My work as the Literary Critical Detective normally requires me to sit patiently and quietly, here, in the study, surrounded by my scribbled notes, the amber glow of my lamp and the smell of old books. However, over the last two weeks I have been forced to leave my room and travel. More specifically, I have had to take the train. I have spent days dashing across concourses to make connections – an act in which I have taken a curious kind of pleasure, and which I have interpreted as simply another version of the Literary Critical Detective’s work.
I made use of the time to read. Despite the purposefulness of my journeys these trips have actually taken me away from my planned reading trajectory. I sat and read Virginia Woolf’s masterful novel Mrs Dalloway, a text that is itself more concerned with planes and omnibuses than trains.
Françoise has insisted that such journeys are pointless. She begrudgingly waved me off one morning whilst muttering about the number of books that I already owned and the impossibility of needing any new materials.
For my part, I have always enjoyed train travel. In an instant I feel like all those literary characters. Remember that Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson are always jumping onto trains and heading out of London at a moment’s notice.
And so I have begun to think about the best ‘train’ scenes in literature. Here are some of my favourites. What are your favourite ‘train’ scenes or novels? (Comments below are welcome).
1. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina – this novel begins and ends with wonderfully moving train scenes.
2. Marcel Proust, Sodome et Gomorrhe – in this novel Mme Verdurin’s social circle travel by train to her house for the summer season. Here, the train carriage itself becomes a salon on rails.
3. Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express – a wonderful mystery whose action and detection works its way through private carriages and public cars alike.