Dark Strangers, Gorgeous Slums

Philip Horne

  • Off the Rails: Memoirs of a Train Addict by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Bloomsbury, 193 pp, £12.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 7475 0011 8
  • The Marble Mountain, and Other Stories by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Cape, 126 pp, £10.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 224 02597 X
  • The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated by Barbara Bray
    Boyars, 125 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 7145 2880 3
  • Motherland by Timothy O’Grady
    Chatto, 230 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3341 4
  • A Lesser Dependency by Peter Benson
    Macmillan, 146 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 333 49093 2

Travel is sometimes supposed to broaden the mind, impending death to concentrate it. Travel is more desirable than impending death, but it is usually harder to arbitrate between the claims of mental breadth and concentration. Reading Off the Rails by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, however, a memoir in which she brings us up to date with her 35-year ‘lifetime of truancy and escape’, a career of spontaneously marrying, travelling and writing, will make many readers feel that the loss of some sorts of breadth is not to be deeply regretted. The first third of the book, which takes us up to 1984, works best: because the author has already written about many of its strange experiences in her fiction; because it clips along with extreme rapidity; and because the exotic wanderings and encounters it records lie sufficiently in the past to allow due ironic distance. It has remarkable passages. The rest of the book is a different story – though it might be thought to tell the same story through rosier-tinted spectacles.

‘Lisa’, as the blurbs of both her new books insinuatingly call her, portrays herself as possessed from the age of six by a compulsion to travel on trains in pursuit of interesting strangers – strangers who seem to stand for her own cosmopolitan South American father, ‘the personification of too many women’s dreams of a tall, dark stranger’. What is painful for the reader of these memoirs is the way in which the writing about the recent past and the present in the latter two-thirds of the book cannot muster the urbanity or control of the opening. We are told of her mother’s death, of the break-up of her marriage to the poet George MacBeth, of the obsessively repeated train-journeys in Italy with her infant son which were her way of fending off (or having) a nervous breakdown, and of her incipient relationship with the painter Robbie Scott-Duff (whose painting of her is on the cover of The Marble Mountain) – all in an inflationary style of uneasy melodramatic overstatement which veers between confession and self-justification.

The tone sometimes becomes strenuously entertaining, as when ‘the trains quicken, and the plot thickens,’ or when a beautiful young Greek proposes to her on an acquaintance of a few hours, and she locks herself in a ship’s bathroom, ‘feeling upstaged’ in spite of her self-image as ‘Miss Impulsive, or, rather, Mrs Impulsive’. The cultivation of idiosyncrasy – Edwardian costume, stiletto heels, bulky antique leather luggage, an ‘entourage’ and an unusual tolerance for down-and-outs – can look like posturing (not least in the pose she strikes for the cover photo): thus her daughter is happy to go along with Lisa’s cross-Channel scramble back to Robbie because ‘she understands my heart.’ On occasion breathlessness becomes gormless and unpleasantly thoughtless: ‘I love to go slumming in Chicago. It has such gorgeous slums.’

Fortunately, for Lisa St Aubin de Teran has real gifts, the writing in The Marble Mountain benefits from the concentration of the brief form, and from the threat or arrival of death in most of the tales. The gushy idiom of the interview or women’s magazine feature is held off; the writer’s preoccupations with violence, with strangers, with compulsive restlessness, with relations between mothers and daughters, with family plots that repeat through the generations, are varied, framed and controlled without tonal slippages of the kind which sabotage Off the Rails. Some of the most successful stories are very nasty. ‘I never eat crabmeat now’ has a disturbed, excluded husband address a fantasising, fugitive wife who has taken flight from England with an entourage of children and a sexy teenage nanny and gone to pieces in Normandy next to a nuclear power station. The husband comes over to the rescue, and finds the youngest of the volume’s dead children glued by his own juices to the inside of his pram, festering and being wheeled around on the hot empty beach by ‘the twins’, feyly insouciant eight-year-olds who seem to be taking after their mad mother. The nanny seems to have been raped by locals and has disappeared. Back in England at the end, the husband is left muttering, inadequately but truly: ‘I don’t know what to do with you.’

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