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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Night Train to Lisbon

Pascal Mercier

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To purchase Night Train to Lisbon

Title: Night Train to Lisbon
Author: Pascal Mercier
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 495 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Night Train to Lisbon - US
Night Train to Lisbon - UK
Night Train to Lisbon - Canada
Night Train to Lisbon - India
Train de nuit pour Lisbonne - France
Nachtzug nach Lissabon - Deutschland
Treno di notte per Lisbona - Italia
Tren nocturno a Lisboa - España
  • German title: Nachtzug nach Lissabon
  • Translated by Barbara Har Harshav
  • Night Train to Lisbon was made into a film in 2013, directed by Bille August, and starring Jeremy Irons and Mélanie Laurent

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Our Assessment:

A- : appealing if drawn out exploration of self and others

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum A- 12-1/2008 Amy Rosenberg
The LA Times . 13/1/2008 Michelle Huneven
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 9/2/2005 Martin Krumbholz
New Statesman . 28/2/2008 Katharine Hibbert
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/1/2008 Liesl Schillinger
San Francisco Chronicle . 6/1/2008 Joseph Olshan
The Telegraph . 24/2/2008 Daniel Johnson
TLS D 29/2/2008 William Brett
The Washington Post . 20/1/2008 Jonathan Yardley
Die Welt A+ 28/8/2004 Gunther Nickel
Die Zeit A 25/11/2004 Otto A. Böhmer

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, very differing opinions

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel, as mesmerizing and dreamlike as a Wong Kar-wai film, with characters as strange and alienated as any of the filmmaker’s, is in fact preoccupied with translation, with all that can be lost or gained in the process. But more than that, it is concerned with the power of language to forge and dismantle people’s experiences, desires, and identities. (…) When a character undertakes this level of soul-searching, the temptation to over philosophize can be difficult to resist, and at times, Mercier succumbs, as with his drawn-out life-as-a-long-train-ride metaphor" - Amy Rosenberg, Bookforum

  • "Its subtlest, most appealing accomplishment may be in how other characters respond to Gregorius' precipitous swerve onto the spiritual path. (...) That said, Night Train to Lisbon is a very long, ambitious book that's feverishly overwritten. (...) 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." - Michelle Huneven, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Mercier’s novel has already sold two million copies since its publication in German four years ago, but it is hampered by an inelegant translation. Even so, this cannot explain the absence of narrative tension, or Mercier’s grandiose style (...). They make the novel particularly ponderous." - Katharine Hibbert, New Statesman

  • "(F)antastical, long-winded and dull (.....) The book was a huge hit in Europe, where the reading public has greater patience for turgid (Mercier might prefer to call it "bombastic") introspection. (...) Mercier’s wording is so dense and overwrought, and Barbara Harshav’s translation so ham-handed, that unpacking each sentence is like decoding a cryptic crossword in hieroglyphs." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Night Train to Lisbon, which first appeared in German in 2004 and went on to sell 2 million copies throughout Europe in many different translations, is not a typical best-seller. It is a meditative novel that builds an uncanny power through a labyrinth of memories and philosophical concepts that illuminate the narrative from within, just as its protagonist will discover the shadows of his neglected soul by bringing the story of another man into the light." - Joseph Olshan, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Night Train to Lisbon is a novel of ideas that reads like a thriller: an unsentimental journey that seems to transcend time and space. Every character, every scene, is evoked with an incomparable economy and a tragic nobility redolent of the mysterious hero, whom we only ever encounter through the eyes of others." - Daniel Johnson, The Telegraph

  • "(O)stentatiously a novel of ideas. (...) It might be that some of the novel's charm has been lost in Barbara Hershav's efficient translation, but the philosophy it expounds is as unoriginal as the plot." - William Brett, Times Literary Supplement

  • "It's a strange book. (...) All of which is interesting enough, but in a rather clinical way. One problem with Night Train to Lisbon is that its plot, if plot is the word for it, consists almost entirely of talk -- talk, talk, talk -- about people and events in the past. The effect of this endless conversation is numbing rather than stimulating. (...) Possibly, Mercier's American publisher thinks that his fiction offers the kind of intellectual puzzles and trickery that many readers love in the work of Umberto Eco, but there are no such pleasures to be found here. Night Train to Lisbon never engages the reader, in particular never makes the reader care about Gregorius. It's an intelligent book, all right, but there's barely a breath of life in it." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • "Geradezu atemlos liest man dieses Buch, kann es kaum aus der Hand legen, bevor den Protagonisten sein Weg nicht wieder dorthin geführt hat, von wo aus er an einem Tag, der zunächst wie zahllose andere begonnen hatte, in ein neues Leben aufgebrochen war: nach Bern. (…) Es ist nicht nur Gregorius' abenteuerliche Rekonstruktion der äußeren Ereignisse in Prados Leben, die immer wieder eine knisternde Spannung erzeugt, sondern vor allem der gedankliche Reichtum der Aufzeichnungen des Arztes, deren abschnittsweiser Übersetzung der Leser beiwohnen kann." - Gunther Nickel, Die Welt

