Night Train to Lisbon Again

The best education comes from knowing only one book. James Salter All That Is

It’s been five years since I read Night Train to Lisbon. I thought it was one of the best books I ever read. It’s time to read it again.

As I start, it is every bit as good as I remember it. The initial appeal of reading some books sometimes vanishes when you reread them. But not this one, its brilliance hasn’t faded.

Gregorious was a teacher. I was as well. Although I eventually grew disenchanted with the discipline I had been studying and teaching for years, Gregorious could never abandon his devotion to linguistics, languages and the beauty of words.

He loved the Latin sentences because they bore the calm of everything past. Because they didn’t make you say something. Because they were speech beyond talk. And because they were beautiful in their immutability. 

Recently I have felt the need to break out into something different. That is what Gregorious does, following a chance encounter with a woman about to take her life by jumping off a bridge. But it is a book written by a scholar in new foreign language that draws him away from the school he had been going to all his life, first as a student and then a much-admired teacher.

That was the moment that decided everything, he thought when he recalled the event hours later. That is, all of a sudden, he realized that he really didn’t want to wipe away the trace of his encounter with the enigmatic woman. 

I’ve forgotten so much, starting with Gregorious’s recounting of his youth. I remember that it was the questions scattered throughout the novel that appealed to me. Never before had a read a book with so many questions, none of which were answered. That only led me to think about them, mull them over for a while. It’s a good technique. I remembered only a few specific questions. Rather it was their number that stood out.

How are we to be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubt and arguments?

While, I’d not forgotten his ruminations on the long train trip to Lisbon from Bern, I did forget the businessman he met on the train who helped him a great deal upon arriving in Portugal and thereafter, as well. After a few weeks in Lisbon, he was invited to stay in his home.

…train travel as a riverbed of imagination, a movement where fantasy liquefied and passed you images from closed chambers of the soul. 

The man was Jose Antonio da Silveria who gives him the name of an ophthalmologist to fix the glasses he accidently broke on the train. He goes to her office. Doutora Mariana Conceicao Eca greets him, who we learn was a woman with big dark eyes. She is thorough, retests him several times, he admires her professionalism and it is obvious he feels more than that. Gregorious had been divorced from his wife for several years and is clearly rather lonely.

I had forgotten about the first person he visited who might have known Prado. Vitor Coutinho turned to be a bit of an eccentric old man who had seen him a couple of times in the hospital where Prado worked. They spoke for a while in an uneasy conversation and Gregorious learned the location where the house Prado and his sister, Adriana, lived. Perhaps she was still alive.

“I know that this man, a doctor, lived and worked here,” he went on in French. “I . . . I wanted to see where he lived and to talk with somebody who knew him. They’re such impressive sentences that he wrote. Wise sentences. Wonderful sentences. I’d like to know what the man was like who could write such sentences. 

As I read further, so much seems fresh, as if I was reading the book for the first time. Sometimes I come across a book that I had no idea I had read before. At least, I can’t recall anything about the story, the characters, how it ends and why I liked it. This experience is not unlike the one Sven Birkerts writes about in his American Scholar essay “Reading in the Digital Age.”

“You can shine the interrogation lamp in my face and ask me to describe Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and I will fail miserably, even though I have listed it as one of the novels I most admire. But I know that traces of its intelligence are in me, that I can, depending on the prompt, call up scenes from that novel in bright, unexpected flashes: it has not vanished completely."

And then later he writes: “What—I ask again—what has been the point of my reading? One way for me to try to answer is to ask what I do retain. Honest answer? A distinct tonal memory, a conviction of having been inside an author’s own language world, and along with that some hard-to-pinpoint understanding of his or her psyche. Certainly I believe I have gained something important, though to hold that conviction I have to argue that memory access cannot be the sole criterion of impact: that there are other ways that we might possess information, impressions, and even understanding. For I will insist that my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it.”

What is the point of reading? I like the question. And think of answers other than what we recall. Pleasure. Learning. Escape. Companionship. Truths.

We forgot so much of our life that reading is really no different than anything else. And the subtle influences of the books we read surely operates in the same way as any other factor that shapes our life.

I read more. Gregorious slowly tracks down the people who might have known Prado. And I think why? He’s not going to write a biography. He’s surely not going to remain in Lisbon. Or maybe he will.

And why had he never had a friend as Jorge O’Kelly had been for Prado? A friend with whom he could have talked about things like loyalty and love, and about death? 

And then I remember the question Prado poses: Can you understand yourself any better by trying to understand the life of another person? Does Gregorious want to do that? He never explores the matter or write about how understanding Prado by talking to those who knew him, clarified his own life.

