On the Train

Leonid Andreyev (~1900), Translated by Dmitry Fadeyev (2016)

We couldn’t sleep. We entered the train car wanting to get some rest in its illusive darkness, under the gossip of the wheels and the rhythmic swaying of soft beds, when drowsy thought steadily floats over a wavy dreamscape—but it just happened that we began to talk about something, about some far away people and far away things, and we ended up talking half the night away. I don’t know why, but all people on journeys become philosophers; torn away from the things of habit they are truly awakened, and with surprise begin to look backwards and forwards, to recollect things that are very remote, and to dream of a future that’s just as far away. If human thought could take form then every rushing train would become enveloped in a row of shadows, and you would no longer be able to hear its rumble under the thousand voices, plangent and surd. For the people in the train car the present doesn’t exist—that damned present that has its grip over one’s thought and the movement of one’s hands—perhaps this is why people in the train car become philosophers.

And we talked. We talked about people and we talked about life, about its beauty and riches, about its bottomless depths, above which float people-flinders, blind and carefree. They know only its surface, and they’re so light, too light, never descending down towards the bottom. It happens that sometimes they are covered by a worldly wave, and for a moment life opens up to them its mysterious depths and will blind them, and frighten them—and then again to the surface, again the blue tent—what they call the sky when talking to youth—again the sleepy blind swaying, and like that until the end—until they rot.

We talked like this for a long time—in the illusive darkness of the coach, under the quiet ringing of the wheels, not being able to see each other, but sensing our ever growing proximity and gentle affection. Torn away from the things of habit, people in the coach become sensitive to their ever lonely hearts and greedily drink up the quiet, fleeting kindness, like flowers sucking up water in the drought.

“We have to sleep”, he said.

“It’s about time”, I answered.

Smiling, we shut our eyes, but half an hour later we found ourselves standing in the corridor outside our compartment, staring into the window. It’s likely the moon was somewhere behind the clouds, and the night was bright, and the snowy murk of the earth imperceptibly blurred with the lunar murk of the night winter sky. The thick layer of snow smoothed out the mounds and irregularities, but we often travelled by this road and everything that passed before us appeared familiar and previously seen.

“But that’s not true”, I said. “We neither see nor know anything.”

He understood me, and, without breaking away from the window, pressed his head closer to mine and answered:

“It only seems familiar. The eyes deceive.”

“The eyes deceive. When I travel on this road I constantly look out the window, and my sight covers it all as far as the horizon. And it seems a lot to me, but it’s…it’s only as far as the horizon. When I pass by several times, my memory will retain only some houses and stations, and some faces, and the forest, and even individual trees. It seems to me like that’s everything,—but that’s only a few houses, a few faces, and individual trees. I know one birch tree here. It stands at the edge of the forest, separated away from the others, and it looks as if it ran out of the forest and is greedily staring into the field. If it is felled I won’t find the place where it lived, and, quite likely, won’t even remember it.

“I know that birch tree. It looks as if it is screaming”.

“Yes. And do you remember where it is?”

“It’s somewhere here. I don’t know. I don’t remember. And I haven’t seen it for a while.”

“Looks like it was felled.”

The Russian winter forest passed by us with a breath of cold, night and loneliness. And once more the snowy murk and the same murky sky. And because we’ve often travelled on this road, the sky itself seemed familiar and long known to us, and one could not believe that this is a new sky, one which we have never seen before. A green light flew by, then some snow covered roofs, and then the train stopped.

“Belyevo station”, said the conductor.

We knew this station well because the train always stands here for five minutes, but for some reason we didn’t speak about it.

“Belyevo?” repeated someone behind us. “They make good pasties here. I know.”

And he slammed the door. Our train stopped right in front of the telegraph, and through a wide window one could see the people working inside. They did not know that they were being watched, indifferently getting on with their business, and the whole thing reminded one a little of a scene being played out from behind a raised curtain. One telegraphist, a young man with a mustache, was facing in our direction, and at one point his eyes even met my own, yet there was no expression in them. The station lights were reflected lightly by the large glass window, and because of this only the illuminated part of his face could be clearly seen; that which was in the shadow disappeared, as if it did not exist at all.

“Take a better look at the telegraphist”, my companion told me.

I did. The telegraphist was still working with the same indifference. He then spoke something to his side, puffed on a cigarette and stood up. He took one step away and instantly disappeared behind the shining glass. And then he appeared once more, and once more sat down to work. The cigarette between his teeth seemed to distract him, the illuminated part of his face was frowning, and eventually he ended up putting the cigarette down on the edge of the desk.

And that’s it. The train began to move, and the station passed us by in reverse order: station lamps, some snow covered roofs, a green light—and once again the fields, the snowy murk and the same murky sky. This is the way apparitions come to us: they come in one door and leave through the other, but the room stays the same—the same table, the same armchairs, the same silent flicker of the candle. And the pale, seemingly melting image, stays only in our eyes, and our frozen heart tries to tell us something.

