After Vladimir Nabokov
The wind blew in from the window, waking the student from his sleep. Wisps of cold air licked playfully at his arms from the edge of the bed before being smothered by the muggy summer heat. As usual he awoke in his cage of pages. His Tower of Babel formed of the words pressed onto white pages, and colored spines in black ink. The mocking uniformity of the Helvetica that stood to attention, like the bars of a prison window, upright upon the stiff flanks of those novels that lined the shelves that, in turn, lined the walls of the dormitory. Aside from the shelves the room contained a wooden desk, scratched and worn by years and years of use by the many students that had come before him; a plastic chair with wheels, its mobility denied by the tiny dimensions of the room already taken up by the shelves along the walls and the surplus of books that – finding no room among their brethren on the walls – had thrown themselves upon the desk and stacked upon the floor like small totems to some deity of the written word: the room a shrine to some kind of Thoth, a god of black ink upon the page. In every instance of his awakening he was already cognizant of the fiction that surrounded him –the non-reality of his life. Even in his dreams it was present. The realm behind his eyelids was inhabited only by authors, named and unnamed, known and forgotten, trapped like the virtuous pagans of Dante’s first circle.
It was the day he had long prepared for, long envisioned within his mind, buried like a seed that was ready to sprout. All the works that had supplanted his reality would be gone. Committed to flame, transferred into black smoke. The student continued to lie in his bed, transforming the pile of blankets into some kind of living beast that would rise and fall with his breath. He savored the sensation of the play between heat and cold upon his skin, letting it lull him into fantasy.
In his mind he pictured the whole room engulfed, consumed by the greedy tongues of fire. It was as though some ancient memory, saved from antiquity, had travelled the world and, exhausted, taken refuge in his mind: this would be a new Alexandria. The mystery of destruction, of what was lost, would supplant the importance of the works themselves. Perhaps, should that old thought, that conspiracy of his own deduction, be true, and the world be constituted of some great fiction… perhaps the fire should continue through the world itself. Reality would fray away into a gaping hole; the edges alight with an orange glow that bordered upon its own black ashes.
Spurred on by the momentum of the wind his fantasy began to wander, back, back into the past. The avenues of memory began to shift, subtly, as all fantasies change, like a car window gathering fog. One does not notice the transformation of clear to opaque until the whole change has occurred, His world of mind metamorphosed, slowly but surely, from his dorm into the quad. He could not be certain when this memory took place, he had walked across the quad so many times, every step seemingly the same. Every day of his walking had seemed to merge together into some singular event, a platonic memory, and the very action of recollection produced déjà vu. In his mind the quad was just as real as it was outside his window, yet its reality was formed from some ambiguity – an uncertainty. It was built out of some greyness, with the pale, fading strokes of a watercolor. All his memories were haunted by the sensation that beyond what was immediately seen there was nothing, like an actor upon a stage he would walk through this memory, play his part, then vanish.
As he walked across the quad the movements of other students flowing in and out of the corner of his eye like the untraceable dance of dust in a sunbeam, he could not help but wonder if he were anything more than a character in such a story. He could feel the invisible presence of the godly Author’s hand, index finger extended, pressing him with a soft determination as though he were a button upon a keyboard. A simple “I” or “L” or perhaps even a “V,” but certainly nothing as essential or bold as an “S” or an “A.” As these thoughts danced through his memory, one flowing into the next, Joseph was struck by the possibility that this doubt, this meekness, this lack of drive, could very well indicate his inessential nature to such a story. He could, with these very steps, be walking from his birthplace a mere few pages ago straight into nothingness, his existence confined to a few meager sentences. He wondered if he justified the plurality of his thoughts. “Another student walked across the campus, cutting through the crisp autumn air.” And he would be finished. His existence sealed away within the dark abyss of that period.
Again, a shift, back, back again. To his beginnings at this institution of red brick. He had originally planned to be a student of literature, but alas, for all his insight, his inspiration, his ability to see beyond the words to the soul of the work, he could not put his own thoughts into words. He recalled a conversation with a Professor of English. An old man, who wore sweaters with elbow patches and round glasses, balding, but with a scraggly goatee grown, no doubt, to savage some appearance of a radical, inspirational professor. Of course, his efforts betrayed his banality.
From the whispers of the open window, a dialogue:
“There is not a single drop of reality to be found in any book Professor.”
“Surely you only mean fiction? The creation of fantasy on a page is, to some extent, always a rejection of reality. No matter how much an author of fiction attempts to engage in realism the necessity of plot, structure, tone creates artifice within the work.”
“Nonsense. The absence of fiction within writing is simply non-fiction, not reality. The absence of fiction does not make something real.”
His insight was disregarded, betrayed by his own tongue, his eternal struggle for expression. In the end he had turned to film, the art of capturing what was already there. He posed the figures, framed them within the confines of the camera’s lens, made them dance through the steps of the story. All the while he felt sickened by the grotesque mimicry of life. Where the page was unreal, it supposed no life of its own: it was simply a surface. A book could not presume to be a person. The screen though, the camera, sought to capture something of life, it was untouchable. Once something was filmed, its reality was held hostage forever. If only he had been born a few generations ago, he could have collected all the film in the world and burned that instead. Alas, now there was no film, simply the story, captured in some invisible reality of the digital age. The only fantasy left to destroy was that of books: those poor innocent pages never knew that they had done wrong, but ignorance of the law is no defense. They had stolen his life, fed his mind on fantasy, robbed him of expression.
During his recollection the Student had emerged from his bed, dressed himself in a fine cotton button-up and some khaki pants. Had he brought dress shoes to school he would have worn them, but he had never considered to bring them in the first place. Instead he slipped on his most subdued sneakers over a pair of black socks. He began the task of preparing the room: from the closet emerged several bundles of newspapers, saved for such an occasion. He selected volumes from the shelves, seeking the most appropriate stories to burn first. Bradbury was an obvious choice, the irony was too good not to burn it. Freud too seemed an easy subject for burning, “certainly dry enough for kindling” the student thought to himself.
Within the passing of an hour the pyre of pages was finished – a small ziggurat of ink and paper. Books were piled in the center, sheathed in a crumpled cocoon of thin newspaper kindling, ready for burning. Again he thought of the world engulfed in flame, a burning fiction eaten by fresh, real fire. But what would be behind that fiction? Some brick wall, like the hidden reality that lurks behind the screen of a cinema? Should there only be some black, as remains when a film reel itself is set aflame? Would the fragments, those embers and ashes that inevitably remain, tumble forever and coalesce as those scientists suggest our whole world is said to: reforming and expanding? The mystery was so great it was almost enough to stop him, almost.
With trembling hands he opened the top drawer to the desk. Inside were a variety of pens, highlighters, paperclips, and other such supplies. The mundane miscellany of the student. But in the back! Back, behind the rubbish sat a small, unassuming book. The only book of any worth anymore. The book of matches, whose pages called upon the flame! With deep breaths and still unsteady hands the student opened the book of matches: there were three pages left, standing to attention. He plucked the first from the spine, and attempted to read it. Illegible. The script had been lost to time, unable to be illuminated by reason, crumbling with the humidity of the summer heat. The second page followed suit, its translation was itself too old to be read, damp with the air. His hands were trembling uncontrollably. The third page?
Illumination! Legibility! A word of understanding in the darkness of foreign tongues! The flame was alight in his fingers, and where his hand had trembled before now the match’s light flickered in its place. On the floor the pyramid of words beckoned, begging to be set free with the touch of fire. He knelt down, his hand steady, and readied to touch the word of the match to the word of the page. With a shiver of anticipation he paused only for one second to savor this final release, and then… A gust, from the window, the call of cold air swept across him and like a barbarian king ushering in a dark age, doused the flame.
Calmly, the student stood, leaned awkwardly over the bed, squirming with his stomach on the sheets, and closed the window. He walked past the pyre, crinkling the newspaper with his sneakers, and entered into the hallway. For only a second he thought of going out, off the campus, to purchase more matches. He could try again. But no, more than one window had closed. It could not be done again, the story was over. The writer in the sky had blown out the match. The student checked his watch, he still had a half an hour until class. He stuck his hands into his pockets, and began to walk down the stairs, out the door, and across the quad to class.