A Reader’s Guide to Airplanes, Trains and Automobiles | by Tim Parcs


Bridgeman Pictures

Honoré Daumier : The first class car, 1864

It is well known that the invention of railways increased book sales. Besides talking and looking out the window, what could you do on a long trip if not read? Anna Karenina was reading on a train when she realized how strongly she was attracted to young Count Vronsky, how ready she was to change her life.

But could it be that trains, buses, ships and planes have actually increased the amount of writing that is done? Of course, they quickly invaded the world of the writer. Virginia Woolf’s first memory was her mother’s dress on an omnibus. Dickens was almost killed in a train wreck and went on to write “The Signal-Man,” widely regarded as one of the best ghost stories of all time. that of Dostoyevsky The idiot opens with a long scene in a train. Likewise, Tolstoy The Kreutzer Sonata. And, of course, Tolstoy died at a train station escaping his wife after forty-eight years of one of the most successful dysfunctional relationships in literature.

DH Lawrence had a special affection for the green trams which took Nottinghamshire miners into town for a Saturday night outing. They “plunge into the black countryside of industry, by hill and by dale… perky, casual, a little daredevil, green like a casual sprig of parsley from a black coal garden. Later in life he also fell in love with steamboats. “And rustling! we went to the sea like we took the waves ”, he tells us in Sea and Sardinia. “This curious rhythmic whistle and hollow drum of a steamboat at sea has a narcotic, almost infuriating effect on the mind.”

Giovanni Verga, whom Lawrence admired a lot, describe the envy inspired by the passage of a train to a Sicilian peasant in the shadow of Mount Etna. “Oh, how nice it must be to get in there, to take a nap!” It was like the city roaring in front of him, with its lampposts and glittering shops. Just hearing the roar of the distant train, rattling through the peach orchards given Anguilla by Cesare Pavese in The moon and the bonfires, intoxicating premonition of freedom, “as if I had drunk wine”.

Antonio Tabucchi’s travels were more melancholy than liberating. The dark Madras-Mangalore bus in the middle of the night is one of the most beautiful scenes of Indian nocturnal. And the remote stop where passengers wait for a connection for the Moodabidri-Karkala bus must be one of the few places in the world where a writer could bring their character into conversation with a grotesquely distorted clairvoyant child.

Unsurprisingly, Alberto Moravia made love to his characters on a train at The conformist, while more recently Fleur Jaeggy in SS Proleterka described her teenage alter ego finding out about sex and nothing else on a Mediterranean cruise ship. Long journeys by plane, train and boat can of course be dangerously boring (“eight hours by train is a terrible fate”, complains a character in Dostoyevsky’s novel. Demons). So if you don’t have a book to pass the time, sex, murder (on the Orient Express) and chaos inevitably invite themselves, or at least entertain the imagination of the writer: we think of Émile Zola The Human Beast, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Graham Greene Stamboul train. Back in a more mundane reality, when Italian railways still had compartments with curtain doors, I have more than once surprised embarrassed lovers on the Intercity Milano-Venezia at 9:05 pm.

But of lists and anecdotes there would be no end. I want to take this one step further and suggest that there is actually a deep affinity between a book and a form of transportation, just as there is an obvious analogy between a story and a journey. Both are going somewhere. Both offer us a routine outing and a chance to meet unexpected people, see new places, experience new states of mind. But without too much risk. You either fly over the desert or run through it, but you don’t really have to experience it. It is a circumscribed adventure. So it’s with a book. A novel can be shocking or cryptic or boring or compulsive, but it’s unlikely to do too much damage to you.

Then, by rubbing shoulders with foreigners of all classes and all climates, the traveler is made to become more aware of himself and of the fragility of his identity. How different we are when we talk to different people! How different our lives would be if we opened up to them. “What am I myself?” “Asks Anna Karenina, looking at her fellow travelers on the train to St. Petersburg,” myself or another woman? This was exactly the kind of instability that Pope Gregory XVI had foreseen when, in the 1840s, he banned the railways of the Papal States; “paths to hellHe called out, fearing that people could escape the benevolent watch of their loved ones, their priests, simply by buying a ticket. The good pope also feared books and banned a number of them. Because the secret design of the writer is always to shake up the identity of the reader through the vicissitudes of his characters, so often traveling.

But while some novels look like supersonic flights and others like leisurely tours, there is no doubt in my mind that the closest form of transportation to the experience of the written story is by train. On the plane, you are simply trapped in your seat and too far from the earth to have much experience of it. On board an ocean liner, you are isolated in the monotony of the ocean. In a bus, you are an integral part of the traffic, subject to circumstances.

But in the train, you are there a few meters above the ground, close to the passing world, but protected and separated from it; released from all responsibility, but asked to be careful. Isn’t that exactly the experience of reading a book? Isn’t this exactly the relationship to the world that a writer seeks, safe in his writing room, but intimately close to his characters? Virginia woolf capture the sentiment perfectly in a short story in 1919:

So from an express train I looked out over the hills and fields and saw the man with the scythe lift his eyes from the hedge as we pass by, and the lovers lying in the tall grass are looking at me in disguise. as I look at them without disguise. Some burdens have fallen, some obstacles have been removed.

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