The Passenger as Flaneur? Railway Networks in German-Language Fiction since 1945

By Ward, Simon | The Modern Language Review, April 2005 | Go to article overview

The Passenger as Flaneur? Railway Networks in German-Language Fiction since 1945


Ward, Simon, The Modern Language Review


The Passenger as Flaneur? Railway Networks in German-Language Fiction since 1945 by Simon Ward

Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, literature employed the railway network to investigate the experience of modernity. Rather against expectation, this remains the case after 1945. Informed by Wolfgang Schivelbusch's history of the railway journey and Michel de Certeau's essay 'Naval et carceral' ('Railway Navigation and Incarceration'), this article examines the protagonist as railway passenger in works by Wolfgang Koeppen and Sten Nadolny, as well as by (ex-)GDR writers such as Wolfgang Hilbig, among others. The railway passenger can usefully be read as a reinvention of the flaneur, as the works explore the potential of the (literary) imagination within technologically driven historical processes and the rationalizing networks of modernity.

Concluding his study of how the railway industrialized the experience of space and time in the nineteenth century, Wolfgang Schivelbusch turns to the figure of the flaneur, arguing that the latter's retreat into the arcades represented an alienation from the speed of the modern world. With the coming of the railway age, the flaneur could be no more. (1) Schivelbusch's is not the only valediction to the flaneur, but, as often as the flaneur may be pronounced dead, he (or she) returns in a different guise. This is borne out by a collection of essays on the figure published in 1994, edited by Keith Tester. Tester points to the ambiguity that surrounds the historical specificity of the flaneur. Although specific to a Parisian time and place, the flaneur is used as a figure to illuminate issues of city life irrespective of time and place. 'In observing Paris, the flaneur is looking at nothing other than the current expression of modernity. (2)

Walter Benjamin, picking through the remnants of a modernity grown old, used the figure of the flaneur to help define his own role as writer and cultural critic. Through such reinvention, the idea of the flaneur has proved more resilient than the mode of modernity in which he first developed. In Tester's volume, the flaneur is relocated in the contemporary worlds of gastronomy, shopping malls, and intellectual game-playing, and presented as a mythological ideal type. The essays in Tester's volume suggest three central features of the flaneur as a durable phenomenon of modernity. First, the flaneur is a figure of discourse, perhaps more so than an element of social reality. Second, he moves through a landscape of modernity--a landscape that can but does not have to be the city. Third, he is both an observer of that modernity and a commodified participant in its market place, and as such remains in a liminal position, in a situation of existential uncertainty.

It is within this context that I want to suggest that the railway network remains an important location for literature's engagement with the modern world. Bruce Mazlish argues that contemporary flaneurs are to be found on board aeroplanes. 'As communications and computer technology grow in power, the notion of place will be fundamentally altered [...] and the wealthiest nomads will be freed to jet the world, permanently attached only by their friendships and work." Whatever the successes of the 'airport novel', the aeroplane is rarely the location for much serious fiction .4 The irony of Schivelbusch's epitaph is that the railway, which would seem to sound the death-knell of the flaneur's mode of existence, has been adapted by writers in recent years to provide the stage for a reimagined form of flanerie.

In Schivelbusch's account of how the industrialized consciousness developed, the railway is the prime embodiment of modernization. Existing studies of the motif of the railway in German literature have focused on the earlier decades of the railway's existence, coming to a halt by the outbreak of the First World War. (5) By that time, the train is no longer a bearer of the shock of the new; it is a 'naturalized' part of the environment and apparently joins the army of metaphors at any writer's disposal. …

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