TRAIN TRAVEL AS LITERARY DESTINATION AND JOURNEY

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I have spent the last two weekends in Manhattan and Toronto; each time, leaving on Friday morning and returning on Sunday evening. My youngest son was there to audition for fine arts graduate programs that could take him far from home next year. The stakes are high and these trips felt like the first step toward a grand adventure for him.

It took us just minutes to decide that we would travel by train. The spell that train travel casts over me and my son has its roots in literature and in the movie adaptations of some great stories.

I’m pretty sure that the romance of trains still fires the imaginations of many.

AgathaChristie_450FromPaddington

What is the first novel or story about trains or train travel that you would recommend? Is it Agatha Christie’s Orient-ExpressMurder on the Orient Express? Is it The Mystery of the Blue Train? Or perhaps 4-50 from Paddington?

Certainly, Christie has written some of the most compelling and atmospheric train mysteries of all time, and it was a little because of these that as we set off from Central Station, my expectation was that there would be more space in the train. In fiction and in the movies of my memory, people move about endlessly in trains—they strike up conversations in dining cars, in their “compartments”, and while standing in aisles. They are active and they mingle, milling about with cigarettes dangling between glove-covered fingers, in the spaces built by cabinet makers and other craftsmen.

 Modern reality, of course, is quite different. The train’s interior is mostly functional and minimalist, and few wander far. Instead, the train lulls you into a passive yet anticipatory state of civility.

In fiction, trains have provided the perfect environment for murder and intrigue, for accidental meetings and forbidden or Stamboul-Traintragic love affairs, for espionage and for terror. While Murder on the Orient Express is a brilliant example of the locked door mystery, Graham Greene actually got to the Orient Express first, with his novel Stamboul Train, published a year before Christie’s masterpiece.

Many other writers of stature have created equally marvelous reads. In 1936, Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins was published, and this thriller about meeting a stranger on a train was eventually adapted to the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock as “The Lady Vanishes”. Another train novel that it would be great fun to dig out is Christopher Isherwood’s book, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), which is set in pre-War Europe. And when it15677 comes to creepy, there is also Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 thriller, Strangers on a Train.

The-EdgeIn more recent times, imagined train adventures have unfolded on the tracks of North American railroads in such novels as Dick Frances’ The Edge, in which the Jockey Club’s Tor Kelsey takes a transcontinental train journey across Canada, while readers—and the story’s characters—are put through a harrowing, claustrophobic nightmare in John Godey’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, published in 1973 and set in the New York subway.

Trains can be characters in stories, like the Hogwart’s Express in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which draws and holds all the young magicians together as they head to their new lives at wizard school.

Trains can be vessels of horror, figments of twisted, fevered imaginations, as in Stephen Laws’ Ghost Train.GHOST TRAIN - UK paperback cover (1)

For Martin Amis, author of Night Train, a beautiful noir thriller, the train is death itself: “Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness.”

There are many, many more wonderful stories that are inextricably linked with the marvel of train travel: Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, recommended by one of our Book Club readers; David Baldacci’s The Christmas Train; Alexander Mc Call Smith’s short story collection Trains and Lovers

And trains have inspired poets as well (see John Mullan’s piece in The Guardian, “Ten of the best railway journeys”).

In the end, the prevalence of trains in literature should come as no surprise, for in both, life and imagination converge and the result is…timeless.

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”  Anna Quindlen

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10 thoughts on “TRAIN TRAVEL AS LITERARY DESTINATION AND JOURNEY

  1. I took the train to Ottawa and absolutely nothing happened… Trouble with the destination, maybe?
    But I agree, lots can happen if you’re on the right line.
    My blog returns this weekend.

  2. Hello David,

    Ha!
    It’s good to hear from you.
    I experienced no dramas whatsoever on the train. In fact, it was a great escape. At its best, train travel can be very meditative.

    I was wondering where you were. I’ll look forward to your next blog.

  3. Hmmm…. read on a train? In my case I get train sick after reading for just a few minutes. And also I worry that I might miss something. I do think a train trip is for gazing out the window at the countryside, the towns, and the lives of other people. It’s for experiencing a unique slice of the world that otherwise would never be seen. There it is, all laid out, appearing and disappearing before one’s eyes. I may pass a place of such beauty that I imagine I will someday return and get off the train right there. Or (because no effort is made to dress up the world along the tracks) I may come upon a sad stretch so unappealing and stark that I feel it’s terrible emptiness in my own heart. But mostly, I just feel a calm but heightened sense of myself, in the world, of the world, as the world. And then later, when it gets too dark to see anything any more, well, being in the compartment is just fine; companionable, cosy and rhythmic. Time to enjoy a nice snack. Maybe someone will come by with a tea trolley. And when I resume looking out into the darkness, I can also observe the reflection of my fellow travellers. If a hard rain should begin to lash at the windowpane, so much the better.

    I once read a short story about a train trip. It contains a wonderful image that has stayed in my mind ever since. The story is called The Tangerines, and you can hear it read aloud at this link: http://milkandteddy.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/the-tangerines-akutagawa-ryunosuke/

    1. Hello Gail,

      Your words themselves have taken me on a brief but beautifully scripted trip, and there is such a sense of optimism in them. In your comment, Shakespeare’s description of the future as an undiscovered country is made real.
      But the passage that I find most beautiful in its lyricism is the following: “But mostly, I just feel a calm but heightened sense of myself, in the world, of the world, as the world.”, which is so lovely and which certainly describes my experience as well (on the train to and from NY City, I had 11 hours to simply be, and to reflect).

      Before reaching the winding mountains, the train through upstate New York offers principally views of backwoods, rivers, ramshackle farm buildings and fields. The small towns have seen better days; many of the wooden houses are in need of a new coat of paint, and even the scrapyards appear forsaken.
      New York State seemed rather forlorn, and on board, there was only a café car that felt unloved and neglected. And yet still, the ride was peaceful.
      Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts. I will certainly give a listen to “The Tangerines”.

      1. (*its (!!!) terrible emptiness – good grief) Thank you Michelle! And I’m sure you will enjoy the story. It is as evocative as it is short!

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