Gregorious goes to visit Prado’s favorite teacher, Father Bartolomeu, now living in a retirement home for the elderly. He has not lost his wits and recounts what a marvelous student Prado was--energetic, forceful, argumentative, passionate, informed well beyond his years. And then he recounts for Gregorious the speech he gave at graduation, one that astonished his listeners and lambasted them for their religious views. I had forgotten all this too, including Gregorius’ return to the school to read Prado’s speech. Mercier describes the close, almost intimate relationship the two had, yet I did not remember it.

Years later, he had written these lines to Father Bartolomeu: There are things that are too big for us humans: pain, loneliness and death, but also beauty, sublimity and happiness. For them we created religion. 

I had completely forgotten that Gregorious returned to Bern after being in Lisbon for a while. He wanted to be back home, to hear the language he knew, to walk through the old familiar streets. He collected his mail, snuck around his school, and in a day or so returned to Lisbon. It’s the details that have disappeared. Rather I remember only the general outline of the story and a few of the questions, the endless unanswered questions in The Goldsmith of Words.

How are we to be happy without curiosity, without questions, doubt and arguments? Without joy in thinking? 

Then there was the serious incident when some food caught in Adrianna’s windpipe. She couldn’t breathe, Amadeau, who was studying for his medical exams then, tried the Heimlich maneuver. It didn’t work. He had studied tracheotomies, took a knife, cut a hole in Adriana’s windpipe, grabbed a pen to block the flow of blood and saved her life. I recalled none of that dramatic scene. It took her two weeks to recover in the hospital.

I am reading the book more slowly now. And I’m reading it in the Kindle e-book version on my iPad. I am surprised by how little difference it makes.

Of course, I’m seeing things I never noticed before. Prado’s real love was never Fatima, his wife. It was a girl who he had loved since his school days. She went to the girl’s section of the one he had studied in. He told her everything. And then toward the end it was the beautiful Estifania, a resistance fighter who he drove over the border to escape from Salazar’s assassins. He fell in love with her, but their time together was not long.

“You’re too hungry for me. It’s wonderful with you. But you’re too hungry for me. I can’t want this trip. You see, it would be your trip, yours alone. It couldn’t be ours.” And she was right: you mustn’t make others into the building blocks of your own life, into water bearers in the race for your own bliss. 

There was a party at the family villa of the man he met on the train. They were aristocrats. Silveira invited him, he went, behaved like a clown and everyone fell into the mood. Why had he never done anything like that before? I remembered none of it. It was a refreshing chapter in an otherwise very formal novel.

I have finished. There is sadness in coming to the end. If someone had asked me how it ended, I would not have been able to say. I had forgotten the bouts of dizziness that had overcome Gregorious, the stopover at Salamanca to hear the lecture of Estefania Espinhosa, to visit with her. Nor did I remember the conversations they had.

He says goodbye to everyone he had met in Lisbon, revisits the places he had gone, and eventually returns to Bern. There he arranges with his friend and doctor, Dioxides, to visit a clinic where they will perform some tests to learn what might be the source of his dizziness.

What do they reveal? Does he return to the Gymnasium and resume teaching classes or to Lisbon where he settles to start a new life? The answers remain unknown, best left for readers who wonder about these things.

Can we better understand ourselves by studying the life of someone else is one of the central questions Prado ask in The Goldsmith of Words. The question leads Gregorious to abandon his post at the Gymnasium in a quest to learn as much as he can about Prado, his family, friends and life he led in Lisbon. But like the other questions in Night Train to Lisbon, it is never answered or ever considered by Gregorious.

All we know is how difficult it is to know one another or ourselves. We remain in the dark about our wishes and intentions and the sources of our actions. And indeed, we do not know if the stories we tell about our self are any truer than what others tell about us. Above all, as Prado wrote: Life is not what we live; it is what we imagine living.

These issues interests me and at the end, I knew no more about them than I did before I read the book the first time. Neither does Greorgious, I imagine. Perhaps a biographer might have view? Or Peter Beiri, the pen name of Pascal Mercier, as his novel is essentially the biography of Amadeau Prado, a fictional creation but one who is given a complete life on the page.


Max Planck: The Tragic Choices

How do you decide to act when confronted by a morally objectionable situation? Do you remain silent, escape or resist? This general question is sympathetically depicted by Freeman Dyson in describing (New York Review of Books, 10/22/15) a recent biography of the German physicist Max Planck (Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War).

To provide a framework for his discussion, Dyson invokes the work of the economist Albert Hirschman in his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. According to Hirschman, when faced with a gross failure, say the war in Vietnam, individuals, especially those in positions of responsibility, have to chose between three alternative responses.

