Book Of A Lifetime: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart

Chosen by Raffaella Barker
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In choosing a book that has shaped and changed my life, I have dithered between classics, none of them contemporary and all of them novels. For me the significant book will always be a novel, although I do have a soft spot for The SAS Survival Guide, and particularly the section on camp craft.

But people and their story, whether epic as in War and Peace or up close like Mrs Dalloway, are what grabs me. I have been moved, exhilarated and devastated by Crime and Punishment, American Pastoral, Anna Karenina, Persuasion and Madame Bovary. The characters and their stories have stayed to walk through life with me.

There can never be one book, but Elizabeth Smart's novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept has a particular, personal position in my life. I first read this extraordinary prose poem when I was 19, doubly curious about the book for its delicious title and because it was written by my father's ex-wife. It was like drowning in an extraordinary dream - I could not believe that grown ups could love with such abandon. The novel has scarcely any plot, it concerns a triangle between the narrator and a married couple, but the events and actions are peripheral. This is a visceral journey into the human heart, written in language so urgent, raw and lyrical that each sentence is a bruise or a kiss for the reader. Love is the active force, it is spiritual and sexual, personal and universal, and carries life and death at once. Set in 1940s America, the book moves forward through the narrator's revelations about love in ten sections. The climax (sorry!) is an incredible scene in which the lovers are interrogated by the police on a state border, and the scene is cut with lines from Psalm 137 and the Song of Solomon. "What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies)... Were you intending to commit fornication is Arizona? (He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.)"

The lovers running away, the man's subsequent return to his wife, the narrator's exquisite pain when she realises she has been betrayed, all ebb and flow constantly as mundane existence plods on, and it is this positioning of agony and ecstasy among bus tickets and meal times that brings its power.

"I keep remembering that I am their host so it is tomorrow's breakfast rather than the future's blood that dictates fatal forbearance."

By Grand Central Station... enforced my belief that romantic love was the prime motivating force in life, and made me both long for and dread an experience as piercing as Smart's. I was inspired, I began to write some purple prose about my own love affairs. And then I discovered that the book was about my father. Ah. My sense of betrayal was every bit as fully blown as Elizabeth Smart's was in the book. It took a while to absorb my own overblown feelings. How could they? Oh God. But I got over it, I re-read it and I learned first hand that literature transcends and transforms experience, and that is what it is for. What more can anyone ask of a book?

'Poppyland' by Raffaella Barker is published by Headline