The Archivist is a debut novel of remarkable depth and power. Set in the hushed world of a prestigious American university, it weaves a story of love and loss, recognition and redemption. Matthias Lane, 65, is the university's orderly archivist. Graduate student Roberta Spire, 35, is determined to gain access to some of the collection's sealed letters-ones written by T.S. Eliot to his close friend, Emily Hale. Roberta believes they hold the keys to Eliot's religious conversion, his wife's suicide, and his emotional detachment. As Matthias considers Roberta's request, he is confronted with the eerie parallels between the poet's life and his own. Narrator George Guidall voices each emotional and psychological shift in the archivist's revelations. When Suzanne Toren joins him to relate a journal kept by Matthias' wife before her death, this chronicle adds an unforgettable dimension to an assured and thoughtful novel.
Release date: November 15, 2008
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 336
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WITH A LITTLE EFFORT, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced. And everything has more than one definition. A cat is a mammal, a narcissist, a companion, a riddle.
I’ve been reading T. S. Eliot again, the nice hardback edition of his poems that Roberta gave me before she left. I’d almost forgotten how heady Eliot is, how much thinking he crowds into “Four Quartets”:
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
I cannot imagine what Vivienne Eliot must’ve thought when she read those lines. Locked away in Northumberland House, listening to German bombs dropping on London, waiting in vain for her husband to take her home.
Hearing his poems in her head. Alone, listening, forced to reconsider everything.
What is that sound high in the air
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Roberta, too, will reconsider. She’ll be stunned, of course, when she hears the news about the Hale bequest. But after she mulls it over, the whole thing won’t seem so astonishing. I think she’ll appreciate my motives even if she can’t condone them.
I picture her in her kitchen, the new poems spread out on her table. By now she’s probably learned them all by heart — or the best parts, anyway. I wonder what they’ll prompt. More of her own, I trust; else why read Eliot — or anyone else?
We shall see.
ALTHOUGH I’VE ALWAYS BEEN CALLED MATT, my first name isn’t Matthew but Matthias: after the disciple who replaced Judas Iscariot. By the time I was four, I knew a great deal about my namesake. More than once my mother read to me, from the New Testament, the story of how Matthias had been chosen by lot to take the place of dreadful Judas. Listening, I felt a large and frightened sympathy for my predecessor. No doubt a dark aura hung over Judas’s chair — something like the pervasive, bitter odor of Pall Malls in my father’s corner of the sofa.
As far as my mother was concerned, the lot of Matthias was the unquestionable outcome of an activity that seemed capricious to me: a stone-toss by the disciples. I tried with difficulty to picture a dozen men dressed in dust-colored robes and sandals, playing a child’s game. One of the Twelve had to carry on, my mother explained, after Judas had perpetrated his evil. The seat couldn’t be left empty. Hence Matthias: the Lord’s servants had pitched their stones, and his had traveled the farthest.
So much for names. To the first-year students at the university where I work, I am merely Mr. Lane, the grey-mustached warden of the obscure Mason Room. But to graduate students I am something like a god, indispensable and unavoidable, keeper of countless objects of desire. And in reality? — in reality I’m the archivist at one of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, where I oversee a collection of rare books and manuscripts, the notes and letters of dead writers and other prominenti, and boxes of miscellany donated by eccentric graduates. This archive, housed in a quiet wing of the main library, is among the finest anywhere; and I am its guardian.
I assumed my post in 1965, the year T. S. Eliot and my wife Judith died, and since then I’ve inhabited a secure realm. Of course, there have been the predictable encroachments of micro-fiche, computers, fax machines … I make use of these things, in fact I find them entertaining; but they have nothing to do with the life of the mind. The genuine scholars, those for whom books are nearly everything, pay little attention to the junior librarians with their keyboard fixations. The real scholars come to me. In this part of the library, I alone know where everything is. I have memorized the stacks and shelves and drawers, I could find books in the dark: by their broken spines, their covers’ textures, their heft in my hand.
