Sunday, August 7, 2022

Pascal Mercier, "The Night Train to Lisbon"

From my old web site:

I have a friend, a molecular biologist, who believes that within a generation we will be able to rewire our genes and live to be 200. I rather doubt this. After all, there is nothing more fundamental to life than death and decay, and I suspect defeating it will be a very hard problem. Yet I return to this idea again and again because I find it a useful thought experiment. Wondering how things would be different if we lived to be 200 leads me to all sorts of interesting thoughts about our 80-year lives. Such as, it seems obvious that 150 years is too long to pursue one career. Is, perhaps, 50 years to long to pursue one career? More generally: if you lived to be 200, what would you do with the extra time? Why aren’t you doing that now?

I mention this because Pascal Mercier’s fascinating 2008 novel is very much concerned with exactly these questions. It asks us to examine how we spend our time, and, more deeply, what our relationship is to time and its passage. It is a brooding, melancholy book, and only intermittently entertaining. But it is consistently thoughtful and sometimes beautiful, and it has held my attention like the most compelling mystery or thriller. It is not a book for everyone, but anyone who wants to think about life, death, love, and time will find it marvelous and may even fall in love with it.

The American edition of this German book comes equipped with extravagant praise from a raft of European novelists and literary journals. After reading it, said one Danish reviewer, you are not the same person as when you began. A German journal called it “a handbook for the soul, intellect, and heart.” So I began it with high hopes and was somewhat put off that I quickly got bogged down. In the beginning the plot follows one the most conventional possible tropes, the mild-mannered, middle aged man who finally manages to break free of his crabbed existence and live. Raimund Gregorius is a teacher of ancient languages at a Gymnasium in Switzerland. His knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew is superb, and he is a good enough teacher that he has many fans among his students. But that’s about it. He was once married, to a former student, but she left him after five years of increasing boredom and discomfort. He has only one friend, his ophthalmologist, and his only recreations are reading and chess. Then one day he runs into a mysterious woman on the bridge by his school. Afraid that she is about to jump, he approaches her, and then instead of jumping she writes a phone number on his forehead. It is raining and she is clearly upset, so he takes her with him to his school to dry off. She speaks with an accent, and he asks her where she is from. Portugal, she answers, in a voice that captivates him.

After the woman disappears, Gregorius visits a book store specializing in Romance languages. The proprietor shows him an obscure book of thoughts jotted down by a Portuguese man named Amadeu Prado. Gregorius becomes obsessed with this book, begins to learn Portuguese, and the next day he is on the train to Lisbon. I found this part of the book tedious, both because of its relentlessly conventional plot and because Gregorius spends page after page wondering why he is doing this and whether he ought to go home. I wanted to say, enough already, you have to do this because you are the boring professor in a midlife crisis novel, so just accept it and get on with your adventure!

In Lisbon Gregorius slowly translates Prado’s book and tries to find out everything he can about Amadeu Prado. Here Night Train to Lisbon begins to come alive. Prado’s book is a series of disconnected musings, each from a paragraph to a few pages long. They are marvelous pieces of writing, both because they are spoken in a completely different voice from the main narrator’s and because some of them are striking and thought provoking. You can imagine that a bookish, thoughtful man like Gregorius could become obsessed with the book and its author. As Gregorius searches for Prado by talking to one old friend after another, he becomes a character as present as Gregorius, and a lot more interesting.

Prado and his friends were all involved in the resistance against Portugal’s fascist dictatorship, which lasted until 1975. Prado’s friends tell Gregorius about that time, and the risks and choices it involved. The passages on the resistance are good, but they are not as powerful as the excerpts from Prado’s little book. These are the real heart of Night Train to Lisbon. Prado’s subjects include the problem of how to express unconventional thoughts in written language, which is saturated with convention; how we are shaped by our families; what makes relationships important; whether love can save us; why we are afraid of death; and how we ought to spend our lives. Prado was an extraordinary character, admired by many men, loved by several women, and as we learn about his life he becomes the author of his amazing book. We believe the striking words spring from his life and his mind. The intertwining of Gregorius’ own personal crisis with his search for Prado, his steady progress through Prado’s book, and Prado’s own life, makes for a compelling intellectual journey.

