Trains of Thought: Memories of a Stateless Youth

Trains of Thought: Memories of a Stateless Youth

by Victor Brombert


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Trains of Thought: Memories of a Stateless Youth by Victor Brombert

"A beautifully cadenced work of art—it will remind some readers of Nabokov's classic Speak, Memory."—Joyce Carol Oates
Paris in the 1930s—melancholy, erotic, intensely politicized—provides the poetic beginning for this remarkable autobiography by one of America's most renowned literary scholars. In Trains of Thought Victor Brombert recaptures the story of his youth in a Proustian reverie, recalling, with a rare combination of humor and tenderness, his childhood in France, his family's escape to America during the Vichy regime, his experiences in the U.S. Army from the invasion of Normandy to the occupation of Berlin, and his discovery of his scholarly vocation. In shimmering prose, Brombert evokes his upbringing in Paris's upper-middle-class 16th arrondissement, a world where "the sweetness of things" masked the class tensions and political troubles that threatened the stability of the French democracy. Using the train as a metaphor to describe his personal journey, Brombert recalls his boyhood enchantment with railway travel—even imagining that he had been conceived on a sleeper. But the young Brombert sensed that "the poetry of the railroad also had its darker side, for there was the turmoil of departures, the terror . . . of being pursued by a gigantic locomotive, the nightmare of derailments, or of being trapped in a tunnel." With time, Brombert became acutely aware of the grimmer aspects of life around him—the death of his sister, Nora, on an operating table, the tragic disappearance of his boyhood love, Dany, with her infant child, and the mounting cries of "Sale Juif," or "dirty Jew," that grew from a whisper into a thundering din as the decade drew to a close. The invasion of May 1940 dispelled the optimistic belief, shared by most of the French nation, that the horrors that had descended on Germany could never happen to them. The family was forced to flee from Paris, first to Nice, then to Spain, and finally across the Atlantic on a banana freighter to America. Discovering the excitement of New York, Brombert nonetheless hoped to return to France in an American uniform once the United States entered the war. He joined the U.S. Army in 1943, and soon found himself with General Patton's old "Hell-on-Wheels" division at Omaha Beach, then in Paris at the time of its liberation, and later at the Battle of the Bulge. The final chapter concludes with Brombert's return to America, his enrollment at Yale University, and the beginning of a literary voyage whose origins are poignantly captured in this coming-of-age story. Trains of Thought is a virtuosic accomplishment, and a memoir that is likely to become a classic account of both memory and experience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393051155
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 06/01/2002
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Victor Brombert is the Henry Putnam University Professor of Romance and Comparative Literatures Emeritus at Princeton University and has served as chairman of its Council of Humanities. The author of eleven works of criticism, he lives in Princeton with his wife, Beth Archer.

Read an Excerpt

Trains of Thought

Paris to Omaha Beach, Memories of a Wartime Youth
By Victor Brombert

W. W. Norton & Company

Copyright ©2002 Victor Brombert
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0393051153

Chapter One


It may have been drizzling, as on so many winter days. I do not remember where we took the bus on this expedition to the rue de Provence. Was it at La Muette, close to where Jacques lived, or on the place de Passy, not far from my parents' apartment? All I recall is that we got off near the Gare Saint-Lazare and then walked somewhat furtively to our destination, looking up to check street numbers. Jacques preceded me. After all, he was a year older, and it was he who had all the information. I envied him, and not only for his carefree gait. His father had encouraged him, had given him the address-and the money.

The fourteen-year-old boy that I was then secretly hoped that the bus ride on this initiatory trip would never end. We were standing as usual in our favorite place on the open rear platform, which, at every stop and start, bounced up and down. In those prewar days, the green Renault buses in Paris all had a rear platform on which some eight or nine people could stand and from where the contrtleur signaled to the driver by means of a chain he yanked in an experienced manner that made the pear-shaped handle fly up and then swing for a while. I still see thedance of the chain and smell the unmistakable Parisian bus exhaust that often made me slightly sick-and on this occasion almost quelled my courage.

We had been talking about 122, rue de Provence for weeks, planning and postponing, inspired by our disreputable but much admired classmate Pierre Masselli. The problem for me was the money. There simply was no way I could approach my father. That was unthinkable on such a subject. I had to find another way, even if it meant searching in our apartment for some object I could dispose of without it being immediately missed. The appropriation of the silver tea-glass holder that came from Russia and the subsequent transaction at the pawnshop on the rue de la Tour remain foggy, as in a dream. It is the bus ride that is clear on the playback screen of my memory.

