By Niamh Cullen
Paris, 1896, and a small crowd sit expectantly, excitedly in a darkened room. A large, heavy steam train pulls in to a bustling platform and the select, seated audience becomes increasingly panicked, convinced the train is headed straight for them. One of the earliest films shown by the Lumière brothers, at a time when the public was only beginning to understand the new medium of motion pictures, Arrival of a train at La Ciotat station captured the excitement that two new forms of technology brought to the nineteenth century imagination; those of cinema and trains.
Both were about motion, communication and encapsulated the possibilities offered by technological and mechanical developments. Rather than discussing films about trains, of which there are undoubtedly many – think of Indiana Jones, or even the opening sequences of Toy Story 3 – here I’m interested in writings about railway travel. Ever since I first started watching the cartoon series of Around the World in 80 Days, I’ve been fascinated by the possibilities of railway travel, and my brief stint inter-railing from Amsterdam to Budapest about 8 years ago gave me an even greater taste for it. As one of the greatest developments in the modern world, historians have an appreciation for them too. Even the late Tony Judt, was reported to be working on a history of railways, among other projects, when he died. In the introduction to Postwar, his epic history of post 1945 Europe, Vienna’s two train stations – connecting the city to both eastern and western Europe, but not the two sides of the Iron Curtain with each other – become symbolic of the divisions of Cold War Europe.
The first railroads began to be laid in early nineteenth century Britain, and over the course of the century, more and more train routes appeared across Europe and America, capturing the popular imagination as they criss-crossed the continents. Suddenly, once distant cities were connected to each other, with places like Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Milan all linked to each other by a few hours journey. Even the Russian outposts of Moscow and St. Petersburg were opened up to the continent. All of a sudden, these exotic and far off places seemed so much more reachable to the inhabitants of those cities and towns that boasted a railway station. Even for those who never travelled by train – and only the privileged few would have done so in the early days, of course – the sight of the trains as they went about their daily business, held the promise of travel to new places. The grandiose architecture of so many of the great nineteenth century stations – Victoria in London, New York’s Grand Central Station or Milan’s Stazione Centrale – indicated their privileged place in the urban fabric.
Not only did they hold out the possibility of visiting distant places, but they also held the power to tame the unknown. America’s ‘wild west’ was gradually transformed into familiar ‘known territory’, as railroads were laid all the way to California. Just as territories were mapped out and catalogued as the tracks were being laid, so was regulation introduced into the lives of the travellers through timetables. Order was necessary so that such a vast, interconnecting network as the European rail system would run smoothly, and trains became part of a gradual trend for everyday life to be governed more and more by the clock. It’s fitting that one of the world’s first digital clocks – dating from the late 1930s – is that still fixed to the outer wall of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station.
As much as they offered the possibility of adventure, travel and even freedom, trains regulated life. As governments began to make use of them from the early twentieth century onwards, they increasingly lent themselves to more sinister uses. The mass mobilisation of soldiers in world war one would not have been nearly as efficient or complete without trains; Trains allowed the Nazis to transport millions of Jews from Germany, Holland, France, Italy and Belgium to concentration camps in the east. Along with adventure, rail travel now carried hints of displacement, militarism and worse.
Italian novelist Dacia Maraini’s most recent novel, Train to Budapest – published in English translation this year – suggests both of these possibilities. The story of Amara, a young woman from Florence, Maraini’s novel traces her efforts to find her childhood friend Emmanuele – who left Florence with his Jewish parents in the late 1930s – in the post-war landscape of 1950s Europe. Setting off initially for Vienna, where Emmanuele’s Austrian mother had first taken the family, the novel soon turns into an exploration of the changing landscape of central and eastern Europe as Amara begins her journey to Poland to search for traces of her friend’s fate in Auschwitz. In the cold war climate of the mid 1950s, the borders between east and west were quite closed, and Amara’s efforts to get from Austria to Poland take her on some fairly circuitous routes. This leads to her witnessing her own piece of history, as long waits for travel permits leave her in Budapest just as the 1956 Hungarian uprising is beginning to unfold. Maraini captures perfectly the atmosphere of the rail journey; the train carriage is at once a place for meeting new characters with their own stories of travel and displacement and a means of observing the visual impact of war and communism on the European landscape, whether through the tired, poverty ridded countryside or the grey, concrete architecture of state socialism.
In its use of the train journey to give its readers glimpses of post-war Europe, Maraini’s book brings to mind a couple of older classics. Ian Serraillier’s much loved children’s novel The Silver Sword recounts another epic journey from Poland to Switzerland, as a group of children travel across a newly liberated Europe to find their parents. They trudge through a bleak, poverty stricken Poland, and a decimated Germany on trucks, cars and trains; the oldest boy, Edek, recounting how he travelled overnight gripping the underside of a train, and managing to stay in position only because the savage winter temperatures froze him to the train. Other stages of the journey see the children share the crowded wagons of trains with dozens of other travellers all desperate to find lost family members or a better life further west. Primo Levi’s gripping account of his very long journey back to Italy after his liberation from Auschwitz, The Truce is another literary treatment of the journey home through war torn Europe. Levi endures a long detour in Russia, since the camp survivors were under the care of the Red Army, before finally making his way back home through eastern and central Europe to his home city of Turin. Both of these books give readers a real sense of what it felt like to be living in, and travelling through the rubble of the European continent in the immediate aftermath of war. Levi and the Silver Sword children were far from alone in their journeys – they were part of a vast movement of people across national borders, seeking relief from poverty and destruction, fleeing repression, returning home from concentration camps or from the front, or searching for family or loved ones. The atmosphere was one of liberation, hope and relief as well as exhaustion, grief and unease, and in Serraillier and Levi’s prose, trains come to symbolise escape and homecoming, offering some redress to the displacement they helped to cause during the war.
Although air travel has now gone a long way towards superseding trains, at least for long distances, nothing can replace the power of suggestion that the train holds in the literary imagination. The great plane novel is, as far as I know, still to be written, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine any of these novels being written if the journeys had taken place by plane. Trains travel fast, but not fast enough to allow travellers to lose their connection with the landscape. The glimpses of passing countryside or the description of a small, provincial town where the train stopped for a few hours, all help to evoke a sense of time and place, the journey more real or the sense of adventure greater, because you can see the places you are travelling through. Train to Budapest is testament that, almost two centuries later, the train still holds its pride of place in the literary imagination.