I could go on and on about the insights and the striking phrasing of Prado’s book, but that would rather spoil it, and so I will give only two examples. This is from a section titled “The Shadows of the Soul”:

The stories others tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself: which come closer to the truth? Is it so clear that they are your own? Are you an authority on yourself? . . . In such stories is there really a difference between true and false? Is the soul a place of facts? Or are the alleged facts only the deceptive shadows of our stories?
Another section of Prado’s book describes a conversation he had with a friend about the fear of death. His friend, captivated by the performance of a gifted pianist, buys a grand piano and plans to learn to play. But once it arrives in his house he realizes that he is too old to ever learn to play with real skill, and this plunges him into gloom and thoughts of death. They ponder different reasons why we might be afraid of death. Is it just because we want our lives to go on as they are, more of the same forever? Because we fear the nothingness of unbeing? Prado’s friend’s experience with the piano suggests a different notion. Perhaps our fear of dying might be the fear of having our future cut off. When we are dead, we will no longer have any chance to do the things we have been putting off but thought we might get to one day:
The fear of death might be described as the fear of not being able to become whom one had planned to be. 
There are many more such nuggets, and also much interesting conversation and reflection. Night Train to Lisbon is one of the most richly thoughtful books I know, and once it gets going it is a pretty good read, too. If you're in the mood to reflect, think, or brood, find a copy and read it.

According to the back of his book, Pascal Mercier is a philosophy professor. Why, I have been wondering, did he write his book as a novel, rather than as an essay or even a monograph? Money might have been one motive, I suppose, but although Mercier has ended up making a pile of money from this book I have trouble believing that he planned on it. I imagine his millions are coming as a big surprise to him. I think his motive in writing this novel was to express thoughts that he finds interesting but didn't want to put forth as his own. Mercier seems to be a sort of cafĂ© philosopher, who likes to toss off ideas and striking phrases but doesn't want to have to defend them. So he creates a larger than life character – aristocrat, resistance fighter, Latin lover – and passes his insights off onto Amadeu Prado. He thus bypasses the academic discourse that passes for philosophy these days and reaches people interested in what he has to say. Writing as Amadeu Prado, he is free to be bold, cursory, contradictory, derivative, or anything else he wants to be, as long as the result is interesting. If someone says, “But Pascal, this argument really doesn't follow,” or, “Pascal, this is just a restatement of something Augustine said 1700 years ago,” he just shrugs and says, “It's a novel! What do you want?”

Another thing that struck me about this book is the strange attitude toward poetry. Prado and Gregorius are both said to be great lovers of poetry. Thinking is the second most beautiful thing, Prado once wrote. The most beautiful is poetry. Like so many other romantic souls in our agnostic age, they seek their divine experiences in love and art, and they speak about poetry as if it could sometimes combine the two. Given all this, I found it odd that there is no poetry in the book. There are literary quotations of various kinds, but no verse, unless you count the opening of St. John’s gospel. When the chracters discuss chess, their speech is full of detailed allusions to famous games and players, differing styles of play, and the like. But when they talk about poetry, all is abstraction. They speak of poetry but not of poets or poems. Why? I have the impression that Mercier actually doesn't know a thing about poetry, certainly not about any being written today. He likes the idea of poetry, and he dreams about contemplating beautiful words that express true thoughts, but actual poetry plays no part in his life. His characters lave lost their faith in god, but retain their belief in poetry, music, and political action. Pascal Mercier has no faith in any of those things, either. What he offers us as a replacement for religion and philosophical certainty is not the refined beauty of poetry, but something more like conversation. He invites us to talk over life and what it means, without illusions, and without any expectation that we will discover they truth. There are no rules in this discourse, only thoughts, feelings, and words. It is not comforting, but it is fascinating and moving. It is intellectual life as I like it best. Mercier may not be a great philosopher or a great novelist, but he is a wonderful thinker and a fine writer, and this book is a treasury of thoughts and words. 

January 27, 2009 

1 comment:

Shadow said...

It's been a parcel of years since I read it. Your review brings back memories of my reading it. Trying to reread a book is a bit like trying to stand in the same river you stood in some years back. But some are worth the try. This is one.