Editorial Reviews for this title:
Matthias is a man of orderly ways, a librarian whose life rarely strays from its narrow channels. At the library where he works is an archive of letters from the poet T. S. Eliot to an American woman, written during the years Eliot was undertaking "Four Quartets" and wrestling with problems of marriage and of faith. Matthias' marriage to Judith in the years following World War II forms the core of this novel. Despite their differences -- Judith is unruly, an artist -- their shared love of poetry and jazz at first lends strength to their bond. But their good intentions cannot bridge their essential divergences. A growing alienation is complicated by Judith's increasingly erratic behavior, which culminates in a severe breakdown and her incarceration in a mental hospital. Judith's own voice, in the form of a journal she kept in the hospital, is the transfixing middle passage of this novel. The journal opens onto the psyche of a woman haunted by questions about love's worth in a world filled with war's evils. As Matthias wrestles with his own reawakened longings and his memories, he is forced to reconsider his role in his wife's death. After years of carefully tended caution, he realizes that he must acknowledge emotion as much as logic. This time, the result is an act of rebellion intended as reparation -- and a provocative disruption of our own ideas about debts to the dead. In the masterful tradition of A.S. Byatt's "Possession," a rich and thoughtful debut novel about passion and loss woven against a backdrop of poetry.
A young woman's impassioned pursuit of a sealed cache of T. S. Eliot's letters lies at the heart of this emotionally charged novel -- a story of marriage and madness, of faith and desire, of jazz-age New York and Europe in the shadow of the Holocaust. The Archivist was a word-of-mouth bestseller and one of the most jubilantly acclaimed first novels of recent years.
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. --Kerry Fried
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