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?