Prince Bolkonsky dies in my grandmother’s bedroom. Levin and Oblonsky dine at Blackie’s House of Beef (in Washington, D.C.). Mr. Darcy snubs Elizabeth Bennet in my parochial school lunchroom — which is also the scene of the ball that enchants Emma Bovary.
When I read imaginative literature, the action often takes place in the settings of my own past, especially of my childhood. The results are frequently preposterous, as when Dr. Johnson and his cronies gather in my pediatrician’s waiting room. Sometimes they’re absurdly literal, as when Jay Gatsby takes Nick Carroway to a speakeasy in the basement of the house where I grew up. (Fitzgerald writes that the saloon is in a cellar.) The associations can make a not-so-mysterious psychological sense, as when Dmitri Karamazov holds a raucous party, then undergoes interrogation on suspicion of murder, in the classroom where I had to sit through ninth-grade study hall.
Occasionally I’m proud of my misplacements, if they imply an eccentric sophistication. When Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau sets off from Paris by steamboat, as far as I’m concerned he’s headed up the Yangtze river from Shanghai. (I’ve been there, you see.) More frequently, though, I’m embarrassed by what I imagine, as when Frédéric attends an aristocratic party held in Mr. Wilson’s living room (from the T.V. sitcom “Dennis the Menace” — as real to me, once, as any place I’d actually been).
I once asked a friend if she had my same problem. “But I have a very wide visual vocabulary,” she said. If the text indicated an eighteenth-century English country house, or a Renaissance villa in Tuscany, or a pastoral scene (the sort of thing that almost always sends me back to the junior-high football field near my parents’ house), she could call up something suitable. But after all, she’s a professional painter.
My own visual vocabulary has grown over the years, and I’m increasingly able to put together composite images whose sources are hard to detect, or long forgotten, and which can therefore pass for original. Yet when I read the most vivid, arresting, and moving literature, I still find myself seeing the wrong, familiar places.
For a long time I worried that this tendency betrayed a failing much more shameful than a lack of experience: i.e., a feeble imagination. Now I’m resigned to my way of inhabiting a book and allowing it to inhabit me. Virgil didn’t envision Trojans and Italians battling in a park in Chevy Chase, Maryland, but when I do, I’m being as true as I can to the spirit of the Aeneid. (At least that was the best I could do when I last read it. After two and a half years in Italy, it might be time for another try.)
At any rate, I’m happier with my homely imaginings than I would be with the experience of a certain literature professor I know. When I asked her what sorts of pictures fiction conjures up in her mind, she said: “Oh, I read too quickly for that to be an issue.” Which I took to mean that she sees nothing at all.