“Well, that’s the Belyevo we know”, said my colleague.

“And if we go back, it will appear again.”

“And disappear again!”

“And what if one stays there?”

“For how long?” he asked quietly. “For how long?” he repeated, smiling only in thought.

And again we stood huddled together looking out the windows, and behind them we could actually see that indifferent telegraphist behind the shining glass, racing across the snowy fields. But that was only an image. He was in our eyes—only in our eyes.

“He’s got a good face”, I said, recalling.

“He’s young. He’s probably twenty five. He’s been working on the telegraph already for six or seven years, on this very telegraph. You could see something habitual and regular in the movement of his hands, in the expression of his face, in that cigarette that he placed on the side of the desk.”

“He hasn’t seen us. It’s brighter in there, and he didn’t see us.”

“It’s likely he saw only the silhouette of the train car. He can see only train cars and their silhouettes. Every day he’s on duty at the telegraph, and past him pass tens…hundreds of train cars. Many travel by this route, and every day thousands of people pass by him this way and back. Perhaps half of Russia has passed by here—all past him. And he knows nothing about those who have passed.

“Leo Tolstoy often takes this route.”

“Leo Tolstoy takes this route. Ministers, princes, great painters, writers and singers take this route. And now thousands of eyes have rested on him with indifference, and he, with the same indifference, sat and worked. Who knows—it may be that Tolstoy looked at him, and at that time he was talking with someone and smoked, greedily sucking up the vile tobacco. He can see only the train cars and their silhouettes. From darkness or from sunlight, train cars arrive at the empty lines and stand here as if they were going to stand here for the rest of their lives. And in five minutes they leave, and the lines are empty again, and it’s like no-one has ever stood here before. In the summer faces flit in the windows, and in the winter the train cars are shut and covered with hoarfrost, and are thus as silent as if there is not a living man inside.

“Silent they come, and, without opening, silent they leave,—and he sits there working, and knows nothing about those who passed by. He’s working, which means that he’s passing on words. Even if the words are as clear as day, for him they are shut, like train cars,—after all, he knows neither those who are speaking, nor those who are listening. And right by him, like train cars, the words pass by—someone’s joy and someone’s grief, someone’s thoughts, ideas, orders. He only passes them on. And he has both ears and eyes, but he is deaf and blind, as if he has never possessed neither hearing nor sight.”

“He has a life of his own.”

“He lives in Belyevo in some burgher’s house with three windows above a ravine, where if one steps away just for a moment off the beaten path one would drop head deep into the snow. The only dark spots are directly in sight: a small pile of ash and frozen waste, and a naked, crooked trunk of a willow tree. And then we have his small, hot little room with a stove bench, and on this bench he sits during the holidays, in the mornings, playing on a guitar. He likes embroidered Russian shirts which he receives as gifts on his birthdays, and he dreams of a new uniform jacket and a pair of polished boots. He doesn’t drink yet, he’s still young and full of dreams, which is why his room is clean, his clothes are covered with a sheet, and there are muslin covers over the window. And when he reads some old book, all torn up book with pages missing, he doesn’t think for a moment that this book was also written by man—it exists for him by itself, and, just like the crooked willow tree on which he spends time looking, just as seldom evokes a moment of contemplation. When, at night, he makes his way home from duty he is very afraid of dogs, and when he’s back at home he quickly undresses and, looking at his socks, worn out at the heel, falls asleep with thoughts of socks and the telegraph. Everything that happens in the world of the great, the loud, the blinding, it takes place somewhere on the side, and he does not suspect and does not think that the author of that torn up book is a passenger who only yesterday was traveling by, perhaps right by him. His human soul, as rich as as a Stradivari violin, is given away to a street musician, who uses it to play shoddy polka, and it will never get to know itself, will never find its real voice, because the one who could extract it, the life-artist, the life-painter, life—the great musician passes by somewhere on the periphery, and he will never discover it. And, letting the silent, closed train cars pass him by, he ends up passing by himself, just as closed, just as silent and transient.” Thus said my companion and became lost in thought, and his cheek, pressed to mine, became cold.

“But it’s possible he’s not at all like that, and you’ve made all this up.”

“It’s possible. After all, we’ve only passed by.”

The train car rocked back and forth and snowy fields were swimming by. They seemed familiar but were deceiving: I’ve never seen these fields! He stood next to me, and his cheek pressed to mine, and with this touch he too deceived me: I don’t know him! Tomorrow we will part company, and his image will remain only in my eyes, and other people will begin to pass by me,—and I will pass by other people. May be, by myself.

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“For even falsehood, uttered by the tongue of man, seemed like truth and light before this hopelessly-deaf and unresponsive silence.”

My new book: a translation of selected short stories by Leonid Andreyev, the father of Russian Expressionism from the Silver Age of Russian literature. A piercing, pitiless glance into the heart of the human condition.

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