parents, German Jews who had spent World War II in hiding and emigrated to the U.S. soon afterward, re-creating themselves as Christians. She has only recently discovered her Jewish background. The irony is that Matthias's wife had also been an Eliot adept and had felt violated by a false version of her own past and destroyed when confronted with the realities of the Holocaust. No wonder Roberta sees the Hale letters as a Holy Grail, the key to her questions about religious conversion and identity.
What holds this exceptionally ambitious and layered first novel together is the love all three main characters have for the pleasures of the text and the knowledge they share that time is, as Eliot writes, both preserver and destroyer. Eliot, after all, had wanted Emily Hale to destroy his letters (and in reality they are sealed until 2020, safe at Princeton University). Martha Cooley is deeply concerned, as are her characters, with questions of conscience, privacy, action and inaction, and security--personal and scholarly. If there is one parallel too many in this impressive work, perhaps that is more like life than some of us care to admit.
The Archivist is an American novel by Martha Cooley, first published in a hardcover format by Little, Brown and Company in 1998. The story makes extensive reference to the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and it dwells on themes such as guilt, insanity, and suicide. The book was reprinted in 1999 by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company.
Matthias Lane is a widower in his sixties. He works as an archivist at an unnamed library and is told to preserve a set of letters that T. S. Eliot once wrote and sent to Emily Hale. Roberta Spire, a graduate student in her thirties, appeals to Matthias for a look at Eliot's letters.
Emily Hale donated T. S. Eliot's letters to the library and gave specific instructions that they were not to be shown to the public until 2020. Her decision to donate the letters at all, however, went against the wishes of T. S. Eliot himself, who wanted Hale to destroy the letters after she had read them.
Both Matthias and Roberta are highly familiar with T. S. Eliot's poetry, as well as Eliot's personal background. The novel briefly retells the story of how Eliot placed his first wife, Vivienne Eliot, in a mental institution, and how she eventually died. It is gradually revealed that Matthias, similarly, placed his wife Judith in a mental institution, and she eventually committed suicide. Judith's death occurred twenty years before Matthias first meets Roberta. Roberta reminds Matthias of Judith, because both women are of Jewish ancestry, both read and write poetry, and both have done research on the Holocaust.
When Judith was in the mental institution, Dr. Clay forbade her to read newspapers. Yet Judith's parents, Len and Carol, smuggled newspapers into her room, so that Judith could keep up with the aftermath of the Holocaust. After Judith's suicide, Matthias assumes that the newspapers contributed to Judith's insanity. However, later, when Matthias speaks to Roberta about his wife, he admits that his attempts to cut his wife off from the real world were what really made her sick:
"She kept trusting me...I was like a paralyzed man. It's clearer to me now, what she need from me. But I got it all wrong. I tried to shield her from the present, from the city...I tried to conceal the terrifying things, to keep quiet about them. That's what got to her, more than anything else. She couldn't bear it. She couldn't bear that I, too, was silent."
At the end of the novel, Matthias takes the Hale Letters out of the library and burns them. He believes that respecting the last wish of T. S. Eliot - that the letters be burned and not shown to the public - is a step toward atoning for Matthias's personal mistake of sending his wife Judith to a mental institution.
The letters of T.S. Eliot to Emily Hale are, in actuality, kept in the Firestone Library, at Princeton University. The letters are not to be shown to the public until January 1, 2020.
Themes and interpretation
Matthias identifies himself as an "archivist", a "gatekeeper" who controls people's access to information. The term "archivist" applies not only to Matthias, but also to Judith, because she keeps extensive records of Holocaust stories. Judith is emotionally affected by her records; whereas Matthias's relationship to records is merely an effort to protect them, Judith's relationship to records is like that of a fire being fueled. Her passions refuse to be controlled, and she insists on acting upon her feelings, forming a sharp contrast to Matthias's passivity. Judith fascinates Matthias, and terrifies him.
Brian Morton wrote a review of the novel for The New York Times, called it "a thoughtful and well-written first novel." He noted that it brought up serious questions such as morality's relationship with art and religion, and a person's relationship with his or her own past. However, Morton also said that Judith's confinement in a psychiatric ward was limited "by providing Judith with no worthy interlocutors -- with no one who understands her well enough to argue with her in an interesting way."
Arlene Schmuland considers Matthias's final act of burning the Hale letters to be a metaphor for his breaking free of his library's code:
"At the end of the novel, he breaks all of the stereotypes about archivists being passive, dedicated to their collections, and devoted to duty by allowing the woman access to a portion of the closed collection and then carrying the whole collection home and burning it in his back yard."
Matthias's decision to burn the library materials has been criticized from an ethical standpoint. Verne Harris, a librarian in South Africa, asked, "In destroying the letters is he protecting Eliot's rights, serving the writer's desire, or merely playing god?" Eric Ketelaar, Emeritus Professor at the University of Amsterdam, has written, "The aspect I criticized was that of the archivist as a censor who decides that the memory of Eliot should be kept through his poetry, not through these letters. I censured the archivist who was guided by changes in his personal life to take a decision he was not entitled to take, neither legally nor morally."
The reserved voice of 65-year-old Matthias Lane, archivist at a prestigious Eastern university, opens this remarkably assured first novel, a complex and beautifully written tale of loss, crises of faith and resolution. Then we read the anguished journal of his wife, Judith, a poet who committed suicide in a mental institution in 1965, the same year as T.S. Eliot died. This is just one of the many parallels between the life of the poet and those of Matt and Judith (Eliot, of course, committed his own wife, Vivienne, to an asylum). Grad student and poet Roberta Spire requests Matt's permission to look at the sealed correspondence between Eliot and a Boston woman named Emily Hale, to whom he may have bared his emotions. Roberta has more than an academic interest in this correspondence. She is immensely disturbed by her parents' belated revelation that they were Jews who fled Germany and converted to Christianity in the U.S., and she feels that Eliot's conversion to Catholicism may hold insights for her. She is unaware that Judith's mental breakdown was related to the Holocaust, but Matt is quick to see the relationship and to recognize the parallels between Eliot's reclusive personality and his own emotional detachment. As several wrenching surprises about the past are revealed, Matt is finally opened to his pain and guilt and to an affirmative act of connectedness and trust. With its sinewy interplay of moral, spiritual and philosophical issues, its graceful interjection of lines of poetry and references to jazz, the novel first engages the reader's intellect. Soon, however, the emotions are also engaged, and the narrative acquires unflagging suspense as it peels back layers of secrets. This is an auspicious debut from a writer who already has mastered the craft.