Despite not thinking of myself as a remotely patriotic person, there was a 3 part programme on TV recently that was probably the most British thing ever, and I am so sorry it’s ended. Paul Merton travelling around the island by train (is it me or is he turning into Ian Hislop?), only getting off at request stops and chatting to those he meets. That’s it. Result: pure brilliance.
I share Mr Merton’s love of trains, and so this week I thought I would look at novels where they feature heavily. This also enables me to fulfil the requirement of the Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit, to include a book about travel.
Firstly, Compartment No.6 by Rosa Liksom (2011, tr. Lola Rogers) which I was alerted to by Sarah’s review at Hard Book Habit and also by bookarino, where I was sure I had read a review but now I can’t find it on her blog – bookarino, if you reviewed please leave a link below!
The novel details the journey on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Mongolia undertaken by the two inhabitants of the titular compartment. Liksom describes the landscapes they pass through simply but evocatively, and succeeds in capturing a sense of place and of travel:
“An unknown Russia frozen in ice opens up ahead, the train speeds onward, shining stars etched against a tired sky, the train plunging into nature, into oppressive darkness lit by a cloudy, starless sky. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts. The train throbs across the snowy land.”
The atmosphere in the compartment is intimate and oppressive:
“All of Siberia slowly brightened. The man in his blue tracksuit bottoms and white shirt did push-ups between the bunks, sleep in his eyes, his mouth dry and smelly, the mucousy smell of sleep in the compartment, no breath from the window, tea glasses quietly on the table, crumbs silent on the floor.”
The man Vadim is repugnant: misogynistic, violent, anti-semitic, anti anyone who isn’t him. His attitudes and behaviour are repellent. Yet as they are forced together, a comradeship builds between him and the female traveller. She is presented a step removed: we never know her name, her direct speech is given only once and then she is quoting. Yet this works brilliantly at evoking the girl’s slightly numb, detached state as she runs away from her troubles and works her way back to facing them, with the help of the dreadful Vadim.
“The girl looked out of the window at an entirely new landscape…she thought of that July day when she came back from her summer vacation in Finland and Mitka was at the station to meet her. She thought about how they had gone to the boarding house, run up the nine flights of stairs hand in hand, how the hallway had been filled knee-high with the fluffy heads of dandelions, how they’d run up and down the hallway like children, the dandelion fluff drifting in and out of the windows.”
Compartment No.6 is a short but haunting novel which will undoubtedly linger long in my memory.
Secondly, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950), which was adapted only a year later into the famous Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, albeit with several changes.
Successful architect Guy Haines meets bored, spoilt alcoholic Charley Bruno on a long haul train journey. He is reluctant to engage in chat, but Bruno is insistent, and Guy ends up telling him that he is travelling to meet his wife to ask for a divorce. Bruno meanwhile, hates his father and wants his inheritance.
“Bruno could be violent. He could be insane, too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy…it tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.”
It is Bruno who comes up with the idea that they swop murders, Bruno killing Guy’s estranged wife for Guy killing his father. Guy doesn’t agree, but Bruno goes ahead anyway. Needless to say, he is a sociopath:
“whether Guy came through with his part of the deal or not, if he was successful with Miriam he would have proved a point. A perfect murder.”
“So long had he been frustrated in his hunger for a meaning of his life, and in his amorphous desire to perform an act that would give it meaning, that he had come to prefer frustration, like some habitually unrequited lovers.”
Bruno ends up stalking Guy, entirely obsessed with him, and it is this, rather than the murders or closing net of the investigation that provides the thriller element of the novel. Bruno is completely unstable and there is no telling what he might do as he exerts increasing pressure on Guy. Yet Bruno is vulnerable too, childlike and confused, and never admitting that it is sexual desire which draws him to Guy.
“Guy! Guy and himself! Who else was like them? Who else was their equal? He longed for Guy to be with him now. He would clasp Guy’s hand and to hell with the rest of the world! Their feats were unparalleled! Like a sweep across the sky! Like two streaks of red fire that came and disappeared so fast, everybody stood wondering if they had really seen them.”
There are definite overlaps with Tom Ripley, the sociopathic protagonist of several Highsmith novels. Bruno is a much less attractive character than Ripley, but there is the desperation and loneliness of the sociopath, the thwarted gay desire, and the doubling between characters, which Guy realises, much as he is reluctant to admit it:
“And Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.”
Strangers on a Train worked well for me as a thriller, but without any glorification of murder or murderers. Like The Talented Mr Ripley, what I was mainly left with was a sense of sadness at the destruction that desperate human beings can wreak on one another.
To end, a quick clip to shamelessly indulge my love of Buster Keaton: