Venturing into the wilderness at any point in life will have an impact on one's personality and lifestyle. It is always an adventure, and it is always dangerous. When Rick Bass and his then girlfriend Elizabeth rode their truck over a severely rutted road into the outback of northern Montana, they were planning to spend their first winter among glaciated mountaintops, moose, and big trees. They made this leap into the wild almost entirely unprepared. In his memoir Winter, Bass chronicles the first year spent snowbound in Montana. As he begins, he makes no attempt to hide the fact that he and Elizabeth were "wondrously poor" or that "the sharpening of a pencil [was] an adventure" for them both (Bass, 2). These admissions of helplessness are rare, in my experience, particularly for a male author, and particularly on page two.
Being someone who appreciates being in control of my daily outcome, I find the wilderness a challenge, wilderness being in all cases that place beyond the borders set, excavated and marked, by civilians. Everything past those straight lines and fences is wild, and chaos springs eternally in the wild, like ragweed or eucalyptus. Over the years, though, I've realized that if I pass through the gate and into those less charted territories feeling even slightly prepared, I enjoy the journey into chaos much more than I enjoy any stroll down any sidewalk. That said I have had the opportunity to read many books which might count as wild, less controlled than the rest because their narrators are unreliable or their settings entirely unfamiliar. If I don't trust the author to guide me on the hunt, I find it difficult to enjoy myself as a reader. This has fueled a way of writing in my own life which is confident to the point of arrogance. I only write about what I know. If I don't know, I don't let on; I'd rather fake it, draw a line, stake out the high ground and hold it. This, upon completing Winter, I believe to be to the detriment of my writing.
Whether painting for his reader a train's boxcar or a rare butterfly, Vladimir Nabokov handles the description with precision. He wields his weighty vocabulary like the sharpest of pencils and sketches every detail of the object in question. I could see the segmented panes of glass in the doors on his trains. I could conjure the dainty butterfly's wings, the artful eye markings on each side. My journey through his memoir Speak, Memory felt much like a walk through a gallery full of line drawings, the most detailed, and perfect black and white line drawings imaginable. He inspired me in so many ways. I could have opted to write about his use of time juxtaposition, propping up the past in relation to the present for the sake of explanation, or about his careful use of specific objects, a tablecloth or a pair of spats, in any sequence to symbolize the greater significance of that particular time. But what I've decided to touch on instead is Nabokov's use of color, simple color, ordinary color, to enhance his line drawings and draw the reader's eye and mind exactly where he wants it to be without complicating the original goal of the moment and memory.
I first noticed his deft use of color early in the book when he describes watching from the dining table through the second story window as his father is tossed in the air by a group of grateful peasants, presenting his family with "a marvelous case of levitation." The memory is a unique one and Nabokov positions his reader by his side at the table in order to view it. We know the layout of the room, his father's political position in relation to the peasants, even what comprises the meal served on the table before them. Those are the graphite lines on the white paper. But the point of the memory has to do with the specific impressions of the young boy at the table who sees "through one of the west windows... the figure of [his] father in his wind-rippled white summer suit... gloriously sprawling in midair... [then] on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon" (Nabokov, 31). The reader has her bearings, but really comes away with the memory of a flash of sprawling white against blue. It's the color that makes it memorable.