I saw myself then, and still do, as inheritor of a rich tradition, one that
straddles the line between mind and spirit. The great librarians have all
been religious men – monks, priests, rabbis – and the stewardship of
books is an act of homage and faith. (Pg. 11)
Immediately, we are aware that we are dealing with a man whose views will likely involve us in an intense search for the deepest meaning and purpose which inform his vocation. This is made particularly urgent by the many coincidences of circumstance that relate Matthias Lane to T. S. Eliot: he also had a wife who was committed to an asylum where she died; he also has struggled through his life to protect himself against a hostile and incomprehensible world at war; he also feels compelled to honor a wife he was too afraid to love sufficiently to save her. And this does not even account the parallels between the women in his life! Such parallels and correspondences are, for better or worse, a structural commonplace in such novels as this one. Ms. Cooley does not disappoint.
The central premise of the novel concerns the limitations put on the bequest by the donor, Miss Hale, who stipulated in 1963 that the letters were not to be made public (to anyone!) until 2020. The archive was then created, documented and sealed, and remained for years under the watchful and ethical gaze of Matthias Lane, until a young and aspiring poet, Roberta Spire, a graduate student in the university writing program, arrives to begin her velvet assault on the fortress of secrets in order to gain access to the Eliot archive. Her quest is impelled by a personal and professional need to uncover the secret of Eliot’s religious conversion, which knowledge she believes will help her to understand and forgive her own parents’ conversion. Lane’s resistance is compelled by his professional ethics and his hard won sense of the sacredness of promises kept and loyalties upheld. His position is sadly undermined by the knowledge that Eliot had pleaded with Emily Hale to destroy the correspondence, in its entirety, rather than donate the letters to posterity. A potential conundrum if ever there was one!
This slight challenge, in the figure of Roberta Spire, is the motive force of Matthias Lane's awakening to a needed re-examination of his own life's most decisive moments and the choices he made regarding his own faith, his wife's sanity, and his commitment to the 'priesthood' of librarians and archivists. The results are both moving and surprising.
The book is divided in three parts with a very brief epilogue. Parts I and III reprise the initially wary but eventually intense and almost electric relationship that develops between Matthias and Roberta in the university setting in the 1970’s, where Matthias is a middle-aged widower and librarian, and Roberta is a Graduate student. The central portion is comprised of the journal entries composed in a sanatorium by Lane’s wife, Judith, during the six years of her commitment for manic-depression. (Yes, as in other such novels, parallels abound: between Lane’s wife and Eliot’s, between their similar fates and vocations and the similarity of their personalities; it’s all there, and then some. However, it is usually handled very well and without implausible or forced detail.) This middle portion turns out to be a very believable and compelling account of a very spiritual and vital woman’s ordeal in a mental institution. Her drama constitutes a separate sub-plot, which is intimately related to the ongoing agony of Matthias and Roberta. By the end of Part II, Judith Lane becomes an engrossing character and a catalytic force, as well as the source and/or reference of some very profound ideas in this novel.
It is also no small feat that Cooley limns Matthias Lane, the male protagonist, with real insight and empathy –more so, perhaps, than Roberta Spire, with whom we might think she, as a woman and a writer, has so much more in common!
To say that this novel is seamless or without any trace of intellectual artifice would be to overstate the case. The similarity - or too-near parallel - between Roberta and Judith’s crisis is somewhat off-putting, especially given the post war time frame. The apparent thematic anachronism (of ‘identity politics’) is particularly bothersome. I’m sure Jewish “consciousness-raising” in the years immediately after World War II was certainly not unheard-of, though the personal - and here, neurotic - nature of the crisis would not be given a vocabulary and subsequent expression for many years to come. But this hurdle is, over all, rather well handled. Cooley skillfully understates the parallel, as she does with the parallel of roles (archivists as secret-keepers) that also, at times, intrudes.
Then again, maybe there is another way to look at this. The novel is extremely tightly structured and the central characters, closely observed. Perhaps this plethora of parallels is a function of Martha Cooley’s intense focus on the central idea concerning the keeping of secrets and loyalties and the various ways this effort effects and influences the lives of the various characters. After all, “archivist” is just the professional term given to one who guards the secrets and protects and preserves the evidence of the past for future generations. Aren’t we all, at some point in our lives, involved in this process in some way, or to some degree?
As in most novels of ideas, especially ‘first’ novels, the characters may sometimes seem to be rather more ‘stalking horse’ than full-blooded persons. Mostly, Cooley avoids this pit fall. The failures are minor and are redeemed in the later stages of character- and story-development without lasting harm. For example, we forget by Part III that Roberta is an unlikely and unnecessarily fu-fu gourmand of Part I and forgive a point just too well made. Also, the apparently wooden Len and Carol – stepparents to Judith – become in Part II real “Menschen”, and are likewise returned to sympathetic stature. These are rookie mistakes and entirely forgivable. (I do, though, want to strenuously protest her use of chummy first names for Jazz giants as a way to suggest Judith’s profound love and respect for the music. In the words of Ole Tommy-boy, himself, “That is one definite false note”. This “Miles” and “Diz” bullshit has got to stop!)
I think it is not a perfect book, but The Archivist is an admirable and an interesting – even an important – one, and a great first novel. Martha Cooley makes good sense and tells an interesting story of people literally coming to terms with their lives, their histories, their choices and their actions. The impact of WWII and the eventual news of the Holocaust, as an element in the lives of people of that era, is dealt with in an intriguing and nuanced way. Cooley is already a serious and respectful writer of mature fiction.
It is interesting, that, in this day, when the theme of past sins and histories coming into or looming over the present to haunt and upbraid the characters is all the rage, this novel presents another, more subtle and direct look at the decisions that must be made, and the truly pressing reasons for those decision concerning the past. If one conclusion can be drawn, perhaps it is that not all secrets must or should be uncovered and finally told. Perhaps another form of loyalty to the past and the future is possible. Perhaps another form is even more important. Martha Cooley chose a tough, though timely, subject for her first novel, and did an admirable job in presenting it. Eliot fans will be grateful. (I am, and I am!)