Alone Together: Tony Marcus On The Power of Reading
I briefly wondered how a book written in 1945 could make me think of Corinne Day, but I should have remembered there is nothing new about young bodies and giving yourself to desire and narcissism in rough-looking rooms. The book is Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which was a book I had heard of. I knew the title before I read it.
Since actually reading the book, I think it is one of the best books of the 20th century. Also, it is short. So it doesn’t take long too read. It is written like a poem, a prose poem. The story is of a broken and breaking love affair. The heroine or narrator has never been more in love with anyone than she is right now. But the man she loves is married to another woman. She will not be able to keep him but she will continue to love him. The writing is beautiful and violent… “her damp dark hair falls like sorrow, like mercy”, “my heart is eaten by a dove, a cat scrambles in the cave of my sex”, “Certainly he killed me fourteen nights in succession. To rise again from such slaughter Messiah must indeed become a woman.”
I would like to pull out sentence after sentence, letting each one glow… “There is no room for pity, of anything. In a bleeding heart I should find only exhilaration in the richness of the red.”
I read a biography of Smart to find out where she came from. Or where her voice came from. Born in 1913 she came from a staid, upper-class family in Canada. She was a debutante, presented formally. As a child, a doctor said she had a weak heart and made her spend a year in bed. She spent that year reading. At 16 she had memorised Shakespeare’s sonnets. Her teenage life is divided between literature and cocktail parties. She said she learnt to “read poetry secretly, pass ashtrays gracefully, be a Blonde”.
From her diary. In 1934. When she was 20.
“I am going to be a poet I said
But even as I said it I felt the round softness of my breasts. And my wind wandered and wavered
Back to the earthly things
And the swooning warmth of being loved.”
And from her journals. From around the same period… “O spirits of departed souls who have felt urgently! Send some help… ”
That is her. That hunger to create. And a sensuality that still sounds bold. There was money from her family, so she did not need to work, not when she was young. She came to London, stayed in a Mayfair hotel and took classes in literature and went to society parties. She had lunch at Downing Street with the prime minister’s son. But said she grew “sick of this fashionable smart-socialness-Tatler-Spectator-jealousy-boredom”. It took her fewer than 10 years to get from Mayfair to cheap American hotels, dirty sheets, zero cash and a Nan Goldin interior. From Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, first published in 1945… “The wallpaper drips gloom […] Here is the bed where love so often liberated us […] till he spat out the rag ends of his fear. ‘You’re a cunt! You’re nothing but a cunt!’” “Who plans suicide sitting in the sun? It is the pile of dust under the bed, the dirty sheets that were never washed, that precipitate the fatal action.”
I read her biography because I wanted to know where her style came from. I know she read Dante, Virgil, Virginia Woolf. But towards the end of the 1930s the normal ground slides away from her. At a London party she meets the artist Jean Varda. And he knew Braque, Miró, Penrose, Ernst, Picasso and Derain. He was a friend of Anaïs Nin. Varda invited Smart to spend that summer with him and a group of artists, sharing a house in the south of France. She said it was “ideal”, that it was paradise. Apricots and figs grew in
the garden, they took trips to the sea, had sex (her first), bought wine, visited rundown cafes. And through Varda she met the German surrealist painter Wolfgang Paalen and his wife Alice Rahon, a poet and surrealist painter. Smart goes to stay with the Paalens in Mexico City and has a brief affair with Rahon.
From her diary. December 25, 1939… “Monday night peering into womanhood – grasping new worlds, pliable like seaweed stretched and floated.”
Smart’s biographer, Rosemary Sullivan, says she can see the “surrealism” in her writing. And yes, I can see Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst in her sentences. Her voice does not feel self-censored. Or it advertises its licence. Her voice allows itself the licence of dreaming and expanding into sex, to history, the war in Europe, flowers, rocks, rivers, blood and religion. Nothing is forbidden. Her sentences open outwards, madly, like drugs – this is also poetry, I guess, a constant exploding of the normal into images and worlds… “When we lie near the swimming pool in the sun, he comes through the bamboo bushes like land emerging from chaos. But I am the land, and he is the face upon the waters.” “The pain was unbearable, but I did not want it to end: it had operatic grandeur. It lit up Grand Central Station like a Judgement Day.”
At the end of Grand Central the female narrator is alone. Things are not ending well. There have been pages that seem to describe some terrible hospital, or psychiatric hospital. And the book finishes in New York, where she is pregnant, distressed, wandering the streets and maybe suicidal. There is one great final speech of fire and hatred where she prefigures John Lydon. She is so punk and so raw: “I myself prefer Boulder Dam to Chartres Cathedral. I prefer dogs to children. I prefer corn-cobs to the genitals of a male.”
Is it acceptable to talk about suffering? Grand Central is a singular book. When she writes about hurt and mental collapse, Smart is not shy. She values it…“It takes pain to burn through time, to turn a post on the wall into the centre of the world, now and hereafter.”
There is a Buddhist story about four secret messengers sent by the gods: a child, a cripple, a criminal on the rack and a corpse. There is also the legend of the Buddha himself, Siddhartha. He is the son of a great king but his father cuts him off from the outside world, to shield him from human suffering. Siddhartha spends the first 29 years of his life in luxury. But one morning, he goes out in his chariot and sees a broken man whose hair is white. It is the first time he has seen old age. On another outing he sees a man covered in diseased sores. On a third he sees a corpse. On a final outing he sees a wandering holy man whose face shines with peace. Siddhartha has found his way. He will leave the palace and become the Buddha.
Oscar Wilde (as Borges noted) tells the same story backwards. His Happy Prince never actually leaves the palace and dies there without knowing pain. It is only when he becomes a statue, put up in the town square, that he can see the truth. “When I was alive and had a human heart […] I did not know what tears were, for I lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter […] everything about me was so beautiful. And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot choose but weep.”
But I warm to this misery. And I warm to the lone-ness at the end of Grand Central. It carries a great song or vision of truth. There is a mythic journey from the palace, apartment and beautiful house to the world and the streets. It is perfect that Smart ends By Grand Central Station with her heroine walking the streets of New York… “When Lexington Avenue dissolved in my tears… ” “But these all-night cafes see too much of the derelict who warms himself with coffee before throwing himself into the river. These tables are topped in leather on which the blood has never dried.”
And again I see Goldin. Same city, probably same neighbourhood. Just decades later. This issue of this magazine is about community. I have never, personally, joined a community. Many years ago, I was part of small group who went to the same after-hours and took ecstasy. We used to lie in each other’s arms and stroke each other’s hair as the drug thundered through our bloodstreams. And we exploded, briefly, every Sunday with love. I also belong to the community who have read By Grand Central and been moved and marked by this book. Because books create communities and worlds of readers.
A heart that is made of lead can melt, said Wilde. I would read and reread By Grand Central because it helps to open my heart. But I would hate to end on an unambiguously positive note. Let us not be glib in public. There is something about empathy, community and the work of the heart that Christopher Isherwood wrote in 1945. From his novel Prater Violet… “I knew what I was supposed to feel, what it was fashionable for my generation to feel. We cared about everything: fascism in Germany and Italy […] the Irish question, the workers […] the Jews. We had spread our feelings over the whole world; and I knew that mine were spread very thin. I cared, oh yes, I certainly cared […] But did I care as much as I said I did, tried to imagine I did? No, not nearly as much… ”
Book cover: ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’ by Elizabeth Smart. Taken from Issue 52 of 10 Men – COMMUNITY, BELONGING, UPLIFTING – available to purchase here.