May 2012

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

Night Train to Lisbon

It was a night bus in my case, and I read Death in Venice. And other than that short book, I hadn't read anything by Thomas Mann. I don't remember exactly why it was that book I took and not any other. Granted, it is a book about wanderlust and its associated self-rumination, and, what's more, I do in fact remember a German student of philology having told me that she would recommend starting with Death to see how I liked the style because, even if the interwar asylum setting did have an exciting draw, she hadn't ever had the patience to get through The Magic Mountain. (But, granted, it wasn't German but the philology of the Latin languages that she had studied.) Otherwise, I don't remember. Or rather, two months later, it might just be that I would feel I had been insincere were I to allow selective memory to retouch my motivations for reading a book that, in all sincerity, I had all but forgotten until accident gave me reason to write about it. So, suffice it simply to say that Death in Venice was the book that I read on the night bus to Lisbon.

As it turned out, I wasn't much of a fan of Mann's style (although saying so is not at all meant to be disparaging of Michael Henry Heim's translation, because I imagine the task of producing a new translation of such a storied work to have been a daunting and demanding one). But the sometimes tedious weight of Mann's prose (my perception of which might very well have been influenced by my trying to read on the night bus) isn't without justification in his subject. Successful (and sedentary) writer Gustav von Aschenbach decides to travel to escape the "torpid discontent" of his regular summers alone at his cottage in the country. "A night in a sleeping car and a siesta of three or four weeks at one of the internationally recognized holiday resorts in the friendly south..." So he goes to Venice. And in Venice he becomes enamored of a boy, whose frail, youthful beauty represents something that von Aschenbach has let pass him by -- or that he never took the time (or might not have enough time left) to pursue. Then, having (ridiculously?) made himself over in order to be more appealing to his young love, von Aschenbach succumbs to the plague.

But even for its ponderous tone and imminently ominous conclusion, Death in Venice wasn't a bad choice for the night bus. Von Aschenbach dies in Venice, but he goes there very much in search of life, both his own and the thing in general. And as an artist, his contemplation of life means a contemplation of beauty:

Tired yet mentally alert, he whiled away the lengthy meal pondering abstract, even transcendental matters such as the mysterious connection that must be established between the generic and the particular to produce human beauty and moving on to general problems of form and art only to conclude that his thoughts and discoveries resembled certain seemingly felicitous revelations that come to us in dreams and after sober consideration prove perfectly inane and worthless.  

Does he get anywhere? Well, he dies. And what to say of his stab at life in the interim -- acknowledging the irony that he might have lived had he stayed home. On the boat that takes him across the Adriatic to Venice, von Aschenbach shudders at the sight of an older man that he sees mingling with a group of youths. "Did they not see that he was old, that he had no right to be wearing their foppish, gaudy clothes, no right to be carrying on as if he were one of them?" Does von Aschenbach's transformation into something undeniably similar in his pursuit of his love in Venice represent a personal success or a failure?

For my part, I didn't have the luxury of a sleeper car, and my own siesta would be a matter of days and not weeks. And I didn't have any intention of dying in Lisbon. Still, tired in the early hours of the morning that were the final hours of the trip of the night bus -- but mentally alert in expectation -- reading Death in Venice put me in a uniquely contemplative mood, the charm of which was the very irony of knowing that my solitary and isolated reverie was very likely of the sort that would prove inane and worthless upon sober consideration.

But, after all, it was for that very reason that I had chosen the night bus. Well, ideally, I suppose, I could have slept. But whether rested or not, to see a place in the early morning before the place has woken up and had a chance to make you see it on its own terms is a special pleasure. In the early morning, before a place's people and their traffic and their institutions force you to see it on its own terms, you can see the place as you will. And at the mercy of our will, the place becomes a place of desire and imagination -- not necessarily of the place as it would be desired or imagined, but as a reflection of how we desire to be and how we imagine ourselves. Later, as the place begins to move and we rationalize ourselves within its movement by the experience of concrete interactions, we might wish obliterated those imagined phantoms of ourselves; but still, in the sum of it all, at least we've had the chance to enjoy as felicitous revelations the ironies and the hypocrisies with which we've otherwise been simply obliged to coexist, a life that is simultaneously very much our own but also not.

So I went to Lisbon with more specifically intentional motivations than those of von Aschenbach when he went to Venice in Death, but not without sympathy for the writer's desire to open himself by means of travel, even if that meant giving into himself in the end (and to the plague). Although saying so now might, admittedly, be one of those selective retouchings of memory. I do still have a strong sense that at the time I hadn't very much enjoyed the book. What's certain is that I met the city in the morning and proceeded to do what I was told you should do in Lisbon, which is to say that I got myself lost.

I got myself lost throughout the entire course of the sunrise, and then some more after I found a place that was open to sell me a stack of postcards, and then until I found a place where I wanted to write them. In one of the pictures, the center of the city is shown in an aerial shot taken from somewhere west along the Tagus. Amid the haze coming up from the river, the city appears vaguely Oriental. A memory of Istanbul, or a fantasy of Alexandria. But along the narrow streets that give onto views of the water from the tops of the hills (seven hills like Rome), Lisbon also conjures something of San Francisco -- though that could also just be the knowledge of the big red suspension bridge in the invisible distance behind the buildings.

