Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Reading. Sebold. (On Nabokov).

Reading one writer on another can be one of the purest literary experiences there is. It is one person's words seen through the eyes of someone else, so that you might understand both writers more clearly (and perhaps yourself as well). It alters your own perception of the original work, of the second writer's work, and even your own mind, and as in a kaleidescope all the colors and patterns become something new and entirely different; you come away feeling as if you had learned some new secret. A new idea.

I have been unable to sneak away to the bookstore for some weeks now, and it was not until the other night when I was able to make a furtive trip, returning home with a new Agatha Christie, and Campo Santo, by W. G. Sebold. I had not read anything by Sebold before, but now I think I must. When I got to the cashier, we made small talk about breaking $100 bills (my way of controlling my monthly spending), until she noticed the book I was buying and said ooh! I had to read one of his novels for some German History class I was taking. He's good. She couldn't remember the title, but I will find it somehow. As usual I started with the essays.

It is rare that a title alone catches my attention, but somehow Campo Santo drew my eye. It made me think of Italy, of Pisa, where there is a cemetary in the shape of an oblong cloister, which lies in the shadow of the leaning tower. (It's quiet there. Few tourists come to wander through the carved marble sarcophogi). But the sacred ground Sebold refers to is Corsica, where I have never been, and for now I will skip over those chapters. And head instead for the chapter entitled Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov. (You must have seen this one coming).

I think of Speak, Memory as my own campo santo. I come back to it again and again as though when reading about someone else's childhood, memory, history, I might find some clues to my own. (The title of my blog comes from Nabokov's original title for his memoir, Conclusive Evidence, conclusive evidence that he had existed. All the words here are conclusive evidence that I existed, that I read, ate, loved, all the things I will someday forget). Here Sebold distills Nabokov's words into a treatise on memory and loss; on ghosts. It is rather like bicycling along a road in the falling twilight, when suddenly the streetlights go on and illuminate the winding path before you.

When reading Sebold I feel this strange sensation of lightness, as though I had been tethered to the earth by some mass of confusion, and with every word I feel each rope cut loose so that my mind can float away. It is as though he has given Nabokov a sense of weightlessness, and by extension, me, the reader. When reading Speak, Memory in one gulp you are burdened by the ghosts of Nabokov's life, the themes that would be revisited again and again in his novels, but here they are released so that all that is left is the beautiful sensation of memory.

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