Monday, September 02, 2013

In Train: On Middles

Maybe it's reading several Thomas the Tank Engine books to my friend's train-loving daughter (probably not, though, given the monotonous classism and sexism and plots) - or maybe a few long journeys this summer - but I seem to have falled in love with trains. Trains as vehicle of the metaphor of narrative, but also trains as insignias or symbols of a certain moment of modernity.

In my last post, I ended by thinking about the audio recording technology as disruptive of older narrative forms and models of self -- the inner voice made outer, memory turned magnetic. Writing science fiction, I'm intrigued by how realist fiction records and explains (or not) technological innovation, scientific experiment and social debate in its moment, how the coming of change appears when embedded in lived history. Too often, science fiction reads like an issue of Which? magazine, analysing and advertising shiny, with souped-up Basil Expositions giving the skinny to characters who should either a) already have the know-how, or b) don't need it. How to present technological, social, cultural and other imaginings to the reader without PowerPointing them over the head?

Which is where the trains come in. Three novels I've read in the past week, written throughout the twentieth century, all feature trains as metaphors for both modernity and modernism. There's plenty of fun and thought-provoking material out there about trains and film, but I hadn't given much thought to trains in books. Of course, they provide an ideal setting for locked-room mysteries in both media, but I'm more intrigued by a different narrative effect -- what could be loosely called, one thing after another, a loosening of cause-and-effect, as opposed to the forceful, fateful forward motion associated with the train in cinema.

Poetics maven Al Filreis posted this quotation from Gertrude Stein today on Facebook:
I think one naturally is impressed by anything having a beginning a middle and an ending when emerging from adolescence.... American writing has been an escaping not an escaping but an existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding another thing of anything have a beginning and a middle and an ending."
Particularly intriguing because the first of my train books (not books read on trains: I keep Don Quixote for that -- and three years on, I'm still stuck in Book Two) was Willa Cather's My Antonia, which I'd somehow failed to read despite many Women's Lit classes (and the amazing fact that there was a 1995 TV movie starring Neil Patrick Harris as Jim Burden and Elina Lowensohn as Antonia: yes, Doogie Howser MD + Sofia from Amateur, with Eve Marie Saint and Jason Robards as the elder Burdens. The mind does boggle).

My Antonia is a novel about beginnings, middles and endings, "an existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding another," a deceptively simple paratactic style in which each chapter focuses on a single incident, moving forwards in time. Each incident has its beginning (often in a previous chapter), its middle - generally an incident of strong emotion or sensation, presented with incredible directness to the reader - and its ending, often faced with or brought about by social strictures that limit the interactions and passionate feeling of the adolescent Jim and Antonia.

Cather writes from a powerful sense of America-as-adolescent-nation (albeit one whose great indigenous antiquity she explored in In the Professor's House), and the railroad is one emblem of this: in the Prologue, we learn that Jim Burden is now a railroad man, not one of the plutocrats who built it, but a time-and-motion man, travelling the railroads to assess them. On the train in the couse of business, he bumps into an old acquaintance from his home town, to whom he later delivers the memoir that forms the body of the novel. So the book opens with a direct link between Jim and the train - and the story does, too, as Jim's earliest memory of Antonia begins on a train. Jim is travelling from Virginia, where he was born and his parents have both died, to his grandparents in Nebraska, and Antonia and her family are making the final part of their journey from Bohemia.

Jim and Antonia don't meet on the train: he hears about her from the conductor, but is too shy to see her. Instead, they share a night-time ride in the back of a cart to their homesteads. Later, Antonia falls in love with a train conductor and Jim, ever-fastidious and painfully aware of social divisions, sets aside his feelings for her. The train conductor done her wrong, and at the very end of the book, Jim returns by train and buggy to visit her and her insuperable number of children. As I type this, a disturbing equation arises between Antonia (female principle) as fertile land and men as the railroad who "open her up." Antonia, born in the "old country," becomes both a replacement for and symbol of the indigenous Americans displaced by the settlers in Nebraska.

As Rebecca Solnit discusses in River of Shadows, her biography of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who worked for railroad baron Leland Stanford, the railroad was instrumental in "opening up" the West, perpetuating displacement and genocide. Many workers - white, Chinese and Native American - died during the building of the railroad, and it destroyed some small communities when it bypassed them. Part of its symbolism, then, is modernity as brutality. But there is also an almost erotic tenderness, a tremulousness, in Jim's relation to the railway, something that undercuts that easy equation. The train is, literally, the engine of the novel, but there are few train journeys between the first and final chapters. People travel by horse and cart, or on foot. And yet it's the train that is suffused with Jim's nostalgia for Antonia, as much as is the landscape, and the train that offers the one-thing-after-the-next structure to the novel. As a railroad man, Jim doesn't travel from A to B, but rather takes linear journeys in a circular and repetitive fashion."An existing with the necessary feeling of one thing succeeding the other thing" cuts against the cut-and-thrust the railroad seems to claim for itself, and for the "manifest destiny" of American modernity.

The railroad manifests similarly in Intizar Husain's Basti, as an ambivalent marker of the coming of modernity under the shadow of empire. It both connects and disconnects what will become India and Pakistan in the course of the novel, as it connects and disconnects Zakir, the narrator's, past memories from his present.

Falling between Cather's and Husain's novels - and without the nostalgic framework of either - the train means something quite different to American poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose novel Savage Coast, just republished by the Feminist Press, is based on her own experiences in Spain in 1935. Helen, an American activist travelling to the People's Olympiad, gets stuck on a train between the Spanish border and Barcelona during the General Strike that followed the Popular Front's prevention of a Fascist coup in Catalonia. As the train sits in a small town, it becomes a model League of Nations - generous and querulous, full of shifting alliances around a noble core. The stopped train is a powerful symbol of withheld force (paralleling the Popular Front and its soldiers, mainly seen raising fists in solidarity rather than in action) and a reframing of the narrative of industry and/as "progress" -- later in the book, we learn that the PF is planning to nationalise the American motor car factories around Barcelona.

Once the novel leaves the train for Barcelona, it becomes more diffuse, although quite moving in its portrayal of confused days and heady nights of political tumult: I imagine you could change the street names, add some mobile phones, and present it as written in Istanbul this year, or Cairo three years ago. Forward motion is both demanded (political change) and impossible (Helen and her friends remain tourists, the plot dictated by the vagaries of consuls and rescue ships), a state that the stilled train symbolised perfectly, not least by holding together its ill-assorted community. Stopped, the train is all middle: beginning and ending are suspended, as the passengers worry at half-translated broadcasts, rumours and contrasting accounts from the townspeople. Incipit, says Peter when they reach Barcelona -- but there's something about the calm before, the dreaming of revolution and the way the exigencies of the stopped train bring the events and emotions into the body, that is truly radical. "An escaping not an escaping": a staying still and expanding. That ever-busy little striver Thomas could learn a lot from Rukeyser.

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