“Exit meant to quite the enterprise. Voice meant to stay on the job but speak out for a change of direction. Loyalty meant to stay on the job and give support to the continuation of failing policies.”

Consider the situation of the two German physicists, Max Planck and Albert Einstein after Hitler had come to power. Both had made significant contributions to physics and were close friends, yet they responded differently when Einstein had seen the disaster coming, he moved to America and never returned to Germany again.

Einstein chose Exit, while Planck chose Loyalty, choosing to remain in Germany throughout the war and lend support to Hitler’s policies, including the racial laws. Like most Germans, Planck never chose Voice, to speak out against Hitler. To do so meant suicide.

It was his allegiance to Germany, to German society and its history, even when it fell under the spell of a mad despot, that made Planck’s life such a tragedy. I am reminded of something Virginia Woolf once wrote about foolish loyalties.

You must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them.

I also find Hirschman’s tripartite classification of wide generality. Those who choose exit in response to a gross failure, say a bankrupt business or unjust situation, can have only a small effect. Those who choose loyalty act to maintain the situation. Only those who choose voice can have any impact on correcting mistakes and injustices. But they must be fearless and persistent in speaking out against them, even if there is considerable risk in doing so.

When each of us look at our life and the responses we have made to failed and unjust policies, we can have a better idea of whether we have or have not behaved in accordance with our beliefs and fundamental values. Have we acted in accordance or inconsistently with them? And what does this reveal about our character?

The words of Stephane Hessel in his powerful manifesto Indignez-Vous are a reminder of what is possible.

The motivation that underlay the Resistance was outrage. We, the veterans of the Resistance movements and fighting forces of Free France, call on the younger generations to revive and carry forward the tradition of the Resistance and its ideas. We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry! Those in positions of political responsibility, economic power and intellectual authority, in fact our whole society, must not give up or let ourselves be overwhelmed by the current international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is such a threat to peace and democracy....

It is up to us, all of us together, to ensure that our society remains one to be proud of: not this society of undocumented workers and deportations…not the society where our retirement and other gains of social security are being called into question; not this society where the media are in the hands of the rich.

The worst possible outlook is indifference that says, “I can’t do anything about it: I’ll just get by.”


The Hunters

He was moving in a current of destiny quite alone, as alone as a man dying.”

The Hunters is James Salter’s first novel. It’s a moody novel, the mood is dark. Cleve Connell is one of a squadron of fighter pilots stationed at Kimpo Air Base during the Korean War. Their mission is to take on the North Korean MIGs.

There are endless days of rain, the missions are grounded, tedious days of boredom.

They watched the sky through dismal days. It was never blue. It was like a layer of grief. Almost unnoticed because it brought no change…The weather remained sullen. The rain fell drearily from swollen skies. It seemed as everlasting as the surf.

On other days the MIGs do not appear, they fly back to base, a wasted mission. Cleve is alone, trapped with a group of pilots who view him as a has-been. His vision is not what it used to be, his confidence is eroded and he is unlucky.

Open eyed on his cot, he suffered through the darkness. Then, more than at any other time, there was the constant feeling that he was being consumed, drained: and he did not know the extent of his reserves.

As his tour draws to a close, he and his wing-man Hunter fly well beyond the Yalu River, they remain in the area too long, and start back low on fuel. Cleve spots 4 MIGs, one of which is the dangerous “Casey Jones.” They follow him, Casey tries an impossible diving maneuver, Cleve somehow follows, shoots him down with a burst of his cannons.

…he had met and conquered a legend…victorious at last and feeling as little a desire to live as he had ever known.

He and Hunter run out of fuel, they try to glide back to base, Cleve makes it, but Hunter doesn’t, dies in crashing.

But Cleve’s camera failed to function, there is no way to confirm the kill. Cleve responds in a way he never imagined.

I can confirm it. Hunter got him…the sweeping magnanimity that accompanies triumph, but, as soon as he said the words, he realized there were no other that would have made it right.

Two missions later, a new wing-man loses sight of Cleve who does not return to base.

Death could be slighted or even ignored close by; but when the time came to meet it unexpectedly, no man could find it in himself not to cry silently or aloud for just one more reprieve to keep the world from ending.

The Hunters is exciting, tense, clouded by distress at Cleve’s plight. It also anticipates the many novels and short stories Salter would later write. The notes for the novel were written while he was serving as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. After it was published, he resigned from the Air Force to become a writer.


The Nearest Thing To Life

Art is the nearest thing to life: it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. George Eliot

I marvel at the depth and erudition of James Wood’s literary reviews in the New Yorker. His new book, The Nearest Thing to Life impresses me in the same way. The book is a blend of analysis and memoir drawn from some of his previous commentaries.

