Paul Theroux and Little Dorrit at the Crossroads—Another Coincidence


This evening the three of us (my wife, our older daughter, and I) were engaged in that familiar challenge of agreeing on a movie to watch. My wife cautiously proposed “Little Dorrit.” I was glad to let our daughter veto this one. As they contemplated the remaining possibilities, which did not seem to improve, I settled into a chair and resumed my reading of Paul Theroux’s celebrated travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar. Soon I was sufficiently reconciled to this alternative, and I hardly noticed when the ladies went downstairs and got their movie on.

The early pages of Theroux recount his ride on the Orient Express, setting out in Switzerland and making his way, with stops at Milan and Venice, to Yugoslavia. Within a few minutes of reading, it occurred to me that the tunnel called “the Simplon,” described on page 17, greatly resembles the tunnel we passed through by train some years ago, going from Grenoble through the alps into Italy to make a connection in Milan. I savored these pages with greater pleasure, thinking of that trip we so enjoyed (on a more satisfactory train, I believe).

A few pages later Theroux was reporting his observations about passengers as they boarded and de-boarded at various stations. On page 24 he explains how he managed to extricate himself from the pleasantries of conversation with a ragtag group of fellow travelers and retire to his cabin. He writes, “I said good night and went to bed to read Little Dorrit.”

The coincidence is notable, don’t you think? Not significant, but notable. Little Dorrit has seldom made an appearance in any of my reading or conversation with others. But tonight she strikes twice, in the most unlikely of ways. What does she conspire to accomplish by her double-appearance?

I only hope the coincidence does not augur financial ruin in our household. (You may need to refresh your memory of the plot in Charles Dickens’ novel.) It does remind me of Arthur Clenham’s curious experience at the “Circumlocution Office,” where the story’s hero seeks to find answers within a hopelessly confused tangle of papers. In chapter 10 of Little Dorrit, Arthur is referred to this Office with these words: “The question may have been, in the course of official business, referred to the Circumlocution Department for its consideration.” One knows immediately that Arthur’s prospects for finding the answer to his burning question are not promising.

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