Published in 1998, The Archivist by Martha Cooley is a marvelously complex novel. The premise is basic. Matthias is an archivist at an unnamed university (but it’s Princeton) where the letters of Emily Hale are kept locked up until 1919. Emily Hale was a long time correspondent, friend, muse and unconsummated love interest of the poet T.S. Eliot. There are over 1,000 letters that Eliot wrote to Hale. Matthias is the guardian of these letters. He has, in the name of indexing the letters, read every single one of them. One day into his archive room walks graduate student and poet Roberta asking to see Hale’s letters. Matthias says no but Roberta continues to insist. Thus begins a sort of cat and mouse game of offense and defense that leads both of the players to reveal personal histories and unhealed wounds.
Roberta explains she wants to read the letters for personal reasons. She figures Eliot confided in Hale all the reasons for his conversion to Anglicanism (he was a Unitarian before). Roberta’s parents are Jews who escaped Europe during the war and in arriving in America they soon after converted to Christianity. Roberta, who wants to claim Judaism for herself, wants to understand why her parents converted because they will not talk to her about it.
Meanwhile, Matthias, whose name is the same as the apostle who replaced Judas, is thrown into thinking about his deceased wife, Judith. She died in 1965, the same year as T.S. Eliot. She was Jewish and a poet and spent the last six years of her life in a mental institution undergoing treatment for manic depression (though we call it bipolar disorder these days). Judith wasn’t especially religious until WWII broke out. Hearing about the horrors happening in Europe, she began reading Kabbalistic writings. After the war when all the photos and details of concentration camps came out, her sense of self began to become unmoored. She began collecting every newspaper article she came across about survivors, about Nazis being captured and tried, about personal and family histories and camps, and anything related. The middle section of the book is taken up by Judith’s journal she kept during her “internment.” In one entry she writes,
I began waking up slowly into history, from which we do not emerge as from other nightmares.
Matthias does not understand Judith’s deepening religious belief, her grief and sorrow. Judith is infuriated by Matthias, a Christian, who thinks that besides God giving us Christ, He is hands off and humanity is on their own to work it out. He believes that because God imagined us, the only thing we owe God is to imagine Him.
Judith’s descent into mental illness terrifies him. And while Judith consented to being committed, it was not because she considered herself ill but only because she knew Matthias was afraid. The good news is Matthias did not consent to electroshock therapy. But Judith was still heavily dosed with tranquilizers. She was also not allowed any newspapers nor was she supposed to write.
There are so many stories and so much detail in this book I could go on and on. Both Judith and Matthias liked T.S. Eliot’s poetry and the book is sprinkled with lines of his as well as other poets. There is also a marvelous resonance between T.S. Eliot, his wife Vivienne (who was confined to a mental institution) and Emily Hale and Matthias, Judith and Roberta. There is so much in this book about the Holocaust that T.S. Eliot being such a central figure becomes rather ironic since he was anti-semitic.
The Archivist comes up in a few places as being young adult literature but I don’t think that is correct. Not that an avid teenage reader can’t read and enjoy the book, but it is so very adult-focused with no one under the age of 35. Plus, I think the subtleties of the book’s structure and layers of story would be completely missed by teens. And I would wager the majority of teenagers don’t care about T.S Eliot nor will they know who half the poets or jazz musicians mentioned in the book are or really understand the Eichmann trial that pushes its way into even Judith’s isolation.
I very much enjoyed the book. I thought I was going to get something light, bookish and librarian geeky but it turned out to be dark, deep and thoughtful. It has made me want to read T.S. Eliot’s poetry as well as a good biography about him. A book that leads to more books. That is proof right there how good The Archivist is.