Friday, July 10, 2009

Talking is far better, because you never know what may come of it - what make a railroad story a Railroad Story?

I thought I was going to pin down a couple of my favorites among Sholem Aleichem's Railroad Stories, but I'm having trouble doing that, and not because they're all my favorites. I mean, there's some of this, and there's some of that. But I can't stop looking at the frames of the stories.*

Sholem Aleichem could have published all but a few of these stories as pure monologues, like the examples collected in the superb Nineteen to the Dozen: Monologues and Bits and Bobs of Other Things. The monologues in that books are pure - they are uninterrupted, and the reader has to infer the identity of the auditor. In The Railroad Stories, the narrator, the commercial traveler, is always present, but so, potentially, are a train car full of other people.

So in "Baranovich Station," it's important that the teller of the fascinating but unfinished story is in a full car with dozens of listeners. The pain of never hearing the end is that much greater than if there were an audience of just one, and the reader can share his own pain with the fictional crowd. Although, presumably, the reader also has some distance and can appreciate the joke in a way that the audience cannot.

"A Game of Sixty-Six," by contrast, has to be one on one (with the reader looking over the traveler's shoulder). A man relates to the narrator, confidentially, and at length, being cleaned out by card sharks, before suggesting a little game of their own. Our traveler may not be the sharpest card in the deck himself, but:

"I watched him cut the deck; he did it a little too skillfully, a little too fast. And his hands were a little too white. Too white and too soft. Suddenly I had a most unpleasant thought..."

The con man's story wouldn't work in public. The creepy gangster's story in "The Man from Buenos Aires" works the same way. It requires intimacy.

But sometimes, as in two stories told about an unimportant branch line called the Slowpoke Express, the railroad car provides a stage, even for an audience of one:

"And since we were on the Slowpoke Express, which I described in the last chapter - where, being the only passengers in our car, we had all the time and space in the world - he sprawled out as comfortably as if he were in his own living room and gave his narrative talents free rein, turning each polished phrase carefully and grinning with pleasure at his own story while stroking his ample belly with one hand." ("The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah")

The plots of the two Slowpoke Express stories depend on the actual characteristics of locomotives (an engine running out of coal, for instance), which is not generally the case. What makes a story a Railroad Story? It's the train car as a public space, where strangers can impart their stories to each other. From the narrator's farewell, "Third Class":

"When you travel third class, on the other hand, you feel right at home. In fact, if you happen to be in a car whose passengers are exclusively Jews, you may feel a bit too much at home... At night you can save yourself the bother of having to fall asleep, because there's always someone to talk to - and if you're not in the mood to talk, someone else will be glad to do it for you. Who expects to sleep on a train ride anyway? Talking is far better, because you never know what may come of it."

Translation by Hillel Halkin.

* Prompted by D.G. Myers, a bit, perhaps.

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