There was every reason to expect I would love The Archivist by Martha Cooley (1998, Abacus 1999); it revolved around a set of letters from T.S. Eliot, it was set in a library, it came garlanded with the sort of praise and from the sort of sources that intrigues me. Instead I found one of the most infuriating novels I have read in a long time. I read it because Maureen asked me to, and I quickly realised it was because she had exactly the same reaction to it.
The book is well written, but good writing does not make a novel. For that, you need a story. There is a story in The Archivist, but it comes only in the last 20-or-so pages, all the rest of the book is elegant preamble that doesn’t get anywhere.
You have an elderly widowed librarian at an American university whose responsibilities include an archive of letters Eliot wrote to an American woman friend around the time of the break-up of his first marriage. These letters are embargoed until 2020. But a young student comes in anxious to see the letters, and she and the librarian begin a relationship (though not one that ever gets anywhere – this isn’t restraint, it is inertia). At the same time we learn about the librarian’s past, and particularly his marriage to a woman who became obsessed with the fate of the Jews in World War II and ended up locked in an asylum for years before she killed herself. The nearest thing to a bravura section comes in the middle part of the novel which gives us her diary in the asylum (unfortunately I was reminded of the similar passage in Danielewski’s House of Leaves which is an order of magnitude more powerful and more moving because Danielewski shows the breakdown of the mind in what is written, and Cooley cannot come close to that. We are told of the woman’s despair, but we never really witness it).
The trouble is, this is a novel composed of echoes – the woman in the asylum and Eliot’s first wife; the fact that the wife and the student are, like Eliot, poets; the tales of childhood loss and deception and wartime that sound suspiciously similar in the wife’s background and the student’s. All of these echoes could have been weaved into something profound and powerful, but it never gels. If only Cooley had begun the novel with the ending – when the archivist burns the Eliot letters – and then gone on from there it would have given the novel the backbone of plot that it so desperately needs.
First published at Livejournal, 28 March 2006.