My work has always satisfied me. When scholars ask me about an unusual book that I haven’t seen before, I experience an almost physical pleasure. It’s as if I’m a boy again, scavenger-hunting. When I’m on the trail alone, sure of my ability to find what I’m looking for, I experience my rewards.
Naturally there are frustrations, when things are misplaced or my time is wasted. I’m rough on pseudo-scholars, but I like assisting anyone who’s serious — even novices who can barely use the card catalogue. I look for the sign of real intention, that hunger which comes over a person’s face when he really needs to find something in print. Except for a few of the oldest and most fragile manuscripts, I allow the collection to be read and used by anyone who passes my inspection. I don’t hoard the treasure.
Materials not open to the public, however, are another story. Now and then some unscrupulous researcher will ask for a “quick look” at items that remain under lock and key until a specified date. This pushiness instantly annoys me, though it no longer surprises me. With such researchers I assume a weary, antagonized look as I explain that certain bequests arrive with clear restrictions on accessibility. Violating those limits is a form of grave-robbing. Yes: the images that come to me are those of exhumation, the unearthing of something meant to lie fallow — something that will appear waxy and lifeless if brought to light too soon.
Of course I don’t put it in just those terms. But the message gets across to anyone who thinks I’ll pick up the shovel and dig for him.
I was set on edge, then, when last spring a young woman approached me about some letters of T. S. Eliot.
I want, said this woman in a tone neither loud nor soft but direct, to read the Emily Hale letters.
Had I not looked straight at her, I’m sure nothing would’ve ensued. But I stared at this woman, and in her eyes, which were large and curiously colored — a moss-grey shade, lustrous — I could see the genuine intention I’ve never been able to ignore.
There was something else. Her eyes summoned for me that strangely evocative line from Eliot’s poem “Usk”: Where the grey light meets the green air. And Judith, whom I’d buried two decades earlier. Since my wife’s death I had encountered no one who reminded me of her in any way.
Glance aside — I heard the poem now as if it were being read to me — do not spell old enchantments. Let them sleep.
The young woman stood very still, waiting, her face a question.
The answer, I said aloud to her, is no.
MY WORK IS WHATEVER I WANT IT TO BE, and I report to no one regularly. The head librarian — the man in charge of the University’s entire collection — is a figurehead, well-to-do and poorly read, with whom I have only perfunctory contact. His deputy is Edith Bearden, who supervises several junior librarians. Once a week, over lunch, Edith and I trade news or solicit one another’s advice on technical matters. We’ve always gotten along, and after all these years we know each other reasonably well. When I’m withdrawn, which I suppose I often am, she doesn’t pull at me. But when she needs my help or wants my company (for libraries can be lonely), she’s not afraid to break into one of my unresponsive moods. Hers is the only lasting friendship I’ve known, and I’m grateful for it.
Each month I supply the library’s Board with a brief summary of the activities in my wing. I prepare these reports in my office, which adjoins the Mason Room. Normally I leave the connecting door open so I can see who comes in and out. On busy days the receptionist admits around twenty people; on quiet days we have only a handful of visitors, and peace reigns.
During those calm days I become a literal bookkeeper. First I return calls and answer correspondence from other archivists, and then I catalogue new acquisitions. After that, I check the drawers containing oversized materials and generally see that everything is as it should be. I need those hours of silent physical labor, when I am alone with the collection and can experience it in its entirety. It’s become almost a living thing for me. The bound books and loose-leaf manuscripts and files of letters and photos are a many-voiced convocation I attend as a kind of permanent host. Whenever I can, I read. Familiarity with the collection is my first obligation.
When I was a child, I had dozens of books. My father built me a bookcase for my tenth birthday. It ran the length of one of my bedroom walls, and I prized it almost as much as the books I arranged neatly on its three shelves. I employed a very simple cataloguing method — alphabetization of titles, which meant that my Bible sat between Babar and Boats Under Bridges, a story about the difficult life of a New York harbor tugboat operator. I remember my mother expressing dismay at this arrangement. As a devout Presbyterian, she felt that the sacred Book should not be tossed in with profane paperbacks, and she urged me to keep my Bible next to my bed. It was her desire that I read it nightly and attend church each week with her, duties I fought then and have never undertaken since.
