In the last two weeks, I’ve spent many hours on trains, and I had the luck to read on one of those trips a particularly suitable train narrative called De second classe by Janine Massard. It’s really two essays put together—one about an eastward journey, and the other about a westward journey. The essays were originally published in the late 1960s, and although they definitely felt rooted in their time period (crossing borders during the Cold War), they also felt delightfully contemporary.
In the eastward journey, the narrator is riding from Belgrade to Baghdad, sleeping in the overhead rack when he can, drinking vodka at 9am, smoking with his fellow passengers… the smoking provides an interesting passage from this first essay when the narrator offers an American cigarette to his seat mate (after receiving a gift of food to share, despite the neighbor’s evident poverty). The man smokes his cigarette with appreciation and asks the neighbor if he’s American. The narrator then waffles—What to do? Admit that he isn’t and ruin the authenticity of this American cigarette (perceived as higher quality than an Eastern European variety), or lie to smooth the moment over? The narrator finally admits he is Swiss, but the other man doesn’t understand at first because the narrator has said, “niet, svetsi” a word he concedes he’s probably invented in an attempt to say “Swiss” in Serbian. He tries Italian “Swizzera”, he tries French, “Suisse”, neither work, and eventually:
…tu essaies : Switzerland à cause du fameux made in Switzerland, produit d’exportation de haute qualité, mais il ne connait pas made in Switzerland, lui, l’homme à la bouche édentée, il ne la possède pas sa montre suisse, cet homme aux joues creuses. Et à cet instant, tu réalises que, parce que tu appartiens à un pays riche, tu viens, avec ton Switzerland, de dire quelque chose dont les prolongations débouchent sur l’impossibilité du dialogue.
… you try: Switzerland because of the famous Made in Switzerland, high-quality export goods, but this man with his toothless mouth doesn’t know Made in Switzerland, this man with his sunken cheeks doesn’t have his own Swiss watch. And just then you realize that because you come from a rich country, you’ve just said something, with your Switzerland, that can only lead to the impossibility of dialogue.
(Excuse the hasty translation, could fiddle with those commas and that last sentence for a while…)
They finally find a language to speak together, German. And the encounter gathers a different kind of depth. Massard is really skilled at playing with this tension, how language filters culture and how strangers find ways to inhabit their shared space for the length of a journey.
The Westward journey is much longer, and the narrator plays a pivotal role in translating for different groups of strangers. In this essay, the narrator occupies a privileged position as the person who can speak English, French, German, and Italian (and possibly more languages – I’d have to go back and check). There are several stories swirling around the train compartment. My favorite was of an older Italian woman who has left her island (which now belongs to Yugoslavia) for the very first time to travel by train all the way to Helsinki to help her son because the latter sent her a simple telegram: NEED YOU IMMEDIATELY. And so she is on her way, without any idea how to actually get to Finland. The multiple conversations to help her are touching, many different passengers pitch in. There is also the lazy American who receives money from the desperate Russian violinist obviously trying to escape his country, and the British couple on their sweepstakes holiday… and many more.
Massard’s language is rhythmic as well – suitably rolling to mimic the movement of the train, but also the coming and going of different passengers and the image of a long twisty train, one compartment after another. I loved reading it. I imagined translating some of it and got quickly stumped on small choices of syntax and imagery. Take this sample sentence for example.
When the train finally arrives in Lausanne, in the early pre-dawn, the narrator has been speaking with a migrant worker from Calabria, returning to Switzerland after a holiday at home, and he writes a sentence I’ve been trying to translate for the last thirty minutes and am now giving up:
Et pendant un long moment vous regardez, tous les deux, défiler les maisons silencieuses où restent suspendues, presque sans force, les lumières de la nuit.
I can begin this with: And for a long moment the two of you watch a parade of silent houses…
But what exactly are “lumières de la nuit”? Streetlamps? Lights inside the dark houses? Small lights outside the darkened houses? I’m not sure…
And why or how are these lights “hanging”? And what does Massard mean by “presque sans force” – are they dim? Are they feeble or flickering? Is the darkness too dark for the lights to stand out against? I can make some guesses, or eventually just decide to make the image more concrete in a coherent way – giving my own interpretation.
And for a long moment the two of you watch a parade of silent houses, their lights, nearly extinguished, poised in the darkness.
(I know, I know, that’s a bit much… I don’t like extinguished… and I’ve kept the weird French syntax, but ending with darkness is just too tempting…)
In French, though, the image is fleeting and vague – appropriate for its moment as the train is moving more slowly as it pulls into the city. I don’t mind that I just have an illusory sense of darkness punctuated by small lights. The syntax works well, too, with those four commas and the lovely four beats before the sssss of “sans force” and the uplift of “les lumières”.
I secretly love this, though. It’s one sentence of a 100 page book, and I could play with various solutions for quite some time… any ideas?