When Elizabeth Smart left her upper-middle-class family home in Ottawa, Canada, aged 18 to study piano for a year at King’s College, University of London, she made a move that would irrevocably alter the course of her life. While in London, Smart picked up a book of poems, read it and fell instantly in love with its author.
Convinced that the only way to live was with passion, guided by the heart and poetic inspiration alone, Smart wrote to the poet, George Barker. They corresponded for almost ten years until after the outbreak of the Second World War, when Smart moved to a writers’ colony in Big Sur, California, where she finally met the love of her life. At her instigation and with her financial assistance, George Barker flew to California from Japan, where he had been teaching English at the University of Sendai.
I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire. Apprehension and the summer afternoon keep drying my lips, prepared at ten-minute intervals all through the five-hour wait.
But then it is her eyes that come forward out of the vulgar disembarkers to reassure me that the bus has not disgorged disaster: her madonna eyes, soft as the newly-born, trusting as the untempted.
So begins By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the novel Smart based on her lifelong love affair with George Barker. These opening lines conjure the narrator’s most longed-for desire since first reading a book of poems in a London bookshop: the moment she will behold for the first time the man she already loves. But when he alights from the bus in July 1940, he is followed by his wife. Although Smart had arranged for both Barker and his wife to fly to America from Japan, she had not anticipated the agonising consequences of her act. The excruciating love triangle that results from this meeting fuels the narrative of Smart’s novel.
With its hypnotic prose, throbbing rhythms and rich metaphors, By Grand Central Station reads more like a poem than a novel. It is a lament, composed of tears and blood, earth and sky, as obsessive and unleashed, as intimate and cosmic, as the paintings of Frida Kahlo. The story itself is simple—it charts the rise, faltering and unravelling of an intense sexual love affair, perhaps incapable of surviving ordinary life (‘But how can I go through the necessary daily motions, when such an intense fusion turns the world to water?’)—but the way in which the story is told is so mesmerising, so visceral, that its extravagant emotion is alive. Such intense passion has the power to polarise onlookers and readers, either to transport or offend. When the lovers are arrested on the Arizona border under the Mann Act (for intending to fornicate in Arizona) by two policemen, one remarks: ‘We’re family men … We don’t go much for love.’
The novel is extraordinary for the opulent precision of Smart’s prose, which draws freely on myth, the Bible and literature, then cuts these allusions with references to everyday things such as pots and pans, wilted geraniums and children’s thin legs. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional narrative prose, Smart developed a lyrical prose style that she believed could express deep truths the way that poetry does, by evoking the unspeakable, the inexpressible, through metaphor—’I am over-run, jungled in my bed, I am infested with a menagerie of desires.’
The rich texture of Smart’s language can be heard in the words of her title, taken from the famous opening lines of Psalm 137 (and echoing their use by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land): ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept …’ The title evokes an intensely traumatic event of Old Testament history—the captivity of the Jews in Babylon following the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 586 BC—which produced a great literature expressing the exiled people’s desire for revenge, their anguish and longing for God, their wavering repentance. Smart’s skill is in her ability to fuse her own intensely personal experience of love and loss with these larger moments of history, to magnify and articulate her own experience of homelessness, her sense of exile, her longing for her own god (Barker). It is hyperbolic. It works beautifully. The devastation and disorientation of Europe during the Second World War, raging as Smart wrote, are also echoed in her prose, so that what is essentially a love song becomes a haunting chant of loss and longing for an age.
By Grand Central Station is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of poetic prose, but although it received favourable reviews, including one by noted English critic and novelist Cyril Connolly, it did not sell widely when it was first published in England in 1945. Perhaps this is not surprising in a country that was yet to accept publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence’s exploration of sexual passion and attack on conservative sexual mores. Elizabeth Smart continued her affair with George Barker for many years, and had four children with him, despite the fact that he never left his wife. She lived in England for most of her life, working as a copywriter to support her children—eventually becoming the highest paid copywriter in England—and then as editor of Queen magazine. In 2006 Smart and Barker’s son Christopher Barker published The Arms of the Infinite, a memoir of his parents’ tempestuous love affair.
Michael Ondaatje narrated the 1991 film of Smart’s life, Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels. He observed of her extraordinary novel that every good reader eventually discovers By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and finds in it a fundamental and abiding emotional truth.