THE ARCHIVIST by Martha Cooley
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A sophisticated and compelling debut--about libraries though without a particle of dust, and with passion galore though about inability to love. Matthias Lane has been bookish all his life and may not seem like much to write about--a buttoned-up man in his 60s, chief archivist of rare books and manuscripts in a university library. But when a grad student named Roberta Spire asks to see T.S. Eliot's letters to his passionate but unrequited lover Emily Hale, a set of associations is let loose that will reveal the painful truth (and deceit) of Matt's past life and the painful truth as well of a great sweep of the 20th century. Though 30 years his junior, Roberta reminds Matt of his own dead wife, Judith--who was also beautiful, also passionate, and also a poet. There are other parallels between Roberta and Judith--both had been deceived, in one way or another, about their own past, their parents' past, and their own Jewishness. And both, in different ways, were connected with the fate of the Jews in WWII Europe. Judith, in fact, in the years after the war, grew so obsessed by the emerging details of the Holocaust--and by people's having stood by and done nothing--that she became unhinged and was committed by Matt to an institution (just as Eliot had earlier committed his own wife Vivienne), where a fate awaited her that will grip any reader and that will haunt the self-blaming Matt forever. Roberta's appearance causes him to revisit that past, revisit--and revise--his own guilt, and suffer again both the intensity of his love for the doomed Judith and the terrible, fear-based inadequacy of it. What sounds like an dour tale takes wings in Cooley's hands, is enlivened by her eye for character, detail, place, period, every small human nuance--and by her perfect, apt quotations from Eliot's poems. A superlative, serious, gripping literary treasure.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: "Little, Brown"