Seeing Things


in Beyond Words


Because I know the author, when I read Find Me by Laura van den Berg I pictured Laura as the protagonist. It’s not an autobiographical novel, and the character, Joy, is not especially like Laura in her physical description. Joy says: “My hair falls past my shoulders in dark waves, lush and healthy-looking. No bangs, center part.” Laura’s hair is light brown, usually shoulder-length, often with bangs. But my mind made the shortcut on its own, and it would have taken effort to correct it.

I read Howards End some 15 years after seeing the Merchant Ivory adaptation, and inevitably pictured Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter in the roles of the sisters. However, for the first third of the book, I mixed up the roles, and had Emma Thompson as Helen and Helena Bonham Carter as Margaret in my mental casting. When I realized I was picturing them wrong, I had to forcibly correct it. I now avoid reading a book when I’ve already seen the movie.

Am I alone in these habits? Do some readers invent new characters and settings from whole cloth, conjuring up an entirely unique world every time they open a novel? Nabokov apparently did, and held that doing so was part of being a careful reader. In “Good Readers and Good Writers,” the fussy, at times even bitchy introduction to his Lectures on Literature, he writes:

We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already knew.

Good readers, he says, “must see and hear things,” should “notice and fondle details”: “We must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manner of an author’s people. The color of Fanny Price’s eyes in Mansfield Park and the furnishing of her cold little room are important.” What’s odd to me about this claim is the implication that readers have an option, that we could read a text and not see and hear things. Visualization seems to be an involuntary and inherent part of understanding words on a page. An article for grade school teachers says, “We know that when readers lose their mental picture, comprehension is lost as well.” Another calls these mental pictures “brain movies.”

My dreams often feature people I’ve never met or seen before, strange buildings and landscapes that don’t exist, but my conscious, reading mind rarely bothers with all that. When I’m not picturing Laura van den Berg or Emma Thompson, I don’t really picture a complete person at all — more of a sketch of a person, with a body and hair but a vague, semi-facelessness. When I read The Door by Magda Szabo, my sketch of Emerence, the old housekeeper, was especially sketchy, because I’m not sure what Hungarian women look like. I felt somewhat licensed in this instance, since the character wears a head scarf that “juts forward like a warrior’s helmet,” and she is often depicted as expressionless: “Emerence’s face resembled nothing so much as a calm, unruffled, early-morning mirror of water … that mirror-lake face, in the shadow of its ceremonial scarf, gave nothing away.” In my mind, Emerence’s face resembled nothing.

The narrator of The Door is never described, so I just went ahead and pictured the main character from the last novel I had read, Nothing Natural by Jenny Diski. I realized I was doing it a few pages in. Nothing Natural’s Rachel is described in some detail: “She liked her wild curly hair, and her long thin face. She was pleased by the Jewishness of it, the Semitic nose, small black eyes and full mouth. She liked the contours of her ribs and shoulder blade which stood out as she turned sideways in the mirror, and the jutting curve of her sharp hipbone above the neat brown thigh.” All this description forced me to imagine a more complete avatar, and having done the work, it made sense for my mind to use “Rachel” again. When I read After the Circus by Patrick Modiano, I pictured some of the characters I’d already drawn up for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime — both are about young lovers in France. Why start over?

My whole life, I have always imagined the houses in books as my own house or a house I’m familiar with. Rich families always get assigned to my childhood best friend’s house, since it’s the largest house I know well. As a kid most houses were my parents’ house, and now I automatically picture either my current apartment or an apartment from my recent past, even when it doesn’t fit the descriptions. Sometimes, I’ll try to “stretch” the apartment to house proportions, or modify the architecture — move a door, add a staircase. But when I’m not concentrating on it, I’ll go right back to picturing the real apartment.

In her essay “Bonanza,” from The Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard writes about visiting her grandmother’s house as a child, lying on the floor and watching her television. Of course, I pictured my own grandmother’s house — my maternal grandmother — where I spent a lot of time as a child. I pictured her living room and her television, which was embedded into an old-fashioned console, the kind with built-in speaker casings, panels of metallic mesh on the front.

Instantly I was subsumed in a deep sense memory. I remembered the texture of her pillows (soft) and couch (scratchy), where I so often sat and ate strawberries dipped in powdered sugar, my favorite snack. I remembered the big beveled glass candy jar that sat on top of the console, by the entry from the kitchen, and was usually filled with sugar-free candies (she was diabetic). I remembered the rows of hard covers on the bookshelves above it (many of them those abridged novels, four or five to a volume, that Reader’s Digest used to make); the framed black and white photographs of my mother and my uncle when they were young; the artificial plants, silk leaves gathering dust; the little collectibles, wooden music boxes and figurines of clowns. I often wish I could walk through that house now and see everything exactly as it was, all the old furniture and knick-knacks in place, as if it were a museum. It would be like a Woody Allen movie, when he stands in the room with his childhood self. But I can’t do that; the house and most of its contents were sold when she had a stroke in 2001.

It amazes me that the images I “see” while reading are real enough to become memories. I can remember scenes from books I read when I was eight or nine – not just the narrative of what happened, but the exact same visuals as they played out in my head at the time. They’re encoded as though I watched the books. There are scenes from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret that I specifically remember as taking place in my grandmother’s kitchen (a long alley kitchen, with pink wallpaper and swinging doors on one end that opened to the hallway where the bedrooms were). Maybe I was spending the night there, sleeping in my mother’s old bed, when I first read the book.

I think I was 15 when I read The Catcher in the Rye in one sitting, transfixed. I haven’t reread it since, but several times a year, I think of Holden Caulfield sitting in the stairwell at the museum, trying to rub out the Fuck you graffito on the wall. I checked, and it’s not the same passage, but at some point I conflated it with the part where he says, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” So I picture him, Holden, in the stairwell, often when I’m missing someone. •

Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius via Flickr (Creative Commons)