The Archivist (1998)

by Martha Cooley

Martha Cooley's first novel, The Archivist, is, like its librarian subject, intellectual and sober.

Matthias Lane is a 60something archivist at a university library who presides over a treasure trove of literary archives. Graduate student Roberta Spire wants him to let her see the sealed letters T. S. Eliot wrote to his close  American friend Emily Hale. Roberta suspects that the letters discuss Eliot's religious conversion and thus would help her to come to terms with her own identity.

For Matthias, Roberta's struggle has parallels to that of his wife, Judith, who committed suicide two decades earlier. Both women were poets and Jews whose family history in Holocaust Germany had been kept from them by well-intentioned parents and guardians. Knowledge of the realities of the Holocaust had haunted Judith, whose mental deterioration is chronicled in the journal that makes up the middle third of the book. As Matthias reexamines Judith's decline and realizes how his emotional detachment and fear contributed to it, he seeks redemption through a surprisingly bold act.  

The Archivist received good reviews but also criticism. Its cool tone is ironic, given that the protagonist finally acts to acknowledge his emotions. The parallels between Eliot's marriage and Matthias's, and between Judith and Roberta, are so carefully drawn they seem contrived. Quotes from Elliot's poetry and the occasional use of words that may send readers to the dictionary can come off as pretentious. Cooley's writing is assured, but she could be more subtle.


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