‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ by Ben Lerner (2011)

In April this year, I spent a month in Madrid with my sister. Before leaving, reading about Madrid figured heavily in the preparation, and there could not have been a more perfect novel to have discovered and read than, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.

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The novel is the semi-autobiographical story of Adam Gordon, a talented young poet on a prestigious year-long scholarship in Madrid (Lerner himself was also a Fulbright scholar in Madrid). Ostensibly, the novel covers Adam’s progress through his scholarship; attempting to become fluent in Spanish and keep on track with his academic project, whilst smoking a lot of weed and managing a mental illness. His scholarship, and the novel, culminate around the 2003 attack on Madrid’s Atocha station. Since its publication, the bildungsroman has bought Lerner many accolades and prizes, and also earned him comparisons to Hemingway.

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I felt two very particular things when I read it: one, that it is a really brilliant work of art and two, that I was lucky to have had an experience of reading it – one that I’m not sure I’ve ever had before – whereby I felt the novel was written especially for me, in the sense of, for me to have found and read it at that specific point in my life, felt miraculous. The novel fully inhabited me and in particular the theme of alienation resultant from having a kind of a ‘half-of’ a second-language.

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My own experience of learning Spanish has been one of many highs and lows, setting it apart from any other learning I have ever done. Thinking of all those words; verbs, conjunctions, grammatical idiosyncrasies, all the ever-moving slang, stretching out, unlearned before me, makes me feel wretched. Then, if I manage to dash off a sentence, in speech or written down, without having to think about it, I feel elated.

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Navigating the space between slippery, wriggling things like languages, seems to me to be where the pleasure and the pain of the learning lies. The joy comes from momentarily vanquishing the gap, creating a bridge between one language and another. The pain, from feeling utterly lost within it. Throughout Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner returns again and again to this theme, describing the act of hopeful listening perfectly, and at times – when not feeling that his lack of language is a source of humiliation – he raises these spaces between languages higher than merely a lack of communication, and into a new world of expression:

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I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.

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However, no matter how beautifully explored, it seems to me there is something heartbreaking about this gap, about the knowledge that no matter what effort one makes, and even if fluency is attained, as an outsider you will never fully be assimilated into a foreign country and its language. In the novel, the character of Teresa came to represent the whole of Spain for me. In reading, I extrapolated out Teresa’s grace (‘where did they learn to smile like that?’), as described by Adam, to become my view of the Spanish nation. To me, all Spaniards now appeared to have her grace and ease, the cities, too, all became elegant and effortless, and to realise that I’ll only be ever able to say that objectively, and never to feel it within my own self, saddened me a little.

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When the day finally came for me to leave for Madrid though, all I felt was excitement. My sister and I bought Leaving the Atocha Station along with us, as we wanted to remember and visit some of the places mentioned in it. However, somewhere along the line, this love of the novel became an experiment in psychogeography, or to put it another way: literary stalking. We began to follow Ben/Adam around Madrid and in doing so, came to feel as if we had a friend alongside us, sharing in our own experience, our own alienation and joy, just as we had his.

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The first thing we were keen to find was a particular painting in the Prado, one of Madrid’s ‘big three’ galleries. The first pages of the novel describe the importance of the Prado during the first phase of Adam’s scholarship and this was this reason we wanted to visit:

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From my apartment I would walk down Calle de las Huertas, nodding to the street cleaners in their lime-green jumpsuits, cross El Paseo del Prado, enter the museum, which was only a couple of euros with my international student id, and proceed directly to room 58, where I positioned myself in front of Roger Van de Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. I was usually standing before the painting within forty-five minutes of waking and so the hash and caffeine and the sleep were still competing in my system as I faced the nearly life-sized figures and awaited equilibrium.

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After some wrangling with the Prado’s vast floor plan, we were able to seek it out. I don’t really know why I felt the way I did, and I don’t know what to compare it to either, but I was moved. I felt nervous, I got goosebumps and – although there were many other tourists in the room – I felt like me and my sister were totally alone with the painting. I enjoyed a secret thrill that no-one else (certainly not those with audio-guides strapped to their heads) would be able to guess our reason for being there and neither would they be there for the same purpose (I assumed). We even risked serious reprimand from the keen security staff to take a picture of each of us looking at the painting in a simulation of the opening pages of the novel.

