Monday, October 31, 2011

`The Kindly Mirrors of Future Times'

Forty-one years ago last month I went away to college, the first in my family to do so, when I was seventeen and ridiculously unprepared. I had read too much and comprehended too little. For two years I lived in Rodgers Quadrangle, a men’s dormitory on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. This is where I first rehearsed adult living, the scene of many rites of passage, most of them embarrassing to recall. The dorm was demolished last year to make way for a new one. A friend sent me a brief video of the destruction and I found another.

It’s not nostalgia I feel. That’s an indulgence I instinctively resist. Rather, knocking down the dorm leaves me with another mental map that no longer corresponds to an existing place. My memory is spatial. I remember rooms and the arrangement of objects in rooms. I remember the corner of my dorm room where I taped a sepia-toned picture of Kafka. I remember where we put the stereo and listened to An American in Paris and “Layla” for the first time. I remember the gooseneck lamp I used so as not to bother my roommate while I annotated Ulysses. And I remember the blanket on which I sat while reading Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading.

My favorite among Nabokov’s stories is “A Guide to Berlin,” written in Russian in 1925 and not translated into English (by the author and his son Dmitri) until 1976, when it was published in Details of a Sunset. It’s about the creation of memories and the possibility of willing ourselves into the memories of others. The narrator says:

“I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: To portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade."

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