The Archivist

With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced. And everything has more than one definition.

Those are the opening sentences of Martha Cooley’s novel, The Archivist. Her novel gives shape to that central theme. There are three archivists in her story.

Matthias is the archivist of a major library, a reader, emotionally remote.

I found myself finally in solitude, the point at which I seem to have been aimed all along, like an arrow that after much delay had finally found its target…Naturally there are individuals with whom I have reason and desire to interact…But behind or beyond these comminglings, I have safeguarded my solitude.

His wife, Judith, is an archivist of the Holocaust, who suffers from a life-long depression that frequently requires psychiatric hospitalization.

Judith was the only fully awake person I’d ever known. She watched and listened; she paid attention. History was anything but abstract for her, and she couldn’t defend herself against it. The war wasn’t somewhere else, at some other time. It was irrevocably present for her.

Roberta, a student at the university, seeks to be an archivist of the letters that T.S. Eliot wrote to a woman, after he consigned his wife to a psychiatric institution. The letters were given to the archives of Mathias’s library and not to be read until 2020.

Do you know what Belladonna means? Literally it means beautiful lady. Also it’s the name of a poisonous plant. Curious, no?

Eliot looms in the background, his poems are sprinkled throughout the novel, his conversion to the Church of England symbolizes the course each of the protagonist’s life. Here conversion is meant to be any major shift in one’s long held beliefs.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Mathias eventually realizes he has failed Judith, failed her because he could not, didn’t know how to provide the emotional support she desperately sought in the depths of her depression.

In turn, once Judith learns her parents were Jewish, she becomes preoccupied by the Holocaust.

She was looking for a way to understand evil, not as a metaphysical abstraction but as a reality—the war’s reality, whose contours swelled and sharpened with each new piece of information we received from abroad.

Similarly, Roberta grapples with the knowledge her parents, who raised her as a Christian, were in fact Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. From time to time she must take leave of the university to care for her mother, hospitalized for another mild heart attack.

But any shrink will tell you that while denial is useful, it has its price. There’s no such thing as identity without history.

Three individuals orbiting around the process of conversion, it’s tremors, insights and regrets. The Archivist is a philosophical tour-de-force, a troubling and morally serious novel of ideas.

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every minute.