So are the lengthy discussions on our walks back from the lycie. And now, relived in a repeated present, apprehension gripped me as I followed Jacques, who kept bantering me, on our way to what the English clients, we had heard, called the "One-Two-Two." But here things get blurred. Was it on my first or my second visit that I noticed the softly lit, carpeted staircase on which one felt far removed from the bustle outside? And the large room with mirrors, where multiform graces in diverse attires and poses expected to be chosen as the one-hour favorites of today's budding two pashas? Or was it a later literary association? Jacques and I, of course, never heard the famous call "Ces dames au salon!" which the madam is supposed to utter. But there they were, assembled as on a stage, on display. We made our choice-I did so almost blindly, lifting my hand and pointing in the direction where I had glimpsed a gentle smile. Then another muffled staircase, the pressure of an arm around my waist, tender words no one had ever spoken to me quite in that way.

I see myself in a room all softness and silence. Her name was Maggie, and she looked a little like the sad-eyed singer Edith Piaf when she was still known as "La Mtme Piaf." There was nothing threatening in her gestures, her poses, the ritual of ablutions. "Is this the first time?" she asked, astride me. I denied this vehemently. But I took no initiatives, letting things happen. Maggie was impressed by my silk shirt, which I had been reluctant to take off, and which she unbuttoned swiftly, examining the breast pocket on which my initials appeared inside the woven image of a pagoda. The shirt was a recent present from my uncle who lived in Shanghai, where he managed the local branch of my father's business. Maggie wanted to know if I had a girlfriend. She seemed curious about the girls we knew. I told her that my friends and I kissed the girls, and held hands at the movies, sometimes fondling their breasts-but that otherwise we did not touch them much. She shook her head but seemed to understand. What I did not tell her is that we entertained powerful dreams about their mothers, whom we imagined to have lascivious dispositions and to be experts at dispensing caresses with their mouths and tongues precisely in the way Maggie did so naturally and almost innocently.

Tender and solicitous, she wanted to talk. She asked me whether I would come back. I later wondered what a visit of two adolescents meant to the women in that shuttered house with the sober fagade standing quietly on the busy street near the district known as the quartier de l'Europe. The irregularity might have titillated them; we were, I am sure, legally underage. Their smiles may have betrayed maternal dispositions, though some of them were probably not much older than we were. In any case, our appearance in the salon must have come as a relief between the visits of thick-necked, square-jawed businessmen and inebriated English or German clients.

Maggie's and her colleagues' amusement I can only guess at retrospectively. I do not remember how or to whom I handed over my ill-gotten money. When Jacques and I met in the street, he was visibly annoyed. Upon taking his leave, he discovered that he had forgotten to bring the money his father had given him. He offered his wristwatch to the huffy and barely civil madam as a guarantee that he would come back and redeem it. He did just that the following day, to the surprise of the much softened matron, who called out to the girls, "Look, he has come back to pay!"

Over the years, Jacques and I never failed to go over the entire episode, retelling it to each other in elaborate detail, laughing at the same junctures, congratulating ourselves on this early exploit, delighted by this special complicity that kept us close. The invasion of France in 1940 separated us. Jacques served as a bombardier pilot in the American Air Corps and later became a successful businessman in Belgium. We lost track of each other for more than thirty years. When we finally met again, it was near the battlefield of Waterloo, where he had settled in a bucolic house close to the ravine where Napoleon's cavalry met its doom. We were both married by then, and had been for quite some time. But this did not prevent us from once again going over the high moments of our early teenage adventure, which in the proximity of the famous battlefield acquired an added mythical dimension. We did not quite conclude, as do the two friends at the end of Flaubert's Sentimental Education, "This is the best we've had." I always liked that ending. There is something at once cynical and touching in that novel's final pages. For in fact nothing much happened during the recalled visit to the establishment known as La Turque. Intimidated by the assembled women, Fridiric took flight, and since Fridiric had the money, his friend Deslauriers had to follow. Our story was different. Yet we also somehow did not lose our innocence on that winter afternoon near the Gare Saint-Lazare. Whenever I teach Flaubert's novel, I feel that I have a special understanding of that last chapter. The lived experience and the literary one now color each other. Perhaps this is the best way to read books.


I could not speak about such matters with my father. Not because he was cold or distant; I never heard him say a harsh word to me. But he was prudish and afraid of disease. There was nothing of the assertive male or seducer in him. He could tell an off-color joke, such as the one about the wealthy Muslim in his harem with a bon mot at the end about providential potency, but it never sounded right in his mouth. He lectured me with embarrassment about the ravages of syphilis. Noses that crumbled, perforated palates, paralysis and madness. Tabes is a word he learned somewhere, and he brought it up as the ultimate horror. He may not have read medical textbooks, but he was familiar with their popularizations, and he also echoed textbook indictments of masturbation. He had read and seen Ibsen's plays and deplored the fates of Baudelaire and Maupassant-writers he somehow placed on the same level. I sometimes wondered what his own sexual initiation had been like. But then, even sex between him and my mother was hard to imagine, despite outward signs of tenderness and physical contact. They would interlock their little fingers impromptu, without any discernible reason. I later learned that this was their signal for reconciliation.

