AT age 57, Raimund Gregorius is a classics professor in Bern, Switzerland. Myopic, divorced, stuck. He teaches at the same Gymnasium he attended as a youth and lives alone with his books. Walking to work one day in the rain, he sees a distraught woman on a bridge. Afraid she will jump, he intercedes, and -- the woman writes a telephone number on his forehead! She just as quickly apologizes, in French, in a “fabulously soft, southern voice, that sounded like an endless hesitant drawl that drew you in merely by hearing it.” Her mother tongue, she says, is “Portugues.” She pronounces the word so that it “came together in a melody that sounded much longer than it really was, and that he could have listened to all day long.”
The woman walks with the baffled professor to his class, sits there for a bit, then quietly departs. Gregorius tries to keep on teaching but, gazing at his students, realizes his own life is winding down and walks out of the classroom. Drawn to a Spanish bookstore, he picks up a thin yellowed volume in Portuguese: “Um Ourives das Palavras” (“A Goldsmith of Words”) by one Amadeu de Prado, Lisbon, 1975. As the bookseller translates a passage, Gregorius hears sentences that “sounded as if they had been written for him alone, and not only for him, but for him on this morning that had changed everything.”
“Of the thousand experiences we have,” the bookseller reads, “we find language for one at most. . . . Buried under all the mute experiences are those unseen ones that give our life its form, its color, and its melody. Then, when we turn to these treasures, as archaeologists of the soul, we discover how confusing they are.”
Armed with a Portuguese dictionary and language tapes, Gregorius holes up in his apartment and translates, while his phone rings and students knock on his door. By the next morning, he’s bought the train ticket. Thus, a man’s soul (here manifested as a distraught woman speaking a foreign tongue) sends a message of distress that provokes a midlife shift, a repudiation of the world, a turning inward. A sacred text is found, a new language undertaken, a spiritual journey begun.
“Night Train to Lisbon” is the third novel of Swiss author Peter Bieri, a philosophy professor writing under the pseudonym Pascal Mercier. It was first published in 2004 and was wildly popular in Europe. Its subtlest, most appealing accomplishment may be in how other characters respond to Gregorius’ precipitous swerve onto the spiritual path. Strangers give him things: that book, that phone number, a thorough eye examination. They readily discuss sensitive topics, trust him with important documents. His best friend and even the boss he left in the lurch both encourage him. The support he and his peculiar quest inspire is credible and touching. To break free of a proscribed life of duty and attend to the stifled aspects of one’s Self is a reigning myth of personal fulfillment. Those unable to take such a step are often drawn to those who do. Whole religions function this way.
That said, “Night Train to Lisbon” is a very long, ambitious book that’s feverishly overwritten. It begs comparison with Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Shadow of the Wind,” another international blockbuster featuring overheated prose and a mysterious book-within-the-book. But Mercier’s novel is somewhat less gothic and ostensibly more cerebral and philosophical. Think of W.G. Sebald recast for the mass market: stripped of nuance, cooked at high temperature and pounded home, clause after clause. Some of the clumsiness derives from Barbara Harshav’s inelegant translation -- we’re often aware of her struggle -- but she can’t be blamed for the pervasive bloat.
Mercier’s novel purports to be concerned with language. Gregorius is a philologist. The book-within-the-book, “A Goldsmith of Words,” is partly a disquisition on language, consisting of various personal, philosophical ruminations strewn through the novel as counterpoint to Gregorius’ journey. Its author (fictional) laments the worn-out nature of language (“I often feel an aversion, even disgust at the same words written and spoken over and over”) and imagines inventing a new language in which sentences “could even be called inexorable. Incorruptible and firm they would stand there and thus be like the words of a god. . . . [T]hey would be without exaggeration and without pomposity, precise and so laconic that you couldn’t take away one single word, one single comma. Thus they would be like a poem, plaited by a goldsmith of words.”
That our fictional author falls short of his aesthetic is self-evident. That the passage handily points to the novel’s stylistic shortcomings is curious. We can’t help but wonder: Where does Mercier stand in relation to this passage? Is Prado meant to be a goldsmith of words? Or is the goldsmith an imagined ideal, and concise, unpretentious language so unattainable it isn’t even attempted? Is Mercier oblivious to his own literary excesses and this passage unintentionally ironic? Or is he tipping his hand, showing us he knows there’s a leaner, preferable style?
On his first day in Lisbon, the nearsighted Gregorius breaks his glasses; his first task in this new city is (of course!) to buy a new pair. These are lighter and less of a “protective bulwark” than his old pair. He sees more clearly, but the new glasses also make him dizzy.
In his new glasses, the reborn Gregorius begins his investigation of the mysterious Amadeu de Prado. The used-books seller (from whom Gregorius’ copy of “Goldsmith” presumably came) reveals that Prado was the son of a disabled judge and became a doctor at his father’s behest. He worked in a clinic and was beloved by the poor until the day he saved the life of “the butcher of Lisbon,” head of Salazar’s secret police. Rebuffed by his clients, Prado joined the resistance against Salazar as penance and died in his 50s of a brain hemorrhage.
Gregorius fleshes out this synopsis by interviewing Prado’s sisters and childhood friends, an old teacher, comrades in arms, his last lover. Many of them provide him with additional writings, including Prado’s florid high school graduation speech. Oddly, except for the bookseller and Prado’s imperious sister Adriana (who published it), none have ever seen “A Goldsmith of Words.” Adriana herself is a kitschy, gothic turn -- a latter-day Miss Havisham in black, with a “pale gaunt face” and “deep-set eyes shining like black diamonds.” Still in mourning for her brother after 31 years, she’s kept his room as it was at the moment of his death, the ashtray full, the clock stopped: “The cool eloquent silence of a cathedral prevailed here, the impassive rustle of a room filled with frozen time.”
Revelations about Prado’s life serve as dramatic contrast to the quieter progress of Gregorius’ self-discovery. Prado emerges as a complex, privileged, melancholy man who struggled with his parents, his work and his political commitments. Gregorius makes friends, plays chess, has doubts about his quirky enterprise. He finds he can travel first class, laugh easily, engage in wordplay, dance, drive a car and possibly face his own mortality. Ornate language and melodrama persist throughout, as does the strange commentary on those very issues. (“He tended to bombast, he didn’t want to admit it, but he knew it, and therefore he fought against kitsch. . . .” “Kitsch is the most pernicious of all prisons.” “What fear he had of his own kitsch! ‘You have to be able to accept yourself in your own kitsch to be free.’ ” “For not only do we reveal ourselves with our words, we also betray ourselves.”)
Reading this book, I was reminded how, years ago in an undergraduate creative-writing class, a young woman blurted out, “Yes, yes, but when do you make the writing grandiose?” “Never!” I answered, perhaps too quickly. For her question pointed to the widespread notion that literary language should be elevated above everyday discourse and elevated in a way that justifies her guileless choice of adjective. To many, if not most, readers today, grandiosity and its associated qualities -- pomposity, verbosity, prolixity, pedantry and melodrama -- are not off-putting but the hallmarks of great literature.
When do you make the writing grandiose? If I were asked now, I’d know what to say: “When you are writing an international blockbuster.”