Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Train

One of the oddities of my time here in France has been the exponential increase in my use of the train. The RER, or Réseau Expres Régional, pronounced AIR-ur-AIR, connects Paris to its bus and metro lines, and reaches its tentacles out into the various suburbs of the city, of which Saint-Germain-en-Laye is the western terminus.

At first the thought of spending significant time on a train to get to work and back three days seemed tedious, but I have quickly grown to love the train. During the week the A line threads through the countryside and over the Seine to the edge of Paris where a flood of businessmen edge in and out of cabins with briefcases. The A snakes past gorgeous mansions in Le Vésinet while the poverty stricken pass from station to station among the French elite, begging for a euro or two to buy a sandwich. At Nanterre, next to its eponymous university, twenty-something hipsters with obnoxious head phones cradle messenger bags and books, the smoky odor of cigarettes wafting from their bodies. On Saturdays, heading into Paris, the cabins teem with life--street musicians come on board with violins and accordions and conjure the soul of France into musical form.

All in all, I have come to love the train because rather than having to pay attention to controlling a vehicle safely and properly, I can sit and watch the world around me. If I am not sitting and observing, I am most likely reading, and on my way home from work, pass many pleasant hours this way. I'm beginning to think it's a shame that trains are dying beasts in the states, because they offer a sort of perspective quite unattainable by bike, car, or plane.

Ironically, I read a book about trains--their beastiality, their personalities, their ferocity--on the train: none other than Zola's La Bête Humaine. Last week, on the return from Cergy, I encountered a passage in which the female protagonist Séverine is riding the train from Le Havre, in the north of France, to Paris, and there is a long description of the countryside she passes by, including the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. At that very moment, it was as if my life were simple an external mimesis of the book, as if I were copying Séverine, as if I had been placed specifically at that moment to encounter that very passage and think those very thoughts. It was as if life had doubled itself, as if my life were a book, and Zola's book was a book within my book. How life is funny.

The other thing I understood in that moment is how much more richly I grasped the literature because I knew and had seen the objects described. I had seen the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, I was familiar with it, had run through its trees and on its fallen leaves. Right then and there the reality that I have a deepened appreciation for the French canon of literature because I am beginning to actually see the country of its origin awoke like a sleeping giant. It was an epiphany I think I will carry with me for much of graduate study, and maybe longer.

If I had not taken the train that day, if instead I had somehow not chosen to read my book at the instant, I might not have had that epiphany. Who can guess what other thoughts might have been stimulated? There's no use in trying to divine them. In the end though, I guess I have the train to thank. I knew I liked it for a reason...


  1. I absolutely loved that novel. I wrote a paper about the train from La Bete Humaine. Don't ask me what it was about though ;-)

    That was one of the books that made me fall even deeper in love/hate with modernism, even though it isn't technically a modernist novel.

    AH!!! We need to be English majors again together and talk about books!

  2. hahaha i'm stilll down to talk about books. I'm reading up a storm over here, anything and everything I can get my hands on. Shoot me a message if there's something you think I'd like!