“Trains, like time and tide, stop for no one” (Jules Verne)

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.

Sadly my commuter train doesn't look like this, despite being full of people hatching murderous plots

Sadly my commuter train doesn’t look like this, despite being full of people hatching murderous plots

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:

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25 thoughts on ““Trains, like time and tide, stop for no one” (Jules Verne)

  1. Compartment No. 6 does sound rather appealing…. And of course there’s always Murder on the Orient Express. Thanks for sharing Buster – oddly enough he’s just featured in a book I’m reading – though I’m also rather fond of Harold Lloyd!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d totally forgotten about Christie! I have clear memories of reading that in an omnibus edition one summer when I was about 12 – could be time for a re-read 🙂

      I like Harold Lloyd too – that stunt with the clock never loses its dramatic impact!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I watched the Paul Merton series too! I like trains, in an ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ kind of way. I used to just enjoy train travel, but when it became evident that my son was destined to be an anorak-wielding train-spotter, it emerged that my husband had also dabbled as a teen – something he failed to mention before our marriage!
    Thanks for the links – and yes, the Rosa Liksom is still haunting me! I’m pretty sure I have the Patricia Highsmith, and it sounds like a good read, so I shall dig it out for my Tbr (if I can remember its colour 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

    • A hereditary hobby 🙂 I thought the hi-tec trainspotters on the Paul Merton programme were quite impressive with their digital recorders and everything – it made me realise it’s moved on from notebooks somewhat!

      You’re very welcome – thanks for whetting my appetite for the Liksom. My awful memory is why I could never have a pretty colour coded shelving system – my copy is blue, if that’s any help…!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely post. Merton is one of the few ‘comedians’ who always makes me laugh. An engaging and witty man. I loved the Highsmith. Trains and boats (but NEVER planes) are my favourite mode of travel – as long as the trains are above ground. Had I my way the roads would still be reserved for horses and carts.

    And I should probably pursue your other read, since I enjoyed everything and everybody mentioned in this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paul Merton is great, engaging is exactly the right word 🙂

      Agreed – underground trains are grim 😦

      I would love it if we still went everywhere by horse and cart, it would be far more civilised!

      Thanks Lady F – so glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. And here I was expecting your review of Girl on a Train (which I still haven’t read…).

    I found an old pic (taken in the 40s or 50s) online awhile ago that showed a full train carriage – the standard morning commute. Rows of men in smart hats and every single one of them reading a newspaper – we complain that everyone now has their face turned toward their phone but it’s really no different to the way we once were. Whenever I hear people complain about others being absorbed in their devices I think, what would you rather, a morning chat with a stranger?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still haven’t read Girl on a Train either! There was a time during my commute when that book was everywhere, but given that I’ve only just made a start with Ferrante, its way down the list of publishing-sensations-I-need-to-catch-up-on 🙂

      You’re so right, I sometimes think fashions change but people don’t really. I remember a lecturer saying some of the earliest ever human writing had been translated, and it was complaining about the younger generation and how they had no respect 😀 I am not a morning person at all, so the thought of a chat with a stranger at that time makes me feel quite ill…

      Like

  5. I like the sound of Compartment No 6 as well. It definitely rings a bell, and I’m sure I’ve seen another review somewhere, possibly at Stu’s blog. There is something very appealing about stories set on trains. I love the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes for that very reason…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I want to go about the country on a train with Paul Merton. That should be a thing people can do, like those race track days vouchers or hot air balloon flights. I will have to read Compartment No 6, it does sound really good, even if I am in danger of being crushed by the TBR stacks.

    And I’m another one saying ‘Hooray for Harold Lloyd!’ All kids have today to watch on BBC during the news is crap quiz shows, just think of all the culture we imbibed watching Monkey, The Water Margin and Harold almost falling off trains, girders and clocks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those gift companies would make a fortune if Paul Merton on a train was one of their things! I would be broke for sure (and probably the subject of a restraining order) *sigh*

      Compartment No.6 is a slim volume so hopefully it shouldn’t be the cause of a toppling TBR stack – increasingly I think that is how I will meet my demise…

      We had such brilliant TV shows, I’m sure if they came back kids would get into them again. A monkey born from an egg on a mountaintop, floating around on a big pink cloud – what’s not to love?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Well, thankfully I already have Strangers on a Train on the TBR, so you’ve only tempted me to one book, one TV series and one film today. Phew! This blog is dangerous! I so, so, sooooo want to ride a train like that – doesn’t it look like the best fun ever??

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I haven’t read either of these books, but I also love trains so they are now added to the TBR. I feel like I get so much thinking and reading done, and I might take one of these with me when I finally ride the new train my city just completed. Awesome post as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Woo, I’m super glad you enjoyed Compartment No. 6! It’s the most train-travel evoking book I’ve read in a long while, and it definitely sparked my interest to travel the Trans-Siberian railway. I haven’t reviewed the book yet, but I’ll alert you to it once I do get around to it.
    And thanks for linking that Paul Merton trailer! My boyfriend is a bit of a railfan, so I think he’ll enjoy watching the series.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Review: Compartment no. 6 by Rosa Liksom | Dawn of books

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