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Other trips included finding the book shop where Adam buys the notepads on which to record the poems he is there to write for his scholarship and trying (and failing) to search for, ‘a mixed bar with Moroccan decor and sequinned cushions’ in the Chueca area of Madrid.  The novel also describes the cafe where Adam has lunch after his daily trips to the Prado, which we did manage to find.

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However, apart from the Prado, our main focus was the Plaza Santa Ana. This is where Adam’s apartment appeared to have been located and a description of him climbing out of his skylight onto the roof in order to look down on the plaza opens the novel.  We sat in the plaza over many evenings trying to decide which attic window might have been his, I was of the opinion that it was on the south side, where I could see a small bit of grating around a window, whereas my sister thought that it was at the top of the building which houses the ever-photographed Santa Ana Cervezaría (on the north side), but all this was nothing but conjecture.

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Finally – somehow – this following of Lerner’s shadow around the city began to gather around an idea: to write to him.  An internet search turned up his agent’s name, then, on a long, hot drive home from a weekend in La Rioja, we began drafting the letter.  At first we didn’t know why we were writing, we certainly wanted to thank him for the novel and to express our deep admiration for his work, but as we wrote, we started to feel we had to know exactly where he had lived, it was the place we wanted to find the most.  By the time we arrived back in Madrid, the letter was done.  This is what we wrote:

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Ben,

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Our names are Jayne and Amy.  We are sisters, and we are writing to you from a cafe in La Latina, Madrid.  We are here for one month to improve our Spanish … amongst other things.  It’s a trip that we have been planning for a long time. 

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We discovered Leaving the Atocha Station through reading your poetry in Granta magazine and it couldn’t have been a more perfect find.  Your book has become our touchstone – reading about Adam was how we imagined it might feel to be a “guiri” in Madrid attempting to become competent in a second language, and the alienation and humiliation associated with it (particularly given that we rather fancy ourselves as being lovers of language who value depth of expression and breadth of vocabulary) It turns out that you, and we, were right!

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We bought a copy of your book with us and we have been using it as a psychogeographic guide to Madrid – or to put it another way we have been following Adam’s shadow around like stalkers.

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Whilst we have smoked less weed than Adam, we have managed to cover quite a lot of the same ground: Salamanca, Atocha station, Casa de Libros (where there was a paucity of notepads), a cocktail at the Ritz, and we searched for a Moroccan style bar with sequinned cushions in Chueca with no luck.  The closest we have felt to your story has been at El Rincón on the Calle del Prado (see attached photo – has it changed?), and at the Prado, standing in front of the “Descent from the Cross” where we both had a “profound experience of art” complete with goose bumps and fluttery stomachs which had little to do with the painting and everything to do with your novel.  We also braved the admonishments of zealous security guards to take the attached photo.

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Finally, a Madrileño friend suggested a nice spot for a drink would be the roof terrace bar of the big white hotel on one of the corners of the Plaza Santa Ana.  He won’t have guessed why we were so enthused at his suggestion: we think it will be the perfect place from which to try and spot Adam’s skylight.  We’ve been to the square several times and haven’t been able to agree on which building it might be.  Having read about you and finding that you were a Fulbright scholar in Madrid we’ve made the assumption that the flat in the Plaza Santa Ana is real, so our question is: would you help us out by giving us the address so that we can complete our odyssey?

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We hope to hear from you, and thank you again for the book.

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Amy & Jayne
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We hardly expected a reply – although dearly hoped for one – but, unbelievably, by the next afternoon, Lerner’s agent had already written back. We could not have been more excited, or surprised, or bewildered. We felt closer than ever to Ben/Adam. Once we read her response, complete with the requested address, we went straight out to find it. She then replied again a few hours later with a photo of Lerner in the Prado, positioned in front of the Descent from the Cross, saying simply, ‘Ben thought you might like this’. We did, a lot.
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We thought this was the (wonderful) end to the story, but actually the novel wasn’t done with us yet. On our penultimate day in Madrid, wandering lazily home and wanting to make the most of the last 48 hours, we found ourselves in a book shop we hadn’t seen before. Almost the first book we saw on entering was, ‘Saliendo de la Estación de Atocha’ – the Spanish translation of Leaving the Atocha Station. We hadn’t known it had come out in translation, as all the Spaniards we had met and mentioned the novel to had not heard of it. We bought all three copies on the shelf. Now, home, after a life-changing month, I feel that finding the novel in Spanish has bought the experience and my relationship with this book full circle. I am now reading about Adam, learning about Spain and Spanish and Spaniards, in Spanish.

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