“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.

Strangers_on_a_Train_-_In_the_dining_car

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:

“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” (Mark Twain)

Happy 2016! How are your New Year’s resolutions going? I excelled myself this time around, by abandoning mine before I’d even begun.  My internal monologue went thusly:

“I’m going to not buy any more books until I’ve read all those I already own.

… except playtexts (they’re so small they barely count).

…and Persephones.

…and green Viragos.

…and anything else that I really, really want.”

*Sigh* Useless. Even Paul Newman has lost all faith in me.

GIF-give-up-look-down-Paul-Newman-resigned-sad-GIF

OK, so that was just an excuse to put a picture of Paul Newman in the post and if we’ve learnt one thing, it’s that I am incapable of exercising any sort of self-control, especially regarding books and gifs, and cheese, and single malts, and watching inane  detective shows, and…..

So if you are a fellow willpower-free zone, I have an answer for you. Surround yourself with people who are worse than you in some way, and you’ll realise you’re not so bad after all. Now is not the time for aspirations, it is a time for resignation and another fistful of chocolates 🙂  This week I thought I’d look at anti-heroes, and two characters who will make you feel like the most virtuous person alive.

Firstly, Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955).

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in the 1999 film

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in the 1999 film

 Tom Ripley is approached by the father of an acquaintance in a bar, who has mistaken him for a decent human being:

“Judging [Tom] from that night, Charley could have told Mr Greenleaf that he was intelligent, level-headed, scrupulously honest, and very willing to do a favour. It was a slight error.”

An understatement to say the least. Tom agrees to go to Europe to try and persuade the prodigal son, Dickie Greenleaf, to return home and join the family business, not for any altruistic reason but because he’s worried a petty scam he’s been running is catching up with him. Dickie is a golden boy, rich, idle and good-looking :

“Tom could not help feeling that Richard was not very intelligent, or else he loved to be photographed and he thought he looked best with his mouth spread from ear to ear, which was not very intelligent of him, either.”

Tom becomes obsessed with Dickie, wanting to be all that he is and have all he has:

“Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed.”

Tom’s slippery notion of himself, identity and existence is the driving force of the novel as he dissolves the boundaries between him and Dickie, eventually *SPOILER* killing him and stealing his identity.  The remainder of the novel sees him dodging authorities and Dickie’s friends, spinning lies and manipulating everyone in his path: “He was himself and yet not himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he consciously controlled every move he made.”

Tom is a sociopath of course, and the real strength of the novel lies in the study of his character rather than the thriller elements, well done as they are.  It is Tom’s character that spawned four sequels and really gets under your skin; as a reader I felt drawn in by him, creating a weird ambivalence through empathy and disgust.  Tom is a powerful but sad character – he knows something is missing in him, something that makes him entirely alone:

“It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, that he and they were in complete harmony and were alike.”

The Anthony Minghella film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley is widely known, but I also recommend a French adaptation from 1960, Plein Soleil starring an unnervingly beautiful Alain Delon as Ripley:

Secondly, Joe Lampton in Room at the Top by John Braine (1957).

Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton in the 1959 film

Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton in the 1959 film

I expected this story of social climbing to have dated but surprisingly, it wasn’t so. The references to northern mill towns being a hive of industry is sadly past and the rigid social classes, worry over a relationship’s ten year age gap and Joe’s lover’s concern that she is ancient at the ripe old age of 34, seem less relevant. However, as a portrayal of greed for material acquisition and the mistaking of such as being a purposeful life, Room at the Top is as incisive as ever.

Joe leaves the poverty of his home town of Dufton to move to the more prosperous Warley:

“I was going to the Top, into a world that even from my first glimpses filled me with excitement: big houses with drives and orchards and manicured hedges, a prepatory school to which the boys would soon return from adventures in Brittany and Brazil and India or at the very least an old castle in Cornwall, expensive cars – Bentleys, Lagondas, Daimlers, Jaguars –parked everywhere as a kind of ostentatious litter as if the district had dropped them at random as evidences of its wealth”

Joe rooms at the top of one of the large houses, takes a job at the local town hall, but has ambitions far beyond his current circumstances:

“I saw myself, compared with him, as the Town Hall Clerk, the subordinate pen-pusher…I wanted an Aston-Martin, I wanted a three-guinea linen shirt, I wanted a girl with a Riviera suntan – these were my rights, I felt, a signed and sealed legacy.”

Joe joins the local am-dram society and is drawn to young, rich Susan: “I’ll marry her if I have to put her in the family way to do it. I’ll make her daddy give me a damned good job. I’ll never count pennies again.” Thus begins a double life, one where he is with Susan, determinedly climbing the slippery pole, “I was manoeuvring for position all the time, noting the effect of each word; and it seemed to devalue everything I said” and one where he is with Alice, his older lover, able to be authentically himself.

Joe is an intriguing character, utterly reprehensible in his machinations but painfully self-aware and never self-justifying: he wants what he wants and he sets out to get it. There is no sense that he is any better or any worse than those who surround him, and so Room at the Top, while an intimate portrait of one man, is also a damning portrait of post-war society.  I didn’t wholly dislike Joe, but  Braine doesn’t shy away from the emotional fall-out of using people in this way and we are not expected to excuse Joe’s behaviour.

 “I felt choked with my own selfishness as nasty as catarrh; there was nothing in my heart to match the lovely sweep of the moor and the sense of infinite space behind it and a million extra stars above.”

Joe’s punishment is a terrible one: he gets everything he wants.

Room at the Top was a huge success and quickly adapted into a similarly successful film with Simone Signoret winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Alice:

So take it from me, Tom Ripley and Joe Lampton: even if you’ve failed in all your New Year resolutions, you’re doing OK 🙂