Always against the direction of travel
People usually take the train to reach a specific destination. But what if, rather than using it to get from A to B, someone makes it their home instead? Albrecht Selge portrays an ICE-train nomad with an unlimited rail card who learns to fly along the way.
By Marit Borcherding
“Homeless pensioner living on train”: In the face of ever-increasing rents and female poverty in old age, would anyone in this country really be surprised at a headline like this? Probably not. Writer Albrecht Selge takes a closer look at this not so far-fetched topic in Fliegen [Flying], a book that could well be a social reportage but is actually a novel.
That doesn’t mean denying real-life hardships – quite the contrary. Step by step, over the course of the novel, we learn that its nameless hero used to work in a travel agency that was forced to declare bankruptcy. There used to be a husband at some point, too, even a lover, though neither of them has been around in some time. Ditto her apartment, the lease terminated because her landlord needed the place. Her measly pension doesn’t quite stretch to a beautiful new home, but it is enough for a limitless rail card, allowing the owner to travel anywhere on the Deutsche Bahn rail network for free. And so this slip of a woman is constantly travelling, continually going round in circles, always seated against the direction of travel. She makes some additional money collecting bottles for their deposit, uses the spacious disabled toilet as her bathroom, has made compassionate friends among the train staff, gets acquainted with other commuters.
Looking out from the insideShe spends her days primarily in two ways: “Looked out the window a lot. After all, one of, if not the, point of train travel.” And when she doesn’t look out the window, she reads: “She read a lot. One of, if not the, point of train travel.” Apart from any reading material left behind on the train, her favourite is “the thick little yellow book” – even though its title is never mentioned, all sorts of allusions and brief quotes soon make it clear that this must be a Reclam edition of Romanticism poetry. In an amusing and ironic manner that occasionally wanders into caricature, Selge lets quotes and themes borrowed from Romanticism pop up in his traveller’s train of thought – wanderlust, yearning, a focus on the self and on nature: “If she looked out the window at one of those brand spanking new roundabouts. ... A spick and span roundabout, and was for some reason proud of it, for it was, after all, marvellously done. Who has made you, you beautiful roundabout.” Eichendorff meets German federal land use and transport planning. Brilliant, pinpoint alienation that goes both ways, and of which there are many more examples.
Endless TimeWhile the novel runs to just over 170 pages, they suffice to gradually stop the reader from looking at the hero with nothing but pity. Naturally, she experiences the disadvantages of her precarious existence at first hand, the result of a typical female socialisation: no comfortable bed for the night, looks of contempt, violent encounters. But she also knows how to fend off impositions and attempts at appropriation– predominantly with the phrases “Piss off” and “I’d rather not”, like Hermann Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. She possesses wit, imagination and acute powers of observation. Firm ground doesn’t mean anything to her anymore, she loves the detached, the transcendent: “THIS TRAIN IS RUNNING IN REVERSE WAGON ORDER TODAY. When doesn’t it. Nonetheless, the haste of those getting on, always the same! Irritation! Annoyance! Not for her, though, always the same is a good thing, her restlessness receded, her feet became light again. ...The train flew. Two metres above the ground.”
As a traveller without a destination, she has time in excess – so much so that she gets annoyed when her train, utterly deviating from the norm, occasionally arrives at a station early: “She wasn’t at her destination, after all, what was she supposed to do with that time. ... Gifting it to someone, maybe, wouldn’t that be something – if you could give some of your time to someone who needed it. One of those nervous, panting, agitated people.” At this point, if not already, the reader would love to meet her, the train nomad, to have a chance to say thanks for such an invaluable gift, and for her crystal-clear observations, gained while flying.
Selge, Albrecht: Fliegen
Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2019. 176 S.