Reading Gogol in Wyoming

To read against place is to invite fantasy by exchanging worlds.

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    A wood barn at the base of the Teton mountains in Wyoming.
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On the page, the troika sings through the snow. Curled up by the wood stove in my cabin, I look up to see flakes drift into the August afternoon. In the mountains of Wyoming, snow flurries in late summer are not unusual and most mornings one wakes to a glitter of frost on the long grass. I am reading Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” which might seem an odd choice for this high mountain ranch. Why not Owen Wister’s “The Virginian” or something by Terry Tempest Williams? Because I love to read against place. I do it on purpose.

When I chose to read Howard Frank Mosher in the south of France, the dry Provençal hillsides gave northern Vermont’s tangled woods an extra depth. The crisp remembered scents of pine and apple seemed sharper as I breathed in sage and lavender. And every day I could set the busy street life of a French village against the isolation of a Kingdom County hill farm.

Amid the bleat of taxis and the foggy lights of London evenings, I read “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Gray skies and age-worn brick and stone made the red cliffs and cloudless blue sky of Willa Cather’s New Mexico stand out with special brilliance. Riding along the canyon’s rim with the archbishop, I relished the promised comforts of an old city – a cozy fireside, a pot of tea.

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Living in Florence, I read Flannery O’Connor. Surrounded by the opulence of the Renaissance Roman Catholic church – marble bell towers and cupolas, gilded Madonnas – I could see the same faith stripped bare. In the hardscrabble American South, it was neither pretty nor exalted but uncompromising and necessary.

And now Gogol in Wyoming. I follow the hero through a landscape of steppe and birch forest. Although there might be some similarity in the wide-open spaces, this is a world of eccentric landowners, of custom and tradition in which every conversation skirts the shoals of class. I am reading about caste in a place that defiantly ignores it. Easterners went West to escape conventions far less entrenched than those of 19th-century Russia. The West was a land of action, no dawdling about the old estate deciding, or not deciding, what to do next, nominally in control of servants, who were, in turn, busy with their own survival tricks.

The obvious explanation for this predilection, of course, is the effect of contrast, black and white, the dot of red that intensifies green. But I think it owes more to the child’s magical wish to be in two places at the same time – the exchange of worlds that drives good fantasy, the door at the back of the wardrobe, two conflicting realities, between which, for a time, one passes easily.

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