It remains a source of wonderment how some books endure to mythic reputations, while others (of comparable calibre) sink to oblivion, and a third category lingers in alleys called “cult classics” – classic by virtue of being brilliant, and cult by virtue of being cloistered and relished by a discerning few. The tacit assumption in the label of “cult classic” is that it will resist the amnesia of mainstream literary taste, while ensuring some recognition and longevity to the artist’s vision.
While underground reputations protect against the caprices of mainstream publishing and reading trends, they also run the risk of being left out of the canon or from the company of books that repeatedly feature in the “must read” lists. One such cult classic has turned 75 in 2020, and may be at risk of fading out with whatever loving readership had kept it alive in the bookshelves of the world.
A harrowing love affair
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by the Canadian poet Elizabeth Smart was barely noticed when it was first published in 1945. This slim book (less than 100 pages) with its title of striking proportions both flouts and amalgamates genres; it has the ambidexterity of prose poetry, the narrative integrity of a novella, the truth-vision of a memoir, the crystal precision of an epistle. It is a volcanic ode to a love story of unspeakable scars.
The jackets of different editions of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept lay claim to real-life veracity – the love affair between Smart and fellow-poet George Barker with whom Smart would have four children. George Barker was “the new outrageous poet elect in Thirties London” (in the words of his son Christopher Barker who has written a book about his parents’ romance).
A married man when he met Smart, George Barker fathered 15 children with four different women (including Smart). Why should it matter to a reader? Because every word in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is singed and tinted in the complications of this artistic and physical coupling, in the searing guilt (“like a Saint Catherine’s wheel of torture” writes Smart), in the magnetism of the sexual tension and in the emotional wreckage that is the underbelly of each transgressive desire.
The narrative arc is triggered by the first encounter – Smart has invited him (a British poet working in Japan) to visit her (a Canadian at an artists’ colony in the United States), and he arrives with wife in tow. But of course “the Beginning lurks uncomfortably” and the narrator is “shot with wounds which have eyes that see a world all sorrow, always to be, panoramic and unhealable […]”. The sexual encounter takes place not long after they meet, giving her what she feels she “could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain.”
The consummation is about eight pages into the book and the love story howls like a cyclonic gale, every word and sentence for the next 90 pages, till it collapses, combusted by passion for passion, finally with a line that stands on its own, a private whisper – “My dear, my darling, do you hear me when you sleep?”
This love is anything but easeful and the narrator knows it early (“the trap is sprung”) but the love has turned her into “the earth the plants grow through […] when they sprout I also will be a god.” There are run-ins with the law and a child of shame and secrecy has to be birthed into a world of prying eyes. The book is threadbare in its plotting, for nothing can compare or matter to the cauldron of emotions brimming in the narrator for her beloved. Bridgid Brophy describes reading the book akin to “saying a tragic, pagan, erotic rosary.”
End of a career
In Women’s Writing in Canada, Patricia Demers tells us that Smart’s personal scandals had serious implications for her book’s fate. First published in London, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept took decades to become available in Canada because Smart’s mother (from an influential Ottawa family) had not only bought and burnt copies sold in their local book store, but exercised her influence with friends in the government to prevent the book’s import.
Smart settled in England, working as a journalist and advertising copywriter to support her four children. She had close ties with the artistic establishment of London in the fifties and sixties, but mainly to be a “handmaiden, playing hostess to make sure the great and serious men present were comfortable and taken care of” (according to her son Christopher). With this, her literary career and the promise of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept seemed to hibernate.
However, the book had a second lease when it was reissued in 1965 and was reviewed by an admiring Angela Carter as “Madame Bovary blasted by lightning.” Carter would later write to her friend, the critic Lorna Sage, that reading Smart’s book was fundamental in Carter’s founding of the influential feminist press Virago. Even while acknowledging the book’s “exquisite prose”, Carter wished no other woman had to endure that lived experience of love and decay – such was Smart’s writing talent, engulfed in the domestic demands and turbulence of loving the “male genius poet”.
Without the love affair with Barker, this work may not have existed, but with the love affair and domestic responsibility, Smart’s creative prowess was cramped. Towards the end of her life, Smart returned to a literary life (with publication and a writing residency) but one feels the weight of the unsaid, the decades of silence.
What the sequel says
As if to frame a response to any misgivings about the sublimation of her talents, in 1978 Smart published a sequel to By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – it was titled The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals. At first glance the author seems to have chosen to stay in the same narrative format, but the stylistic similarities do not mirror content.
In fact, one looks for the beloved in The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, the one that caused a cosmic explosion of love in the first book, but references are fleeting, and mostly to a “cruel sexual bargain” and “faithless lover”. Instead, we are repeatedly plunged into the gruelling daily routine of a single mother who has to earn a living, for “in Adam’s absence, Eve has much to do.”
Here we have an older narrator in the city, moving in and out of the London underground stations (tolerating toothpaste on breath and dandruffed shoulders), tending to children, combing lice out of her hair, quibbling with her boss, making shopping lists, adding domestic bills at her office desk, drinking late in the pubs. Unlike the Baudelairean flaneur, there is no hedonistic wanderings in the city, only the anguish of a woman “old enough to know that nothing I was will ever happen […] but I see I must make it do. I must. I see I must.”
Smart is one of those rare memoirists who tell the readers so much about themselves that the writing becomes unbearably immediate and exquisitely imagined at the same time. There is that one time in The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals when the narrator breaks away from her “obsessional fog” to turn to the reader and declare (in thoughtful parenthesis) – “I am the obsessional type. Which type are you? If you are the butterfly type you will never forgive my intensity.”
You may judge Smart for her flamboyant personal life or for the bouts of (unselfconscious) purple prose, but you will do so only if you are a butterfly – in which case, flit away. But if you have known something about scalding obsessions, this is the cult and this is the classic you belong to, no judgment, all intensity.
Gayathri Prabhu is the author of a memoir and four novels. She teaches literary studies at the Manipal Centre of Humanities.