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The Archivist by Martha Cooley
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The Archivist (original 1998; edition 1998)

by Martha Cooley

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1,226276,492 (3.45)26
Member:angstrat
Title:The Archivist
Authors:Martha Cooley
Info:Little Brown & Co (T) (1998), Edition: 1st ed, Hardcover
Collections:Your library, Books Owned, unedited
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Tags:fiction, librarians, ex-library, fiction owned, fown, fown

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The Archivist by Martha Cooley (1998)

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Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
This many-leveled novel is hard to put down. Matthias is an archivist at a university library where among the treasures he is responsible for are letters from T. S. Eliot to an American woman with whom he (Eliot) was very close. Matthias is a widower whose wife, Judith, suffered from mental illness which may, in part, have come from her difficult childhood. The story begins with Matthias' story then moves to Judith's journal which forms the middle of the book. We also meet Roberta, a graduate student who comes into Matthias' life because she wants desperately to read the Eliot letters (which cannot released until 2020) because she is struggling with her recently discovered jewish background and wants to see how he dealt with religious conversion. Judith also struggled with her jewish heritage particularly in relation to the holocaust. The author manages to weld these themes of love, mental illness, and holocaust into a seamless whole which is challenging and delightful. ( )
  RebaRelishesReading | Jul 20, 2014 |
This is a sandwich novel: a long middle section of diary entries by Judith Lane written during her "incarceration"--how she experienced her (in)voluntary stay at Hayden, a mental hospital during the late 50s & early 60s-- that breaks and connects Parts I and II which concern Judith's husband Matthias, an archivist at a major university library; Roberta Spire, a graduate student who wants access to T.S Elliot's letters to Emily Hale, sealed until 2020; and T.S. Elliot's poems and marriage. Overwrought. Heavy-handed parallels between T.S. Elliot's marriage (his wife Vivienne died in a mental institution), Matthias's marriage to Judith (she committed suicide at Hayden) and between Judith and Roberta, both haunted by the Holocaust and their Jewish family histories. I often dislike psychological novels with tormented characters whose personal struggles are also religious struggles. And this novel provides such characters in spades. After Part I, I was gritting my teeth, but then was rescued somewhat by the middle section of the novel. Not that Judith is a less tormented character than Matthias and Roberta; her mental agony is acute, but she recognizes the face of her tormentor as that of History. I found particularly interesting how mid-twentieth century psychiatry, in the guise of Dr. Clay (definitely, he has feet of clay), recognizes only childhood traumas and relationships with parents as sources of mental breakdown, but doesn't recognize that one can be driven crazy by History. Judith is obsessed with the Holocaust and with the willingness of others to "carry on" in the face of such horrific knowledge. She is equally obsessed by the guilt that she feels she, all her family members (Matthias, Uncle Len & Aunt Carol) and humanity in general must expiate and is drawn to the Kabbalah with its notions of Repair. She can't separate her personal story from the News, from History. At Hayden, she is supposed to learn how to be happy, to calm down, to make distinctions between then and now, there and here. But Judith can't do this and she doesn't want too. But others want it for her, so that she can return to a "normal" life with Matthias and get back to writing poetry. The 50s and 60s were an era rife with self-destructive artists, such as Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Charlie Parker & Bud Powell. Bud Powell functions as Judith's doppelganger in a sense, as African-American jazz musicians and poets express a knowledge of the world that echos that of post-war Jews. Judith, knowingly, and her aunt and uncle more instinctively, find solace and a home in Jazz.
Part II of the sandwich story is even more insufferably overwrought than Part I. I found the Roberta Spire character annoying and I think that it is regrettable that the author lingers incessantly on Matt's attraction to this woman 30 years his junior. The narrative is overloaded with descriptions of his reactions to her physical attributes, gestures, the look in her eyes, etc. If the author felt it necessary to create this kind of energy between these two characters (and I think the story would have been better off without it) a few subtle hints now and then would have done the job. As it is, it reads as unconvincing melodrama. The novel would have been better served with Roberta as a more neutral character. She could still have provided the impetus for Matt to reexamine his marriage and Judith's mental breakdown and suicide. The parallels between his marriage and that of T.S. Elliot and his wife Vivienne certainly would have sufficed. In fact more emphasis on the literary characters might have saved this novel from its two star fate. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
This was a book about shifting personal realities, about the impossibility of understanding other people until it is too late, and about disillusionment. I found it depressing and difficult to read. It really wasn't about archives or T.S. Elliot, though both provided shading to the story's backdrop. It does provide an interesting glimpse into the lives and personal struggles of Jews (by both descent and faith) after the realities of World War 2 started to become known. I would not recommend this book to people who read for escape, but if you're interested in the many shades of grey within the human soul (my, doesn't that sound existential!), this might be a book for you. ( )
  Snukes | Jun 14, 2013 |
Recommended by Loel.
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
Matthias Lane, a reclusive widower in his 60's, is an archivist at a university library. The jewel of his collection is a set of letters that T. S. Eliot wrote to his friend Emily Hale over a 20-year period -- letters that Hale bequeathed to the library, provided that they be kept sealed until the year 2020. This is his story and that of his wife and family. Although The Archivist takes place on an intimate stage -- no more than two or three characters are typically present in a scene -- the narrative poses large questions. Should art and religion seek to console us for the world's evils or to sharpen our awareness of them? Where do we draw the line between our obligation to remember a terrible past and our desire to rid ourselves of its burdens? Once one has become aware of the existence of radical evil, how should one conduct one's life?
Most of the novel is narrated by Matthias, and with utter persuasiveness Cooley captures his cautious, scrupulous, restrained and intelligent voice. This is a brilliantly imagined tale of an archivist whose interest in T. S. Eliot and her family's history dovetail into a sad but fascinating story. Some of the best writing about mental issues that I have ever read. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jun 9, 2011 |
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Epigraph
I keep my countenance,

I remain self-possessed

Except when a street piano, mechanical and tired

Reiterates some worn-out common song

With the smell of hyacinths across the garden

Recalling things that other people have desired.

Are these ideas right or wrong?


   — T. S. Eliot, "Portrait of a Lady"
Dedication
In memory of my grandmother, ELEANOR STROTHER COOLEY (1886-1986), who read me poems
First words
With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced.
Quotations
As an archivist I have power over other people.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0316158461, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:30:29 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

An aging librarian's memories are stirred by a young woman. The woman is researching her Jewishness after learning that her parents converted to Christianity. The librarian's wife, too, was a Jewess and she committed suicide, despairing of the Holocaust.… (more)

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