  • "Pascal Mercier hat ein beeindruckendes Buch geschrieben, einen Bewusstseinskrimi mit Tiefgang und ohne Gewähr. Eine Gewähr nämlich gibt es nicht, nicht im Lotto und nicht im Leben, es sei denn, man stellt sie sich, kühnerweise, selbst aus und steht für sie ein, gegen die Anmaßungen des vorgeblich besseren Wissens. Die Philosophie, zumindest die große, nicht mit dem Tagesgeschäft des rationellen Bedenkens befasste Philosophie, hat, dank Peter Bieri, der sich seinen Mercier hält, mehr zu sagen, als sie sich zu sagen traut." - Otto A. Böhmer, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Night Train to Lisbon centres on a high school classics teacher from Berne who has spent almost his entire life -- first as a pupil, then as a teacher -- at the same school in Berne. Raimund Gregorius is a legendary and near-infallible figure in that small world, dedicated entirely to his work, interested only in his Greek and Latin and Hebrew. He was married for a while -- to a former student -- but it's no surprise that that didn't quite work out (even as we first meet him as some passion is awakened in him). Now in his late fifties, he is very set in his ways -- until he encounters woman standing on a bridge on his way to school one morning.
       The meeting changes everything, shaking his world to its very roots. Nothing much happens, and she's gone almost as quickly as she came into his life, but then Gregorius is almost entirely a mind-person and to know that she is Portuguese is enough to set a whole train of events into motion. Leaving even his books behind he heads into town after class, completely out of character. He winds up in a Spanish bookstore -- familiar because Spanish had been his former wife's field -- and stumbles across a Portuguese book there, written by an Amadeu de Prado and published in 1975, 'A Goldsmith of Words'. The bookseller reads out some of the passages and translates them for Gregorius, who then knows he has to have the book, even though he can't read Portuguese.
       He is transfixed by it, and transformed. Without much thought he packs his bags and is ready to set off for Portugal. He has some doubts, but ultimately is determined, and soon enough he's in Lisbon.
       Gregorius is determined to learn the story of the author and the book, as well as the language. He throws himself into the tasks with vigour, helped along by some acquaintances he makes along the way, who also hand him off to others. He's almost scared by his own initiative, repeatedly ready to turn around but then staying after all, and when he does venture back to Berne it's only briefly, as he realises he still has more to do before he's ready to face and continue with his life again.
       The author of the mystery-book was a doctor; after treating one of the worst figures in the Salazar-regime he does penance by trying to help out the resistance. Gregorius meets several people close to the doctor, and between their stories and the passages from the book interspersed throughout the story, learns more about this remarkable figure.
       For Gregorius it's also an opportunity to contemplate the roads he didn't choose: as a youth he was tempted by Isfahan and Persian, but decided to stick to the safer, closer classics, only now to think about those early dreams again. He looks at some of the determining moments from his youth, wondering: what if he had acted differently on occasion.
       Night Train to Lisbon is a dreamy, sleepless sort of novel: Gregorius' schedule is a far cry from the clearly defined schoolday-schedule . He walks for hours, stays up late into the night -- less in insomnia (which one of the few friends he has suffers from, conveniently allowing Gregorius to reach him at any time) than in a sort of dream-state, his actions often almost sub- (or super- ?) conscious.
       Mercier seems to describe almost every footstep Gregorius makes in detail, giving the book a steady rhythm. Some of what happens seems almost too simple and obvious: Gregorius needs a pair of glasses made, and when he gets his eyes checked gets a prescription with which he can suddenly see more clearly -- yet it's his one close Berne friend, the Greek eye doctor Doxiades, whom he had always trusted his vision too, and who had apparently prescribed the old, too-weak ones. Words and names play an obvious role for the philologist, but even with that and, for example, the repeated extended chess games Gregorius gets involved in the novel is anything but purely intellectual and dry: down to Gregorius' students or the woman who teaches him Portuguese, as well as those who knew Amadeu de Prado, Mercier offers rich characters and frequently inspired small details and events. The novel often reads as much as a mystery as a story of finding oneself.
       It's a long trip of self-discovery -- and of trying to discover another (in this case the Portuguese doctor) -- but Mercier manages to sustain the reader's interest. Gregorius is exacting -- and it turns out the doctor was too: someone describes the way he would read, saying that after he was done with a book there wouldn't be any letters left in it, that he consumed the very print off the pages along with the meaning. Mercier seems to want to be as precise and comprehensive, and it practically works. He also offers no easy answers or certainty, the arc ultimately feeling realistic even if the premise seems at first so very unlikely.
       An impressive effort, and worth the effort.

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Night Train to Lisbon: Reviews: Night Train to Lisbon - the film: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Pascal Mercier (actually: Peter Bieri) was born in 1944 and also teaches philosophy.

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