My mother was an unhappy woman, and unhealthy too — terribly overweight and easily agitated by small things. She entered marriage with few established friendships, and as my father discouraged the formation of new ones, she became something of a recluse. Gradually, as I was growing up, she isolated herself from the people in our neighborhood in Washington Heights who might have helped her. Eunice Carey, who had an antique toy train set I coveted, and Betty Keep, a cheery widow I used to accompany on long rambles through the Cloisters — these were women who wished my mother well and who felt sorry for me; I was, after all, the only child of an irascible accountant and a housewife who quoted the Bible a little too frequently. By the time I was twelve, my mother had ceased even the pretext of a social life for the family. And as both sets of grandparents were long dead and neither of my parents had siblings, I was effectively cut off from a community of adults.
Each Friday night my father satisfied his own needs for company by going to a bar around the corner from his office near Herald Square. There he would drink for a few hours with other dissatisfied husbands, finally wending his way home at around eight o’clock, smelling of smoke and scotch. My mother and I would watch him descend from the heights of his drink-induced good humor to the foul mood that typically enshrouded him. He would bark orders at my mother, who lumbered anxiously from table to kitchen to fetch him extra water or more salt, and in my direction he would level a barrage of questions about my performance at school that week.
Fortunately I was a good student. Books were my refuge; I made friends, but often they interested me less than books. And at home, in the face of my mother’s perpetual anxiety and my father’s cantankerousness, I retreated into my small bedroom, where my books awaited me, reliably patient and tolerant. Now and then my father would engage me in conversation about a story I was reading, or my mother would read aloud a poem by Wordsworth or Blake. Those interludes I remember with intense clarity. Everything else from that time feels like a bruise feels when pressed: painful in a dull, unmemorable way.
Judith used to say I became an archivist to spite my parents. I suppose that’s partly true. I knew my father wanted me to go into a more lucrative line of work, and my mother was eager for me to become a teacher or (better yet) a pastor — neither of which I had any intention of doing. But the truth of my choice ran deeper. Having so few emotional resources to spare after wasting them on a soured marriage, my parents could make no hard claims on my future. That it should include higher education was perhaps the only point on which we three were in unspoken agreement. Even on this issue, though, there was friction. My father was proud of my academic competence but uneasy about my lack of interest in business, and my mother was concerned about my spiritual life, unsupported as it was by any church. Neurotic and awkward and ailing, she still managed to convince herself of the necessity of a spiritual community, and she went to church each week until she became bedridden. She could never accept my solitariness, though I’d learned it from her.
On the day I entered college, I realized in a bitter flash that I owed my parents nothing. I believed, however, that I owed something to books, which had kept me going throughout my least happy stretches, and this belief eventually outweighed all other considerations. After a half-dozen years of work in bookstores, I enrolled in graduate school and began the study of library science.
I saw myself then, and still do, as inheritor of a rich tradition, one that straddles the line between mind and spirit. The great librarians have all been religious men — monks, priests, rabbis — and the stewardship of books is an act of homage and faith. Even Thomas Jefferson, that most rational and ingenious of librarians, revered what he called the Infinite Power. It’s impossible to be a keeper of books and not feel a gratitude that extends to something beyond the intellects that created them — to a greater Mind, beneficent and lively and inconceivably large, which urges reading and writing. Judith used to complain that libraries are full of too many false, banal books — and she was right, of course, though it’s never bothered me. A library is meant to be orderly, not pure.
In 1939, when I was twenty-one, my father and I made our first and only trip together. We took the train down to Washington. My mother was quite ill, and my father (normally no traveler) wanted to get away from the apartment. He proposed that my college graduation present be a visit to the capital. I had been there on a school trip and had no interest in the sights, but I accepted the invitation eagerly. I wanted to explore the Library of Congress.
