Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: The Archivist

The Archivist
by Martha Cooley
Little, Brown and Company
Copyright 1998
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I honestly do not remember when I first heard of this title, or if perhaps it was an Amazon suggestion that coordinated with another book (it is currently being bundled with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I read last year and greatly admired). At any rate, I was inspired to obtain a copy from the library and read it over the read-athon weekend.

It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel. The multiple layers of stories, the interwoven themes and the literary allusions make for a rather complex storyline. Mathias Lane is a 65 year old widower who is "the archivist" at an unnamed university where he is in charge of, among other things, the T.S. Eliot collection of letters written to Emily Hale. In the first portion of the book Mathias slowly details his early life and what led him to this position. His mother was a religious fanatic who tried to impose her fervent beliefs on her son (he was in fact named Mathias after the apostle who took the place of Judas Iscariot). She had few friends, was discouraged to make friends by his father, and eventually became an overweight, sickly recluse. His father was an unhappy man who worked all day, visited the local bar each night, and came home in a rather foul mood. Given these circumstances it is not surprising that Mathias was a loner and found books to be his soul comfort and escape from this dysfunctional family.

While going to school for library science, Mathias met a woman named Judith. Not only did they share a literary passion (she wrote poetry) but they soon learned that they had a similar upbringing: Mathias was essentially left to fend for himself by his biological parents; Judith was orphaned at the age of one and ultimately raised by her carefree uncle and his wife. For the first time in his life Mathias felt as though someone in real life (rather than books) understood his plight, and the two of them eventually married.

Their marital bliss was short-lived however, when Judith became more and more disheartened with the war in Europe and the news of the concentration camps and treatment of Jews. While not raised in a particularly religious family, Judith was Jewish and she identified with those being persecuted overseas. Over time Judith's outrage over these horrific attacks began to cause her mental anguish. She tried to use her poetry to release this frustration, but it was almost as though it was an addiction: the more she read, the more she had to write, which led her to want to read more. She had trouble sleeping, taking care of herself and relating to others. Eventually Mathias felt the need to have her institutionalized, "only until she got better."

The middle portion of the book is the journal that Judith kept while institutionalized for 5 years. The reader slowly witnesses her decent into a mental breakdown. It is in this portion of the book that we learn Judith's detailed past. Her parents had not died in a car crash, as she had been led to believe all these decades, but rather they had been killed in Russia. Once she learns the truth it is as though it pushes her even further over the edge of insanity. It is hard to imagine how one might react if after decades of being told one story of your life - you find that it is a fabricated lie. Would we be willing to accept the new truth without any repercussions?

While this relationship is the main focus of the book, there is a secondary storyline that takes place in the present day. While presiding over his archival duties, a young graduate student comes to Mathias in the hopes of reading some of the TS Eliot letters. Roberta Spires has an interesting past of her own, which somewhat mirrors that of Judith. Roberta was raised Christian and does not discover until her late teens that she is in fact Jewish. Her parents managed to escape Germany during the war and when they arrived in America they chose to convert to Christianity. Roberta is incensed that she has been kept in the dark about her real ancestry and she hopes to discover answers to her questions of conversion through the Eliot letters.

In the end Mathias hopes to right a wrong that he feels he committed with Judith by helping Roberta discover some answers. In compromising his professional duties does he in fact atone for his personal transgression? I am not sure, and I think this ending leaves me somewhat baffled.

Overall, I liked the book. It held my interest. I could totally relate to Mathias and I thoroughly enjoyed the episodes where he is in the library discussing literary tales and his love of books (in fact, I wish there were even more of these scenes in the novel). I was intrigued by the many layers of the stories and the various character developments. I could understand the sense of betrayal and the need to discover meaning in life when everything you have known has been turned upside down. I am inspired to read TS Eliot's Wasteland and Four Quartets so that I can read in context what was often quoted in this book.

And yet......I am somehow left feeling "so what" --- especially with relationship to Roberta's character. Perhaps it is my lack of literary knowledge (particularly with regards to Eliot) that prevents me from relating to her intense need to read his letters to Emily Hale in order to give her insight into her own life. I also surmise that there are many parallels that can be made between TS Eliot's life and those of these fictional characters, but those connections are unfortunately lost on me. This leads me to feel intellectually inadequate, which I am sure also contributes to my ambivalent feelings towards the book.

I admire the author's writing style and ambitious attempt at weaving together so many story lines, character relationships, and important themes. The fact that I was captivated by the story from the beginning to the end - despite my lack of detailed understanding - is a testament to the author's skill and talent.

6 comments:

bermudaonion said...

If this is over your head, it would be WAY over my head. Thanks for the review.

Nicole said...

It sounds really interested. It's on my list of things to read.

Beth F said...

Well you've caught my interest. I'm not yet sure I'll read it, but I'm going to keep it on my radar.

Janel said...

Sounds like there are a lot of things going on in this book. I'm going to see if I can get it from the library.

Jenners said...

For a debut novel, this sounds very very ambitious and multifaceted. Great review.

Lisa said...

I'm not familiar with Eliot's work either so I think I might want to at least read some of that before I consider this one.

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