The Archivist by Martha Cooley

Raiders of the Lost Archives

The Morgan Library in New York recently acquired letters written by Thomas Pynchon to his agent, but the head librarian decreed that this correspondence will not be available to scholars during the author's lifetime; in other words, Pynchon has to croak before we can read them. A few miles south, in Princeton, New Jersey, there's another potentially explosive series of letters that are locked up until the year 2019 -- ones that renowned poet T. S. Eliot wrote to a woman named Emily Hale.

I know what you're thinking: Emily Hale -- who's she?

"Emily Hale was probably the only person Eliot honestly confided in," says poet Roberta Spire. "With others Eliot equivocated about his feelings for Vivien. But I figure he told Emily the truth."

The Vivien that Spire refers to was Eliot's first wife, the one the poet stuck in a mental institution after 23 years of marriage. Spire is a little crazy herself. She recently tried to convince Matthias Lane, caretaker of the special collection at Princeton, to let her read the Eliot-Hale letters before their scheduled 2019 unveiling.

Spire and Lane are fictional, of course -- characters in The Archivist, a marvelous new novel by Martha Cooley. It's her first novel, and it's good. But it's not just a good first novel -- it's a damn good novel, period. It reads like a crackerjack detective novel: Will she or won't she get to read the secret letters?

Speaking of detectives, let me intrude a moment to describe Cooley as if I were a private eye. You see, right after I meet the dame, she jokes about women writers being interviewed by fashion magazines, which spend most of the interview describing what the woman is wearing. Although I don't write for fashion mags, I have to tell you about Cooley's garb. The problem is, I don't know couture from Cocteau. I can only say that Cooley is wearing blue. A blue skirt. Blue blouse. Blue sweater thing. Little blue hat. I think of a lazy lake full of sailboats. A clear sky during the church picnic. Cooley herself is not blue. She's both relaxed and edgy. As if she'd just bumped off some blackmailer and is now ready to talk serious literature.

I ask her how she started the book. Cooley slowly sips some ice water (she was offered numerous liquids, but chose ice water). Puts the glass down. Tells me she began it in Moscow, 1988. Her ex-husband was working there. Was he a spy? She shakes her head: "Businessman." Then she tells a story: "One breakfast, I read an article about Emily Hale's bequest of a collection of T. S. Eliot letters to Princeton University. I thought, 'If I was that librarian, I'd be in the library with a flashlight reading those letters.'" She then gives a sly laugh. "Who'dah thunk that T. S. had a girl on the side!"

Up until that moment in Moscow, Cooley had only written short stories. "I was getting nowhere with them," she says with a frown. "I was feeling I should just forget writing. But I gave myself a little exercise of writing a character study of this Princeton librarian. I pictured him as this proper guy -- or professionally correct guy -- tempted as he'd never been before to breach his ethics and read these letters. But then, almost immediately, another character showed up. Another transgressor into this trove of letters."

That transgressor turned out to be poet Roberta Spire. And before Cooley knew it, she'd started a novel about the letters. And marriages. And T. S. Eliot.

"So what's this about Eliot's crazy wife?" I ask.

Cooley gives a sad smile. "Different people have different opinions. The Eliots' marriage was tortured and torturing. They were enmeshed in this mutual need and mutual repulsion. Vivien was overdrugged. She took ether. She was also probably manic depressive. And I would think that living with her would be a nightmare. She would get hysterical and have these bouts of colitis. It would make Eliot queasy. He just didn't want to get anywhere near menstruation and fever and weird stuff. Girl aliments were not his cup of tea."

Eliot wrote Hale letters all during his marriage, but after his wife died he found himself with "this status as unredeemed sinner. And it blew up in his face. Emily Hale was part of the debris of that explosion," Cooley says.

Asked about recent charges of Eliot's anti-Semitism, Cooley frowns. "He was not someone I would have wanted to have dinner with on a Saturday night, but did he change the landscape of modern poetry? Better believe it."

What about the poetry itself? "I think 'Four Quartets' is quite something, to put it mildly," Cooley says, then quotes five or six lines from memory. "'Ash Wednesday' is quite something as well. The prayer that ends it is quite beautiful. It's gorgeous, almost liturgical."

She recites lines from that one. I pour more ice water -- for me. When Cooley finishes, I ask her abut LeRoi Jones, another poet she quotes in her book. She tells me she loves early Jones, but "fell off the log sometimes in the late '70s when Jones was in his Maoist phrase. I saw him read these ideological poems while these girls stood behind him doing these Rockette kick things, chanting, 'Mao Tse Tung! Mao Tse Tung!' I thought, This is not the man who wrote those wonderful poems, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suidide Note."

We talk more about poetry. "I love the work of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert," she says. "The Mr. Cogito poems. They're these unbelievably funny, wry, very political and personal poems all done through this persona of this man Mr. Cogito."

Cooley is a novelist, and she does read fiction, of course. She raves about The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. "I was just constantly talking to the book while I was reading it. I was also learning the whole time. 'Look at how he didn't do flashbacks the way they're usually done.' This may sound like it's all vivisection, but what was nice about that book was that Ishiguro kept what John Gardner calls the 'fictional spell.'"

Ah, that magic! Martha Cooley has mastered that very same spell. Who knows what you'll say to The Archivist as you read it. I said a lot of "Wow," and "Oh, wow"s. A "Holy cow" or two. And finally, "Great book. Great book." The Archivist has also inspired me to plot a break-in at a certain library. I won't tell you if it's the one at Princeton. Or the Morgan. But I'll surely have my flashlight handy for my nocturnal letter reading. And if I'm busted, I'll just plead insanity -- tell the cops that I'm crazy over Martha Cooley's novel, The Archivist.

—David Bowman

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