Monday, September 5, 2011

{review} lisa st aubin de terán

Lisa St Aubin de Terán The Slow Train to Milan (1983)
Lisa St Aubin de Terán Off The Rails: Memoirs of a Train Addict (1989)

The Slow Train to Milan   Off the Rails: Memoirs of a Train Addict

It's nearly ten years now since I left Italy, and three full years since I left the Andes, but strangers still come up to me sometimes in Paris, or London, or Caracas. And they say,
'You were one of the four, weren't you?'
And I know what they mean, and sometimes I nod, and sometimes I don't any more, but inside, I always think, 'We weren't really four, there were five of us: César, Otto, Elías and me, and the slow train to Milan.' And the slow train was the slide rule of our existence, often our raison d'être. Our exile was aimless without it. I wonder if we would have survived the waiting, the tension and the failure, but for the luxury of moving on. (The Slow Train to Milan)
To say that Lisa St Aubin de Terán has led an interesting life is somewhat of an understatement. She has run away from home in London at age 16 to marry an exiled Venezualan aristocrat who turned out to be a violent schizophrenic who basically imprisoned her and her baby on a sugar plantation in the Andes; she lived on the run with a group of dissidents who funded their activities by robbing banks; she devoted a decade to restoring a villa in Tuscany; she spent a lot of time wearing ball-gowns from bygone eras as day-wear and travelling with trunks; and she has spent, it seems, a lifetime on trains. (source)

From her life on the rails she has produced a memoir and what might be termed an "autobiographical fiction" (thank you Wikipedia). Both are well worth reading in their own right/s, but together I thought they rounded each other out delightfully.

Terán writes beautifully and she has a real eye - and affection - for the countryside, especially that of Italy from Tuscany northwards. She also had a wonderful eye for characterisation, as in her description of her [fictional] husband-to-be César. One assumes that anyone but a romantic 16 year old would run a mile from him. For example, when the narrator wants to go away without him we read,
I couldn't tell if César minded or not, he seemed quite emotionless. He said that he would be all right anyway because he had the washing to do. He had just discovered the automatic washing-machine, and it was giving him endless pleasure. He often stood over my mother while she did the weekly wash, and sometimes he would ask if he could have a go. He himself had a habit of changing his clothes from head to foot twice a day and then having everything laundered at a proper laundry.
The narrator's [fictional] mother is also delightfully evoked. At the young couple's wedding,
...we discovered that we had no ring.
'Never mind,' César said, 'one day you shall have lovely rings.'
But it seemed that we specifically needed one then and there. Luckily my mother came to the rescue. She said that she had a stock of wedding rings in her bag that she carried round for sentimental reasons.
'If I were you,' she said, pointing to a platinum and white-gold one, 'I would have that one. Andrew gave it to me in 1947, and it was easily my best marriage.'
The Slow Train to Milan is a wonderfully crazy novel that you think (and sometimes hope) is too unlikely to have any basis in reality. When one turns to Off the Rails: Memoirs of a Train Addict, the source of the novel is obvious. There is much to love about Off the Rails, one of the quirkiest memoirs I have read, but if I had to narrow down two highlights they would be, first, that this book, while it covers train journeys in other countries too, is primarily a love-letter to northern Italy. The descriptions of the Italian places and people are filled with such affection: "I... had Italianitis, that strange, chronic, often acute, and sometimes fatal disease that ties the victim to a love of Italy."

Second, I was very taken by how Terán interpreted her affair with rail travel as a sort of cathartic response to the troubles in her life (and there are many troubles):
Now I found myself in a phase of manic restlessness in which I used the railways like an emergency extension of my own nervous system. For this, I chose the line from Bologna to Brindisi, travelling backwards and forwards, occasionally taking a day of so off in Brindisi, for the best part of three weeks. The two-year-old Alexander travelled with me, with his monosyllabic vocabulary, his teddy bear, his luggage, and his own, younger, passion for trains.
Looking back, that time that I spent literally on the rails may appear to be the nearest I ever came to going off them.
I found these two books very appealing. In part this may be because my own love affair with Italy began, back in 1992, with two months travelling the country on trains (I think that if I'd read Terán back then I'd have never left home!). But, mostly, I think Terán's appeal lies in her beautiful writing and the honesty with which she presents her many ill-fated adventures.
Travelling is like flirting with life. It's like saying, 'I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station.' (Off the Rails)
Rating: 8/10.

If you liked these... for some reason I keep thinking about Jan Morris, another writer who brings such love to the journey.

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