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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Taking a sentimental journey 

So Old Hag has been collecting lists of books, movies, and other things that make grown people cry. For whatever reason, it's much easier to list what makes me laugh out loud or happy or whatever rather than burst into tears--but then, I'm not really much of a crier. Actually, most times I'd rather cut off my left hand rather than show tears, but on occasion, I come across something so gut-wrenching that I must engage.

This summer, while staying at the house of a friend of a friend, I came across a slim volume by the Ottawa-born writer Elizabeth Smart (yup, there was another Elizabeth Smart, and she was tall, blonde and quite beautiful as well. Spooky.) called BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT. Published at the tail end of the Second World War, It was barely a hundred pages, but within those pages was a story of love that was tragic, often unfulfilled, and never anything less than savage. Smart carried on a long affair with George Barker and bore four children by him, in spite of the fact that he was married and never did quite leave his wife. She'd fallen in love with Barker through his poetry, and then by some impulse or another, she paid for him and his wife to fly to California to live with her--and that's how the affair began. The writing is lush and poetic, and in the hands of others perhaps the story would be pure soap opera. But Smart's emotions take the reader by the throat and never let go, the stranglehold forcing down the naked longing and rapture she feels.

I was gutted when I put down the pages. It's an emotionally disturbing experience to read about love so full and bursting, so powerful and yet so destructive. I don't think I could understand it or even want it, but for a fleeting moment, I did. And I cried for Smart, for the woman she was, for the choices she made. Later I didn't think much of her, really; why put her children through the stigma, her family through all of that? Did she not really reckon with the consequences of her actions? Did she care? But BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION is truly a remarkable work; short, but unbelievably powerful. I think had it been any longer the level sustained would only have dropped off and withered. Instead, it remains throughout.


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