As I’d anticipated, my father quickly tired of sight-seeing. By the time we reached Capitol Hill he was bored, and he left to seek out a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue. Alone and happy, I entered the library’s cool foyer. At college I’d read many descriptions of the vast collection, but I was unprepared for the beauty of the building itself — its vaulted ceilings and marble floors, its magnificent circular reading room fitted with mahogany benches, rows of soft reading lamps, and heavy brass-trimmed doors that kept out all noise. I walked around the upper gallery, reading the inscriptions that ring the second-story walls just below the ceiling, and I knew then that eventually I would claim such a place as my home.
My mother died that year, my father four years later, in 1943. A few months after his death, I went back to Washington to see the library again. This time I took color photographs, explored the stacks, and talked at length with the librarians. I also wrote each of the wall inscriptions on note cards. When I returned to New York, I bought a leather binder and made myself a scrap-book of the photos and cards.
Judith knew as no one else did what libraries meant to me. The scrapbook was among the first of my possessions I showed her, not long after we met. My memory holds an indelible image of Judith turning that book’s pages, reading the inscriptions aloud. Literate as she was, she identified most of the authors. Then she read her favorite inscription: The True Shekinah Is Man. It came, she said, from the Kabbalah — the writings of Jewish mystics.
I asked her to explain the concept of shekinah. As she spoke about the Trees of Life and Death, I watched her full, mobile mouth, her long-fingered hands and slender arms, the shadows at her collarbones. Her entire body was suddenly an astonishing surprise to me. I can clearly remember how she looked up from the book’s pages, her gaze locking with mine. I knew unconsciously, as one senses a cry before hearing it, that my life was going to be changed.
Crossing the room, I circled her shoulders with my arms. Her hands tightened at my back as we held each other for the first time, swaying back and forth, our lips skimming each other’s cheeks and then meeting, lightly at first, my teeth on her tongue gently pulling and being pulled. I had experienced nothing so urgent and terrifying as the sound of my pulse at that instant, the blood-driven beat of my heart.
JUDITH WAS TALL — nearly as tall as I am: six feet — and slender, with elegant hands, short dark hair, a long waist and narrow hips, a beautifully shaped backside, prominent collarbones and kneecaps, broad feet. Her face was slightly olive in tone, its skin supple and shiny. Her eyes were grey-green, almond-shaped, and widely set beneath thin dark brows. She moved with a fluid, graceful ease that attracted notice.
We used to read T. S. Eliot aloud. For utterly different reasons, we were among his admirers. Time the destroyer is time the preserver — we loved those impressive contradictions of Eliot’s, that authoritative way he had of stating a paradox. Perhaps too tidy, too controlled? Yet he did know something about destroying and preserving; and about time.
Judith said she read Eliot because he understood how the sacred resides in time, is time. For me, reading his work is like trying to intercept a butterfly. It comes so close you can see its markings, the luminous wings, and then as you extend a hand it’s gone — hidden among other flickering objects of consciousness. There’s a pleasure in this approximation, I suppose, and even in the failure to apprehend. I don’t mind the obscurity of Eliot’s verse. (What good, after all, is an insect pinned on velvet, gorgeous but dead?)
In the thirties and forties, living in London, Eliot wrote about a thousand letters to a woman named Emily Hale, an American he had known since adolescence. But after his wife Vivienne died in 1947 and he was freed from the nightmare of his failed marriage, he repudiated Emily Hale. He felt, he wrote her, as if something in him had frozen and couldn’t be revived.
Vivienne Eliot had spent the final decade of her life locked up in a sanitorium in London — a high-walled institution from which she made several desperate but unsuccessful attempts to flee. Eliot chose never to visit her there. Perhaps she wrote to him, pleading, though that is doubtful. She must have suspected his role in having her committed, but she didn’t cease loving him, directing toward him the same intense, narcissistic heat that had driven him away. She was unbalanced but extremely perceptive, as people on the borders of sanity tend to be, and she knew things about Eliot — things he could communicate to no one, things transmitted obliquely in his poems, the objects of guesswork for his readers. Not acts but rather emotional capacities — dark, angry, punishing tendencies that the rising star of modernist verse couldn’t afford to expose.
