By Grand Central Station, I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart is an incongruously long title for such a short book. In one of my English classes on Canadian diction, we’ve just begun exploring modernist literature, and the context of Smart’s 1945 novel is the epitome of its era.
The novel is loosely based on Smart’s affair with British poet George Baker, though the characters are entirely fictional and the narrator may or may not be based on Smart herself. One day, Smart came across a book of poetry with Baker’s work, alongside other 20th century greats like W.H Auden. Realizing that she was in love with how these writers pushed aside the rigid forms of traditional British writing, she also discovered love with Baker himself. The only odd part? She had never met the poet before.
The book is based on a real-life plotline, but presented in a fictitious way that is supposed to intrigue us further into the tragedy of Smart and Baker’s relationship. Readers decipher a flurry of moments, which are pieced together as a story between the two.
Perhaps borrowing from Baker’s rejection of tradition, the book itself steers away from the typical notions of a novel. It reads like a book but its language boasts long gestures of poetic imagery. The circumstances of the book lay in the hands of ambiguity but also within a great abundance of detail. You may ask, how does an author achieve such abstract along with a clear obsession of specificity? Perhaps that’s what poetry is.
There are many unanswered aspects that the novel brings forth. However, the consistent notion of love is what floods the novel with questions: what does the narrator think love is and to what standards does she hold it? We watch her falling for love, being torn by it, and eventually wondering if love is what will hold them together.
There are so many vulnerabilities that make the reader unable to feel at ease—the narrator generates an interest in even the most awkward of scenes. The work reads like a diary by developing a relationship between the reader and the writer. The narrator gives us a glimpse on what was supposedly the reality of Smart’s life. Although most of these moments were meant to be shared quietly, the loud reality of them is too large for us to ignore.