Thursday, 20 July 2000
Marsha Cooley: The Archivist (1998)
Review number: 544
Marsha Colley's first novel is an ambitious story centred around T.S. Eliot and the important women in his life, and around archivist Matthias Lane and the important women in his life. The documents in the university library archive where Matthias works include a large number of letters from Eliot to his close friend Edith Hale, covering the period from Vivienne Eliot's descent into mental illness to her death (as portrayed in the film Tom and Viv), at which point Eliot suddenly broke off contact with Hale.
The events of Eliot's life have additional resonance for Matthias because there are parallels with his own. His wife Judith was a moderately successful poet who became obsessed with the Holocaust as part of manic depression and who eventually committed suicide after living in a mental hospital for some years. The middle part of the novel is her journal of these years, preserved against her wishes as Edith Hale preserved Eliot's letters against his.
The Archivist is about Matthias and Judith principally, and about their feelings of guilt: Judith's for being an American Jew who knew nothing about the Holocaust during the War and so participated in the "it doesn't concern me" attitude which made it possible; Matthias' for his treatment of Judith, even though this seemed as good for her as possible at the time. Their mutual liking for Eliot's work, and Matthias' feelings about the way Vivienne was treated, are all part of this, which is emphasised by the way that many of the narrative chapters (as opposed to the journal section) are structured around quotations from The Four Quartets.
The Archivist has a complex, intellectual structure, yet the reader doesn't need to grasp a large amount of it to appreciate the novel. The journal section is traumatic in places and the novel as a whole ambiguous. It is an impressive début.