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Detective Novels, On Tour

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To mark the publication of Stuart Jeffries' Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School in paperback we're republishing excerpts and pieces related to Frankfurt School thinkers. Here: a short essay on train station novels written by Walter Benjamin.

Very few people on the train read books which they have taken from their shelf at home, preferring, instead, to buy something that presents itself at the last minute. They mistrust the appeal of novels that have been earmarked in advance, and rightly so. Furthermore, they may set store by making their purchase from the colourfully decorated trolley right on the tarmac of the platform. After all, everyone knows the cult to which it bids. At one time or another everyone has reached for the swaying tomes that it displays, less out of a pleasure in reading them than out of the dim sense of doing something to please the gods of the railway. He who buys there knows that the coins which he consecrates to this offertory box recommend him to the protection of the boiler god who glows through the night, to the smoke Naiads who romp all over the train, and to the demon who is lord of all the lullabies. He knows all of them from dreams, just as he knows the succession of mythical trials and perils that present themselves to the zeitgeist as a ‘train ride’, and the unpredictable flight of spatio-temporal thresholds which it passes: from the famed ‘too late’ of the person left behind — the archetype of all that has been missed — to the loneliness of the compartment, the fear of missing the connection and the dread of the unknown hall into which he draws. Unsuspectingly, he feels entangled in a gigantomachy and recognises himself as the mute witness of the struggle between the gods of the railway and the station gods.

Similia similibus. The numbing of one fear by the other is his salvation. Between the freshly separated pages of the detective novels he searches for the idle, indeed, virginal trepidations that could help him overcome the age-old anxieties of travel. In this way he may approach frivolity by making travel companions of Sven Elvestad with his friend Asbjörn Krag, Frank Heller and Mister Collins. But such smart company is not to everyone’s taste. In honour of the timetable, one may wish for a more accurate companion, such as Leo Perutz, who composed the powerfully rhythmic and syncopated narratives, whose stations one flies through — clock in hand — like the provincial backwaters along one’s route. Or one may wish for someone with a greater understanding of the uncertainty of the future that one is travelling towards, and the unsolved riddles that one has left behind; then one would travel in the company of Gaston Leroux and, while hunching over The Phantom of the Opera and The Perfume of the Lady in Black, one might soon feel like a passenger on The Ghost Train that dashed across the German stage last year. Or one might think of Sherlock Holmes and his friend Watson, how they would bring to bear the uncanny familiarity of a dusty second-class railway coupé — both passengers immersed in silence, one of them behind the screen of a newspaper, the other behind a curtain of smoke clouds. One might also think that all of these spectral forms dissolve into nothing before the image of the author that emerges from the unforgettable detective books of A.K. Green. She must be imagined as an old lady in a capote bonnet, who is on equally familiar ground in the tangled relations of her heroines as in the giant, creaking wardrobes in which — according to the English proverb — every family has a skeleton. Her short stories are just the same length as the Gotthard Tunnel and her great novels, Behind Closed Doors, That Affair Next Door, bloom like night-violets in the purplish-tinted light of the coupé.

So much for what the reading affords the traveller. But what does the journey not afford the reader? When else is he so focussed on reading that he can feel with some assurance the existence of his hero intermingled with his own? Is his body not the shuttle which, in keeping with the rhythm of the wheels, tirelessly pierces the warp — the hero’s book of fate? One did not read in the stagecoach and one does not read in the car. Reading is as related to rail travel as stopping at train stations is. As is well known, many railway stations resemble cathedrals. We, however, want to give thanks to the movable, garish little altars that an acolyte of curiosity, absentmindedness and sensation chases past the train screamingly — when for a few hours, snuggled into the passing countryside, as though into a streaming scarf, we feel the shudders of suspense and the rhythms of the wheels running up our spine.