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.