BOOK REVIEW / First-class trip down memory lane: 'The Orient Express' - Gregor von Rezzori: Chatto & Windus, 13.99 pounds

Share
Related Topics
GREGOR VON REZZORI, the central European novelist born in Ukraine in 1914, is best known for his fierce dissection of wartime culture, Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. In that novel, he wrote about a time in which bourgeois values and Gentile supremacism seemed eternal and immutable. Those mummies have come to life again and are cavorting around the Habsburg and Balkan regions he knew, but they are well beyond von Rezzori's present horizon.

This trip through Europe begins in the 'postcard magnificence' of Venice. Here, finally overwhelmed by gazing at the baton-drill on the face of his digital watch, and by the equal pointlessness of being transported great distances from one minor variation on hotel opulence to another, Gregor von Rezzori's protagonist decides to elope with the past.

He boards the revived Orient Express.

The decision is a long time in the taking (most of the novel, somewhat vexingly). Initially repelled by the vapidity of the brochure, he knows all along that the train de luxe can never be what it was. It is a simulacrum; it belongs in Disneyland. As a boy 50 years ago, he was regularly conveyed to school in England from Romania on the original train, when it was still the great unifier of the European bourgeoisie. Nowadays it can only be a brand-name, whose close relatives are perfumes; then, it was a magnificent triple symbol: of Europe, luxury, and erotic promise.

Our hero has since abandoned the first, having migrated definitively to America, and has secured the second. But he remains in constant pursuit of erotic promise. Most of his reflections concern his sexual history, and the most intimate significanceof the Orient Express is that it was the vehicle for his sexual initiation. There was always an elegant and mysterious woman seated at the bar. But one lesson of the tale is that although she may still be there, it is impossible to relive a rite of passage.

Despite such universal truths, this is an example of a story that is constrained by its removal from reality. The wealthy inhabit an Olympus that is strung like a net across the globe, their feet never touching the ground. A luxury train presents the landscape simply as a cavalcade that crosses the proscenium of the passengers' windows, and even purports to free the travellers from time's inexorable journey. When the people of Europe are glimpsed only in little yellow frames, as the train passesby in the night, they can be loftily dismissed. Western Europe is no more than a 'culture-saturated, culture-fatigued secondhand American province, laughable in the zeal of its imitation, tragic in the misunderstanding of what it imitated'.

However elegant the cadence, this opinion is itself dangerously banal. It substitutes historical mood - invocations of the Jazz Age or the Belle Epoque - for the kind of engagement with historical activity that gave Memoirs of an Anti-Semite its disturbing power.

A more malign constraint is the story's ambient misogyny. The hero's world-weariness arises in large part from weariness with his wife and mistress. Although the expression of this weariness is superficially mellowed by age, it is apparent that the wife is a frigid bitch with intellectual pretensions, and the mistress a bimbo with social pretensions. The eventual revelation of the hero's sexual fear is not sufficient to cast those judgements in a more acceptable light.

But this is not a novel about redressing balances or reappraising human relations. It is about the individual, always ascending, who has nearly reached the haven of death. Otherwise, decline is everywhere; growth, as in urban sprawl, is 'metastasis'.

And we British are no exception. In a bravura touch, von Rezzori draws a cameo of English decay. Among the passengers appears an aged English ex-colonial couple now reduced to the ghost of imperial pride. They are followed by their son, whose impeccable English classic attire only shows that he has been colonised by brand names like the rest of the world; only here it is Turnbull & Asser rather than Lacoste; Lobb rather than Adidas.

In the space of one generation, the stock has declined from imperial to commercial grade: the son is observed to resemble a Rolls-

Royce salesman. The degeneration accelerates with the appearance of the grandson; tweed above, jeans hugging hip and crotch below. His gaze is as unswerving as a tiger hunter's, but only because of his dope habit. Is he the last of England, we are led to wonder, or a young Prince Hal?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Syrian refugee 'Nora' with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK when the Government agreed to resettle 100 people from the country  

Open letter to David Cameron on Syrian refugees: 'Several hundred people' isn't good enough

Independent Voices
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project