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A Reader’s Guide to Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

Bridgeman Images
Honoré Daumier: The First Class Carriage, 1864

It’s well known that the invention of the railways increased the sales of books. Aside from talking and staring out of the window, what could one do on a long journey but read? Anna Karenina was reading on a train when she realized how powerfully attracted she was to the young Count Vronsky, how ready to change her life.

But could it be that trains and buses and ships and planes have actually increased the amount of writing that gets done? Certainly, they quickly invaded the writer’s world. Virginia Woolf’s first memory was of her mother’s dress on an omnibus. Dickens was almost killed in a train crash and subsequently wrote “The Signal-Man,” generally reckoned to be one of the best ghost stories ever. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot opens with a long scene on a train. Likewise, Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. And, of course, Tolstoy died at a railway station while escaping from his wife after forty-eight years of one of literature’s most fruitful dysfunctional relationships. 

D.H. Lawrence had a particular affection for the green trams that took Nottinghamshire miners into town for a Saturday night out. They “plunge off into the black industrial countryside, up hill and down dale… perky, jaunty, somewhat dare-devil, green as a jaunty sprig of parsley out of a black colliery garden.” Later in life, he fell in love with steamers, too. “And swish! went the sea as we took the waves,” he tells us in Sea and Sardinia. “This curious rhythmic swishing and hollow drumming of a steamer at sea has a narcotic, almost maddening effect on the spirit.”

Giovanni Verga, whom Lawrence much admired, describes the envy that a passing train inspires in a Sicilian peasant in the shadow of Mount Etna. “Oh, how nice it must be to ride in there, catching a nap! It was like a bit of the city roaring by in front of him, with its streetlamps and its glittering shops.” Just hearing the roar of the distant train, rattling through peach orchards gives Cesare Pavese’s Anguilla in The Moon and the Bonfires, a heady premonition of freedom, “as if I’d been drinking wine.”

Antonio Tabucchi’s travels tended to be more melancholy than liberating. The gloomy Madras–Mangalore bus in dead of night is one of the finest scenes in Indian Nocturne. And the remote stop where passengers wait for a connection for the Moodabidri–Karkala bus must be one of the few places in the world where a writer could have his character fall into conversation with a grotesquely deformed child clairvoyant.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alberto Moravia had his characters make love on a train in The Conformist, while more recently, Fleur Jaeggy in S.S. Proleterka described her adolescent alter ego discovering sex and little else on a Mediterranean cruise ship. Long trips in plane, train, and boat can be dangerously boring, of course (“eight hours on a train is a terrible fate,” complains a character in Dostoevsky’s Demons). So if you don’t have a book to pass the time, sex, murder (on the Orient Express), and mayhem inevitably beckon, or at least entertain the writer’s imagination: one thinks of Émile Zola’s La Bête humaine, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train. Back in a more humdrum reality, when Italian railways still had compartments with curtained doors, I more than once surprised embarrassed lovers on the 9:05 PM Milano–Venezia Intercity.

But of lists and anecdotes there would be no end. I want to go further and suggest that there is actually a deep affinity between a book and a means of transport, just as there is an evident analogy between a story and a journey. Both go somewhere. Both offer us a way out of our routine and a chance to make unexpected encounters, see new places, experience new states of mind. But without too much risk. You fly over the desert, or race across it, but you don’t actually have to experience it. It’s a circumscribed adventure. So it is with a book. A novel may well be shocking or enigmatic or dull or compulsive, but it is unlikely to do you too much damage. 

Then, by mixing with strangers of every class and clime, the traveler is bound to become more aware of himself and of the fragility of identity. How different we are when we speak to different people! How different our lives would be if we opened up to them. “What am I myself?” asks Anna Karenina, looking at her fellow passengers on the train to St. Petersburg, “Myself or some other woman?” This was exactly the kind of instability that Pope Gregory XVI foresaw when in the 1840s he banned railways from the papal states; “chemins d’enfer” he called them, fearing people would be able to escape the benevolent surveillance of their loved ones, their priests, simply by buying a ticket. The good pope feared books, too, and banned quite a few. For the secret agenda of the writer is always to shake up the reader’s identity through the vicissitudes of his characters, who so often find themselves traveling.

But if some novels feel like supersonic flights and others like leisurely tours, there’s no doubt in my mind that the means of transport closest to the experience of written narrative is the train. On the plane, you are merely trapped in your seat and too distant from the land to have much experience of it. Aboard a steamer, you’re isolated in the monotony of the ocean. On a bus, you’re very much part of the traffic, in thrall to circumstance. 

But on the train, there you are just a few feet above ground, close to the world as it dashes by, yet protected and separate from it; freed from responsibility, but invited to pay attention. Isn’t this exactly the experience of reading a book? Isn’t it exactly the relation to the world a writer seeks, safe in his room writing, but intimately close to his characters? Virginia Woolf captures the feeling perfectly in a short story in 1919:

So, from an express train, I have looked upon hills and fields and seen the man with the scythe look up from the hedge as we pass, and lovers lying the long grass stare at me without disguise as I stare at them without disguise. Some burden has fallen, some impediment has been removed.