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Closely Watched Trains

TRAINS OF THOUGHT: Memories of a Stateless Youth, By Victor Brombert, W.W. Norton: 336 pp., $25.95

June 16, 2002|DOUGLAS JOHNSON | Douglas Johnson is the author of "France and the Dreyfus Affair" and other books and is emeritus professor of French history at the University of London.

Whenever Victor Brombert looks at Monet's painting of the Saint-Lazare station in Paris, he sees himself climbing onto a train, tennis racket in hand, elated by the prospect of a trip to the seaside, the dreaded school examinations over. Years later, he stayed awake all night on the sleeper between Pisa and Paris, perhaps to perpetuate the child in him who did not want to miss one instant of the joy of traveling.

"At the beginning was the train," is how Brombert opens his striking memoir, "Trains of Thought: Memories of a Stateless Youth." From the outset, the reader learns that Brombert has always been on one or another of them. He even wishes he had been born on one. His memory leads continuously toward trains; he views his life as a shuttle between past and present.

He sees himself as a boy in Nice, running on the Promenade des Anglais, pretending to be a locomotive, imitating its sounds, moving his forearms to imitate the driving rods of the wheels. And then he recalls that he was not at school that day because of the death of his little sister. On another occasion, he remembers traveling with his father when their train made a stopover in Cologne. In search of a glass of beer, his father went to the station buffet, and Brombert went with him. They suddenly felt uncomfortable as they became aware of the hostile Germanic faces and uniforms that surrounded them. His father downed his glass, and they hurried back to their train. It was at this moment that he became aware of the oppressive atmosphere of the early 1930s. As a child, he loved looking at old photographs of World War I and envied the French soldiers, crowded into their trains, enthusiastically waving their flags as they left for the trenches. The Jewish child could not then know, nor could his parents, who disapproved of such a young boy looking at the photographs, that there would be other trains that would take people to the terminal stations of Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz.

Proust, too, saw the idea of travel as a way to unlock memory, as a voyage in reverse, going over the routes that have been covered before. Like Proust, Brombert takes imaginary journeys. He watches a train leave a station and reads the signs that spell out its destinations. He tells us that, even now, as he is trying to sleep, he hears a sinister locomotive whistle. This is the whistle that is dimly heard through the Shanghai fog by the wounded prisoners in Andre Malraux's novel "Man's Fate." They know that they are about to be thrown alive into the boiler of the locomotive. Malraux's whistle has a resonance for Brombert, as he reflects on all that has happened and on all from which he has been spared.

For salvation, too, came on trains: There was the night train from Leipzig into Switzerland where Nazi agents were looking for Jews, and the conductor played dumb as Brombert and his parents made their way to France. Or there was the train that took him and his parents from the Spanish frontier to Madrid on their way to America. His parents had left Moscow after the revolution of 1917 and settled in Germany. They left Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933 and settled in Paris. In July 1941, they escaped from Vichy France to Spain, from where a banana boat, overcrowded with refugees, took them to the United States.

Brombert was 9 when his family settled in Paris. His language became French, although his parents and other relatives made sure that he did not forget his Russian. His memoirs describing his life in France tell the stories that one expects: days at the lycee, early sentimental attachments, sexual initiations, literary appreciations, the songs of Maurice Chevalier, Astaire and Rogers at the cinema. But they also tell us much more.

We get to discover Paris through the eyes of a boy. We ride enthusiastically on the Metro and learn the names of stations that are laden with history. There is Dupleix (the French colonial administrator in India), there is the scientist Pasteur and the historian Edgar Quinet.

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