Though it lacks the celerity of its titular continental train, Graham Greene’s novel Orient Express still bears the fervid desires of fleeting travel.
Greene’s novel feels, to borrow a line from its prose, “as if all the floors of a house fell and left the walls standing.” With Orient Express Greene puts our perceptions of the temporary to great effect. He doesn’t exhort us to seize the day! as seems most common for stories that trade in the temporal. Instead, he promotes its unreal and delaying nature, the idea that this, too, shall pass and that, by extension, its affairs don’t actually exist. Moreover, he uses the more common aspect (i.e. making use of a moment) to etch more deeply this feeling of unreality: the rare instances in the novel where his characters do act on impulse are immediately subverted by their juxtaposition with the mere thoughts, the unfulfilled wonderment, of what going all the way might entail.
Fidelity and duty, right and wrong, vie for dominance in decisions that have little influence past a few days. It becomes so ridiculously easy to let your guard down and to make promises when you know the debt will never come due and the consequences can be evaded with polite indifference.
Much like conversing with someone in glib tones while all the time thinking only your own unrelated thoughts, Greene’s characters seem subconsciously to accept the temporariness of the circumstances even as they proclaim “I love you” and dream of life as it might be could everything only go on past Constantinople, the last station, and one with a name and habits so far removed from any English county that it’s no wonder the train’s passengers feel they will never reach it: only the events of the journey and the snatches of conversation in the dining car are close at hand.
Coral Musker, the chorus girl who tells Myatt that she loves him (out of gratitude: he gave her his berth and offered attentions she was not used to receiving, being a poor girl of plain looks), also chastises herself that being a good girl, a loyal and dependable girl, never did pay.
Her everyday life, that which leaves her waiting on an agent’s stairs for a part to play and (only sometimes) getting a small breakfast at her landlady’s, is positioned such that the lovelorn dreamings of life as it might be beside Myatt – coming home to a comfortable flat and sharing jokes over wine in the full contentment that his earnings would bring – are lost even as they’re verbally promised.
Greene contrasts the two so sharply and with a tincture of boisterous superfluity (the fiddler on the train – let’s invite him to dinner and have him play us a song!) that we know this future life is an impossibility. This life exists only in the swift movements of the train to Istanbul. That stark contrast of their own mundane Englishness with the exciting adventure that a name like “Istanbul” conveys works to entrap future happiness within the confines of imagination rather than of reality.
But even as Greene’s story hurtles through Europe, the breakers are not fully open: Orient Express is sluggish. It’s a rumble that never does explode, water simmering just below a boil. His writing doesn’t match the intrepid nature of his story.
The anxiety and pride we find in his more uninhibited characters (Josef Grünlich and Richard Czinner) do, however, give us pause, even if its a mental, not emotional, feeling. Grünlich is a career criminal who inwardly boasts that in his five years of crime he’s never been caught (it’s a tender bruise; a boast this egoist can’t ever make openly for risk of losing it). Czinner is a Socialist revolutionary tried for murder five years ago and who escaped without ever being found.
The parallels of these two passengers – five years freed in body and jailed in mind for two kinds of theft (one – Grünlich – for personal gain and the other – Czinner – for others’ benefit) – diverge in the different fates these two men receive at the waystation in Subotica, and it might be commentary on Greene’s part. Regardless, the morally destitute nature of the one and the doubtful compassion of the other, tell a story on their own.
Constantinople, the final station and manifest for going all the way, brings with it the only conclusion we should have expected: return to quiet, humdrum reality and a life safely balanced by the status quo. There’s business to partake in and family to see and each finds that he or she is not so adventurous after all. Same old-same old; life plods on as before now we’ve stepped off the train.
Greene shows how all-consuming it is when certain people, previously uncared for because unknown, come into your life for a moment and yet change your outlook or provide amusement and respite or chance to inveigle you in a scheme you’d never dare on your own. His characters – Coral Musker, Carleton Myatt, Josef Grünlich, Richard Czinner, etcetera, etcetera – are just like anyone we’d meet with during a temporary exchange: buying a ticket, say.
“Remember me!” The purser at Ostend calls to Coral with his plea, but already the next customer has come to him and, as well-meaning and sincere as he had felt (she did with her smile cut through his boredom and the rain-soaked gloom), he’s already forgotten her.
He said it, perhaps, in gratitude.
Orient Express · Graham Greene · 1933
Penguin, 2004 · 197 pages, paperback