No, an amorist he certainly was not. His nickname was Jascha. He was gentle, almost meek. As a little boy, shy myself, I was not yet offended by his submissiveness, which hid a capacity for carrying grudges. What remains most vivid from my early memories are his soft hands, his myopic, watery eyes looking at me lovingly, the close-up view of the marks near the bridge of his nose when he took off his pince-nez. He later gave up these glasses clipped to the nose by a tight spring and adopted round, dark, horn frames that made him look less like a utopian scholar and a little more like a modern executive. The softness of his hands was due to his use of glycerin every time he washed them, which he did with concentrated energy and always three times in a row, with much splashing of water. He was almost completely bald, yet he used two stiff brushes that he vigorously, and I imagine painfully, applied to his reddening skull in the belief that it would benefit his remaining hair.

In the mornings before leaving for his office, he would spread a small rug on top of the Chinese carpet in his study and proceed to exercise in his pajamas. He called it "ma petite gymnastique"-doctor's orders. It was nothing like the sweat-producing aerobics of today, but rather a leisurely one-two-three-four movement of the arms, then the torso, then the pivoting head, bending now and then to barely touch the toes, and then concentrating, as though it were particularly strenuous, on opening and closing the hands-all this accompanied by considerable huffing and puffing, and by grunts of effort as well as satisfaction. The exercises were ritually followed by the ingestion of a yogurt that came in a glass jar covered by a tough, parchmentlike, translucent paper that made a special crackling sound when it was pierced with the spoon. My father always offered to share some of the yogurt with me and had another clean spoon ready for that hygienic early morning communion.

The two syllables hygihne covered a great many things, above all warding off dreaded infections, a dirty word in our household. On my father's strict injunction, the apartment was always well stocked with bandages, adhesive strips, and of course iodine, which was applied under parental supervision at the slightest scratch. Fear of rusty objects (rouille was another dirty word) related to the same dread of infectious disease. One of my father's cautionary anecdotes was the story of a circus strongman called Breitbart, whose Germanic name translated for me the image of an immensely wide beard into a symbol of Herculean strength. This reputedly unbeatable weightlifter was vulnerable after all-like Samson, though in a less poetic way. He neglected to take care of a tiny self-inflicted wound from a rusty nail. He died, so my father told me, within a few days. A simple application of iodine would have saved him! No wonder I could not approach my father about the planned expedition to the rue de Provence.

Jascha, as he was affectionately called, loved to walk briskly, with a strut. "Gambader" was my mother's expression for his way of prancing, as he inhaled and exhaled the air audibly and with visible satisfaction. She would make fun of the way he thrust his feet outward, much as she made gentle fun of his large, spread ears. She saw to it, after my birth, that my baby ears were taped to my skull in order to avoid this hereditary blemish. Jascha looked forward to summer vacations in Vichy or Karlsbad, where he would parade up and down the promenade near the spring wells that made those places famous. In town I often accompanied him to the avenue du Bois or the Bois de Boulogne, admiring the way he held, twirled, and swung his cane. He was himself something of a frant-a Russian word he teasingly applied to acquaintances whom he considered dandies. On these walks, he wore spats and a dapper hat, smartly tilted. I don't recall ever seeing him outdoors without a hat. That was the custom: even on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, where we spent Easter vacations in search of the sun, or on the Croisette in Cannes, where we accompanied my mother when she played in bridge tournaments at the Httel Miramar, men and women were never seen without headgear, even on the mildest days. I recently came across a newspaper photograph of the Promenade des Anglais going back to the turn of the century. It was taken at midday, judging by the shadows cast. All the men sported derbies or fedoras, all the women carried open parasols. Even young boys wore the stiff straw hats known as canotiers. Looking at that old black-and-white picture, I realize how little the scene had changed between that distant Belle Ipoque and the 1930s.

My father's way of dressing, much like the seriousness of his dedication to restorative vacations and daily siestas, reflected the values and phobias of his bourgeois world: cult of solvency, aversion to idleness and dissipation, obsession with health (both personal and social), fear of any disorder, addiction to cures and spas, respect for doctors, for law, and for political stability. Vestimentary appearance was a program of correctness. Behind my desk chair, on one of the bookshelves, stands a photo cutout of my father, the kind known as photo statuette. It carries the Czech name of a studio in Karlsbad, and the date 1924-one year after my birth. It shows my father standing very straight, almost stiffly, holding his gloves in one hand, the handle of a cane with the other (the rest of the cane broke off long ago), with a pochette neatly tucked into his breast pocket and a pearl pin in his tie. The expression on his face is at the same time dreamy and grave.


Excerpted from Trains of Thought by Victor Brombert Copyright ©2002 by Victor Brombert. Excerpted by permission.
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