Friday, November 08, 2013

The Train Station That Suggested Infinity

I love it when books wave to each other across the years.

You know how it goes. You're reading along, and suddenly a sentence or a passage jumps up and rings a bell in your brain. (I'm thinking about those games at fairs where you have to pound with a hammer to propel something up toward the bell. Sometimes it comes close but doesn't quite make it, plummeting back to earth, but sometimes it zooms right up and rings.)

That's what it can feel like when you're reading along and encounter words whose ideas or music somehow triggers the memory of other words you've read before. It's particularly fascinating when you're not on the lookout for it, because you have no idea if these two writers have ever "met." Their respective place and space in time may have made an actual meeting impossible, though sometimes these connections feel so strong you wonder if the second writer knew the first, and if so, how deep the influence goes. Has she read everything writer one ever wrote, so the influence just seeps in naturally? Did she stumble upon this passage one day and have an illuminating flash of how she might one day use it in a story of her own? Is the connection purely coincidental and serendipitous, based on their shared love of certain other writers? Or (and this last mysterious question can make you shiver) is the connection you see there unique to the three of you: these two writers and you, the reader who is building the bridge?

I found myself thinking about all this the other day when I was reading E.M. Forster. I recently finished A Room With a View, my first foray into his work, and moved not long after into Howards End. I'm still learning my way around Forster and never quite know what to expect next. He has an authoritative narrative voice, and sometimes that authorial voice trips into interesting rabbit trails and side fancies.

One of those happens toward the end of chapter 2 in Howards End, when a woman named Margaret is dropping someone off at a train station in London. Forster muses: "Like many others who have lived long in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, and to them, alas! we return..."  He then goes on to muse about the different ethos in each train station, how each one can suggest something different to imaginative sensibilities.

"To Margaret -- I hope that it will not set the reader against her -- the station at King's Cross had always suggested Infinity. Its very situation -- withdrawn a little behind the facile splendors of St. Pancras -- implied a comment on the materialism of life. Those two great arches, colourless, indifferent, shouldering between them an unlovely clock, were fit portals for some eternal adventure, whose issue might be prosperous, but would certainly not be expressed in the ordinary language of prosperity..."

And suddenly, of course, I'm sitting with Harry Potter and Dumbledore in the misty, empty version of King's Cross to which Harry is transported in Deathly Hallows. I know that train stations as way stations to other worldly experiences are not unique to J.K. Rowling (to make one more jump, one could certainly say that the train in C.S. Lewis' Prince Caspian was a gateway to adventure, and that alas! the children had to return from Narnia to the station) but reading this gave me such a pleasurable shiver of recognition. I also have no idea if Rowling ever read the passage. But isn't it delightful? Switch out Margaret's name for Harry's and read it again. "To Harry -- the station at King's Cross had always suggested Infinity."

Kind of makes you wonder if Margaret didn't walk right past platform 9 3/4 on her way home...

1 comment:

Erin said...

Very cool! What a neat connection to stumble upon. Incidentally, I just watched The Polar Express - definitely a magical journey full of adventure!