I am in the midst of reading a marvelous novel—more of a thinly disguised memoir, I suspect—called Dreams of My Russian Summer by Andrei Makine. In it, the protagonist tells of summer-long visits with his French grandmother, who lives at the edge of the Russian steppes, where she relates stories about growing up in France. For him, France becomes a magical, far-away land, with strange places, grand people, and mysterious foods, such as the "bartavels and ortolans" served at a state dinner for the Russian tsar in Cherbourg.
This magical perception of France continues throughout his childhood, and, then, as an adolescent, he is moved to learn more about this mysterious country. So, he embarks on an independent study of French history and culture, the end result of which is not deeper enchantment, but simply an accumulation of knowledge. This, he finds when he visits his grandmother afterward, has destroyed the magic of her stories.
But then he finds a way to reclaim the sense of magic, wonder, and, I contend, love that had previously characterized his perception of France. After contemplating a yellowed newspaper image of three women in Victorian dress photographed on the street in Paris, he is bitterly disappointed that their image seems flat and unreal. But he continues to think about them for the remainder of the day, and, finally, standing on the balcony of his grandmother's little house, he finds a way to enter their world and experience it in his mind and heart:
"It was then that, returning to the memory of the elegant trio, I had this simple thought, this last echo of the sad reflections in which I had just been sunk. 'What they had in their lives was an autumn morning, cool and clear, an avenue in the sun, strewn with dead leaves, where they paused for a moment, motionless before the lens. Bringing the moment to a standstill…Yes, there was in their lives a clear autumn morning…'"
"I was suddenly transported with all my senses into the moment that the smile of the elegant trio had captured. I found myself amid the ambience of its autumnal smells; so penetrating was the acrid scent of dead leaves that my nostrils palpitated. I blinked at the sun that shone through the branches. I heard the distant sound of a phaeton bowling over cobblestones. And still the confused murmuring of a few laughing remarks that the three women exchanged before freezing before the photographer…Yes, intensely, fully, I was living their time!"
I don't think I've ever read a passage that captures so accurately the complete immersion in an imagined scene that good writing requires. The author has clearly fallen in love with these characters, with this moment on a Paris street. He is as enthralled with it as he would be with a woman he was falling in love with. In fact, he enters into it so fully that, for a moment, he says, "I was suddenly afraid of being trapped there forever." Anyone who has fallen in love knows that feeling of being totally enthralled with the loved one.
It is this immersion in, this willingness to give one's self over completely to, an imagined scene that makes those scenes come alive for the reader. As Robert Frost succinctly put it: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." If we want our readers to inhabit the worlds we create, we must first inhabit them ourselves—love them so much that we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel their reality. No love for the writer, no love for the reader.