Beneath the mask of the penitent, Eliot was a hugely ambitious man. He knew that with her madness, his wife could decimate all his possibilities. Although he figured out how to protect himself from her, the stain of their relationship lingered, ineradicable. He and she were too intimately bound up in each other’s terrors to disengage, even with the help of forced separation. (“As to Tom’s mind,” Vivienne wrote to a friend shortly before her lockup, “I am his mind.”)
From such possession he sought exorcism — and achieved it. But it had to be paid for, and Emily Hale was sacrificed along the way. After Vivienne’s death, Eliot pulled back. He visited Emily only a few more times, and his letters were infrequent and perfunctory. She never understood, never got over the shock of repudiation. Like Eliot she was a master concealer; she didn’t reveal the extent of the damage she had sustained. There was a brief hospitalization, in the fifties, for “nervous exhaustion,” but no other visible evidence. She resigned herself to the unfathomable. In the place within her where rage might have been, there was a desolation she could not share even with old friends. (In one letter to a woman she’d known for years, she referred to a “miscarriage” — and not a physical one — which was as close as she could come to the truth of her aborted relations with Eliot.)
Vivienne the hysteric had tried, even at the end, to break out. Emily, more stable and less imaginative, chose convention: the silence of the spinster, the relief of her acting and teaching careers, the solace of memory. But Emily was not without her own implacable sense of what must be done. In 1957, she took it upon herself to amass all her letters from him and deposit them — with strict instructions that they were to be sequestered until 2020 — in the library of a major American university. Eliot, furious, cut off all communication. In 1963, she wrote him a short, impressively honest letter pointing out the necessity of her action and reminding him of the future — not theirs but that of his work. Scholars would want to read her letters to him as well as his to her, she said; their twenty-year correspondence chronicled important events, ideas, feelings. Wouldn’t it make sense for him to give her letters to the same institution that had received her bequest?
Eliot did not approve, would not respond. But Emily had already made her move. His side of the correspondence had arrived at the library, I later learned, in five identical grey cardboard boxes tightly bound with white string. My predecessor — by all accounts a highly disorganized man — evidently failed to decide what to do with this gift from Miss Hale. He simply dumped the lot into one large carton, where they lay jumbled for eight years. When I arrived on the scene, I made it my business to provide order where there was none.
JUDITH AND I WERE MARRIED in Manhattan on V-E Day. We were giddy with excitement, convinced that the confetti on the sidewalks had been strewn around as much for us as for the war’s end. We were each twenty-seven years old and had known one another for twelve weeks. I’d escaped military service because of a lower-back condition; Judith had spent the war years in a West Side walk-up, writing poetry and working as a secretary. We’d met in a bar.
Twelve weeks. It now seems such a short stretch of time — dangerously short, really. Yet in my memory those weeks are like a honeycomb in a jar: the clustered days, suspended in an amber sweetness, drenched and happy …
What did I notice about her? Judith resembled no one else I knew. My first impression was of quickness. She had a wonderfully agile, skeptical intelligence, and a certain aggressiveness — that of someone eager to engage new ideas and willing to be unsettled. Judith was less interested in Truth than in truths, and she trusted a good argument to flush them out. Right away I felt, in her company, the relief that comes when caution is unnecessary: when it is not merely possible but desirable to expose what one thinks.
She was my only genuine partner in amusement. My father had a dry, vinegary laugh; my mother’s was a nervous trill, unpleasant and sad. In college my acquaintances were amusing in the wry, detached manner of our generation. Judith was the only person who could make me laugh hard at literally nothing. She had a way of becoming suddenly, ferociously funny, and sometimes giddy and out of control, like a small child.
She loved Manhattan, and she knew it well. Among my strongest memories are our long walks, hand in hand, up and down and across the city. She liked to eat while walking — ice cream in summer, hot chestnuts in winter, apples in autumn and spring. The scent of apple on her fingertips …
Our long strides were evenly matched. Judith walked with purpose, deftly circumnavigating stragglers, maneuvering us through Fifth Avenue crowds, jaywalking across busy intersections. Sometimes she put her arm around my waist as we walked, and this gesture f. . .
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