And so I lost myself for four days in the hills and along the water and to and from the post office, and it was all that I could do to get myself on the night bus that would take me away from the city at the end of the long weekend, after which all of the felicitous revelations I had written in those postcards would most likely prove perfectly inane and worthless. And I might be losing myself here -- or, worse, you -- to say that writing about Lisbon, for me, now, doesn't necessarily mean writing about Lisbon itself.

So when a new friend from Lisbon came to visit me a month after I had been in the city, and came with a French translation of Night Train to Lisbon, I was thrilled by the possibility that the book might contain something that might be a reflection of my own experience. It was my hope for Pascal Mercier's book that the whole thing takes place on the titular train, so that if I read it I might have a basis for writing about my own experience taking a trip to the same titular city, except on the bus. And I liked that when I finally had the book to read in English translation by Barbara Harshav that I had it to read on an afternoon in the old city of Toledo, which stands on a hill above the valley of the Tagus as it makes its way through Spain to Lisbon.

But as much as I would not have expected to think much again on Gustav von Aschenbach and Death in Venice, I was also let down in my expectations regarding Night Train to Lisbon. Or I had set myself up to be let down anyway, because it isn't any fault of the book's that the train trip itself only lasts a couple of dozen pages. And in the end, Raimund Gregorius, the protagonist of Mercier's book, seemed to have as much in common with von Aschenbach on his trip to Venice as he did with me on my night bus (although Gregorius doesn't die in Lisbon). Gregorius, a fifty-something classical languages teacher, has lived his entire ordered life in Bern, but decides as a result of a chance encounter with a Portuguese woman -- that in turn causes him to encounter a book of personal philosophy written by Amadeu de Prado, "the goldsmith of words," a Portuguese doctor who was involved in the resistance against the Estado Novo dictatorship -- to take the night train to Lisbon. And seduced by Prado's words, Gregorius discovers the city and its history and, like von Aschenbach (seduced by his beautiful, young love), allows himself a transformation. He allows himself new clothes and new glasses and he takes up smoking. Through Lisbon he contemplates an old desire to learn Persian and travel to Isfahan. He and I take the same "long way to Belém on foot."

But there's something lacking for me in Gregorius's story, too. Prado's philosophizing, although often poignant, is delivered a bit too pedantically. As a result, Amadeu de Prado becomes a too infallible guru whom Gregorius follows on a journey of historical and self-exploration that is maybe a little too Eat, Pray, Love (although Elizabeth Gilbert's book did come later, and, granted, I've only seen the movie). But should Gregorius be pitied? No more, I think, than to the extent that we might decide to pity von Aschenbach after his makeover in Death. And I certainly can't shudder at the appearance of either at the culminations of their journeys, if only for the knowledge that I was probably considered (and more than once) in a similarly exacting light during my traipses through Lisbon. And, of course, everything is quite different when, at whatever point of more or less sober hindsight, we decide to take it all in.

"Prado had asked himself," Gregorius recounts, "if the soul was a place of facts or whether the alleged facts were only the deceptive shadows of stories we tell ourselves, about others and about ourselves." I may not share anything real with either von Aschenbach or with Gregorius, now or when I read their stories, but so I say again that writing about Lisbon, for me, now, doesn't necessarily mean writing about Lisbon itself. For better or for worse (and in sickness or in health, as it were), we had all been in Lisbon together as I finished Night Train that afternoon in Toledo and was full of thoughts of the journey I took to Venice in the night bus. "Why do we feel sorry for people who can't travel," Prado asks. "Because, unable to expand externally they are not able to expand internally either... [They] are deprived of the possibility of undertaking expansive excursions in themselves and discovering who and what else they could have become."

Of course, the physical journey isn't always possible, but that external expansion remains open and available to us through, well... books, maybe. And if our companions aren't always what we might have hoped from them, neither, necessarily, is the journey -- however experienced. In the end, true, we might wish obliterated all of those imagined phantoms of ourselves that we conjured during the felicitous revelations of our dreams, but at least we have the sympathy of all of the others who were unsuccessful in perfectly articulating their own stories. "Of the thousand experiences we have," Prado's book begins, "we find language for one at most and even this one merely be chance and without the care it deserves." (Similarly, in his introduction to Heim's new translation of Death, Michael Cunningham writes: "Although language is enormously powerful, it is concrete, and so it can't help but miniaturize, to a certain extent, that which we simply know... Life is bigger than literature. We do the best we can.")

Von Aschenbach and Gregorius might not have been my ideal travel companions, but I think that we might all have discovered a similar irony at the bases of our desires to set off from the known. As Gregorius wonders to himself on a visit to the university at Coimbra: "Had he perhaps missed a possible life, one he could have easily lived with his abilities and his knowledge?" And maybe we only travel to expand and not so much to take up the opportunities offered us by the expansion. All we really have is to take them or to leave them, accepting the experiences and the stories as they come.

And I tried to write something like that to my friend from Lisbon in the postcard I sent him from Toledo. Something about the strange symmetry -- or asymmetry -- of my having finished Night Train to Lisbon there, and about the river that connected us in the moment of my writing as well. But what I had written immediately seemed trite and unfounded as soon as I had dropped the card in the box and I wished I could have retrieved it. I would try not to think about how far I would have come from it by the time it was received.