I do not understand. I cannot tell who is real, or who is imagined. I tell myself that it does not matter, but it does. I tell him that the book is strange, but I cannot say why; I tell her I will write to her about it, but I cannot begin. I am restless when the book ends, my right leg is shaking in the way that my aunt hates, and I am chewing on my lower lip because I want to say something, but do not know what.

So I pick on lines, and metaphors, on Lorrie Moore’s sentences that throw images at me before leaving them there and carrying on, unconcerned. They are hanging and unconnected to the larger story that should be more important, but it really isn’t. I have grown accustomed to the importance of this larger story, to focus on all that happens, and how people there react; I have grown accustomed, and forgotten to look beyond.

I both am and am not the Benna that Moore creates; it is easy for me to forget that her daughter, Georgianne, exists only in her head, that she is just differently real. I think of all the people I have made up, none with so much detail or feeling, I do not know what they look like, or sound like, or what they are wearing. In our conversations, I am saying the smart, witty, sensible things I would not have said otherwise, and these people disappear when our conversations grow old. But for Benna, her daughter is real—she hugs her, shows her the wisdom tooth she has had removed, finds her a baby sitter, and takes care of her when she is ill. “I made up a real daughter,” “I don’t go around making up imaginary daughters,” she tells Gerard. There is Benna’s real, my real, and the reals we have created.

There is a moment when Benna sees Georgianne standing at the top of a staircase. In that moment I wondered what she saw, but it is only a moment for me; Benna does not stop to think that her daughter is not really there, and her story moves on. I wonder what Benna is actually doing when she is with daughter—sitting, standing, teaching, or in a café—like the times she meets her friend Eleanor, who is as real as Georgianne. They meet at cafés and over dinner and talk about everything—poetry, Middlemarch, men—important things that matter, even if you do not want them to.  Eleanor and Georgianne are like the characters you want to create when you write, the characters that grow beyond your control, and take your stories where they want to go.

“Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters,” Benna says, as she talks about language and words. It is this reshuffling that she is always doing—in her metaphors, in the people in her life-both real and differently real, in the images that she creates, and the stories that she tells and retells. Benna’s story is a pack of cards shuffled perfectly for a game; hers is also more than one story. Then what is meaning?

What Nabokov did

In the end, I was ‘she’. ‘She’ and ‘him’ were always together, a pair, ‘they’. And since ‘she’ was I, I was a part of ‘they’.

In ‘Symbols and Signs’, that’s what Nabokov had done—I sat in the subway and saw her husband’s hands, my husband’s hands, “twitching” on the umbrella, with their “swollen veins and brown-spotted skin”. I watched the girl cry on the shoulder of a woman who resembled Rebecca Borisovna.  I looked through my son’s photographs—“As a baby, he looked more surprised than most babies”, I saw a picture of our maid in Germany with her “fat-faced fiance”, and I saw Aunt Rosa.

If this is what Nabokov intended, he had succeeded. As I read the story over and over, the questions that had struck me the first time faded away and they didn’t matter. I was ‘she’, and so there was no need for me to name myself, my husband, my son. But who would know the others? If indeed names created identities, then they had to be named. They were nouns.

When I feel like writing, I look so hard to find something to write about. Sometimes I spend most of my time thinking, worrying that I have nothing to say, and no stories to tell. I look for larger things, and what these things are I do not know; things I consider important, because I feel like I must have something to say. And so I forget to do what Nabokov does—talk about everyday things, things that have become normal and I no longer see as if for the first time. There are sudden, isolated moments when I’m intensely conscious of things around me, when I see for instance that Appa’s beard is more grey than black now. But those moments seem to come only when I have nothing to do, and I have never written then.

Recently, a friend of mine got glasses, and suddenly things around her seemed so much clearer, she said. Reading ‘Symbols and Signs’ was something like this—I noticed “the last dregs of the day were mixed with the street lights”; I heard the “dutiful” beating of hearts on the stopped train, and then the rustling newspapers; images and sounds so normal, that though I don’t like to admit it, seemed as though I had never previously experienced them.

I am convinced that details mean so much more than just words on a paper, that they show, and are a way of seeing and experiencing. But when I write, details seem to support a story, help it stand and be noticed—they aren’t the story. They are real but not real enough; they are present but can be passed unnoticed rather easily; they are mere frills, accompaniments. In ‘Signs and Symbols’ the details are the story, what ‘she’ sees is what we see. The details that Nabokov chooses might seem unnecessary; they don’t answer questions. What is the dark haired girl on the train with “grubby red toenails” crying about? Who is the girl with the “toneless, anxious young voice”? What is the phone call about, who is Charlie? I will never know. Initially, I felt deceived.

“If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not!” writes Nabokov in his description of referential mania. And just as his other descriptions of the mania reminded me of writing, I felt hidden in this construct a questioning of the nature of writing. While I sit and wonder if writing is about creation or representation, writing for Nabokov seemed to be about reminding a person of what they see, hear, smell and feel every day—the most real things that we experience, but hardly remember.

In the end, it was all about writing.