Wood retraces his youth in an intellectual and religious household in Durham, England. He describes how his discovery of literature liberated him from the hold of his churchgoing upbringing.

Literature, specifically fiction, allowed an escape from these habits of concealment… I still remember that adolescent thrill, that sublime discovery of the novel and the short story as an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered.”

Throughout the book, Wood illustrates the way great literary writers are skilled in the art of noticing. What he calls the “life surplus of a story” consists in its details. The details are the instances that illustrate the more general form. He writes of Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss:”

Chekhov appears to notice everything. He sees that the story we tell in our heads is the most important one…for Ryabovich, his story has grown bigger and bigger and joined in real time the rhythm of life.”

For Wood, fiction allows us to see a life in all its “performance and pretense.” By noticing individuals carefully, we can begin to understand them. A reader would be wise to follow this practice in general.

In the last two chapters Wood recalls some of the books that meant most to him during his childhood. He also writes about the significance of leaving England for this country. He says he has made a home in this country, but not quite a Home. And he writes movingly about Edward Said’s essay “Reflections on Exile:”

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

It is clear Wood also feels displaced and disconnected between two places, at home in neither, and now finds it difficult to return to the land of his youth. Many years ago he made a large choice,

… that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life—is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, “afterwardness,” which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it form a very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of “afterwardness:: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.”

Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life is a beautiful book, filled with eloquent noticing, abundant literary references, a book to keep nearby, to turn to now and then.


Oliver Sacks

You mustn’t confuse the poem with the poet. Thom Gunn

Early this year I learned that Oliver Sacks had terminal cancer (Times, 1/19/15). On Sunday (8/30/15) Sacks died. He was 82 and had lived a remarkably varied life throughout those many years.

At once the news saddened me. In On the Move, his recently published memoir, he describes his early life in England during the War when he was sent away to a cruel private school in the country, his studies at Oxford, where he obtained his medical degree, his mother (surgeon) and father (general practitioner) and his Jewish Orthodox upbringing, his brothers, one of whom was schizophrenic and then his migration to this country where he wrote most of his memorable articles and books.

Sacks used to swim a mile every, broke weight lifting records on Santa Monica beach and for a period experimented with drugs, including LSD and amphetamines, which he became addicted to for a while. He used to drive his motorcycle for miles every day, sometimes all day to Las Vegas, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and back again at night.

There is a direct union with oneself with a motorcycle, for it is so geared to one’s proprioception, one’s movements and postures, that it responds almost like part of one’s own body. Bike and rider become a single indivisible entity…

Sacks was a deeply empathetic clinician who emphasized the importance of case studies. He argued this was essential to understanding individual lives, finding it useful in treating and explaining the disorders he sought to explain--migraines, Tourette’s syndrome, color blindness, autism, sleeping sickness and Parkinson’s.

Sacks devoted his life and writing to narrative medicine on these problems, relevant to both lay readers and medical professionals. In On the Move he wrote, “All sorts of generalizations are made possible by dealing with populations, but one needs the concrete, the particular, the personal too.”

Sacks learned much from his literary friendships with Auden, Thom Gunn and Jonathan Miller and in several respects his essays and journal articles are stories that read like fictional explorations. He attributes his great desire to write directly to his parents:

My mother was a natural storyteller. She would tell medical stories to her colleagues, her students, her patients, her friends. And she had told us—my three brothers and me—medical stories from our earliest days, stories sometimes grim and terrifying but always evocative of the personal qualities, the special value and valor, of the patient. My father, too, was a grand medical storyteller, and my parents’ sense of wonder at the vagaries of life, their combination of a clinical and a narrative cast of mind, was transmitted with great force to all of us.

When he learned he had terminal cancer he said he wanted to live in the months remaining to him “in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” There is little doubt he was able to do that, writing every day, continuing to publish articles, and books visiting his friends, and loved ones.

The act of writing, when it goes well, give me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place—irrespective of my subject—where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations or indeed the passage of time.

In a review of On the Move in the New York Review of Books (5/21/15), Jerome Groopman concluded “Oliver Sacks inspired my efforts as a physician-writer, as he has for so many others. I am, in a sense, one of his students. Now, in settings like my seminar, his work inspires the next generation to think and create. I will add On the Move to our reading list. His writing, like the light from a distant star, will continue to illuminate the lives of his readers, long after its source is extinguished.”

I was struck by Sacks predominant feelings when he learned that he had terminal cancer. It was “one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”

I must remember that sentiment for in every respect I share them--gratitude for long life, a life of learning and advantage for as long as I can remember.