Matthias Lane is the proud gatekeeper to countless objects of desire, the greatest among them being T.S. Eliot's letters to Emily Hale. Now in his late 60s and archivist at an unnamed East Coast university, Matthias is--as one of his colleagues tells him- -"exceptionally well defended". He's intent on keeping the Hale collection equally remote and when a young poet seeks access Matthias rebuffs her with little difficulty. Still, Roberta Spire does remind him of his wife, Judith, who also wrote poetry but who had committed suicide 20 years earlier. And he is much taken with the student's self-possession: "Pleading never works with me," he concedes, "but authentic and angry self-interest does."
Betrayal figures heavily in The Archivist. Roberta feels betrayed by her parents, German Jews who had spent World War II in hiding and emigrated to the US soon afterwards, disguising their Jewish identity. She has only recently discovered her Jewish background. Similarly. Matthias's wife had been an Eliot adept, had felt violated by a false version of her own past and was destroyed when confronted with the realities of the Holocaust. No wonder Roberta sees the Hale letters as a Holy Grail, the key to her questions about religious conversion and identity.
What holds this exceptionally ambitious and layered first novel together is the love all three main characters have for the pleasures of the text and the knowledge they share that time is, as Eliot writes, both preserver and destroyer. Eliot, after all, had wanted Emily Hale to destroy his letters (and in reality they are sealed until 2020, safe at Princeton University).
Martha Cooley is deeply concerned, as are her characters, with questions of conscience, privacy, action and inaction, and security-- personal and scholarly. If there is one parallel too many in this impressive work, perhaps that it is more like life than some of us would care to admit. --Kerry Fried [via]