If I look back, happy moments are often those I explored fictional worlds, in books, video games, film or TV. Two days ago, I decided I would revisit my favourite anime, Saint Seiya. I have since watched a dozen episodes. As I did, sudden elements of my childhood came to mind: a game I played at recess, the face of a classmate, the furniture in my bedroom.
Other stories have similarly joyful associations, and bring back sensorial recollections as I bring them to mind. It is a mild afternoon of early July in Strasbourg, I am thirteen, lying in the grass, holding a yellow paperback – and at the very same time, I am with Angelique, wandering from Turkey to Quebec. I am in a physics class, holding a white paperback on my lap, and as I learn about the periodic table, I am sailing among icebergs, heading to the South Pole. I am in a car, driving across Gippsland to a Christmas lunch, and I am walking through the woods of Lorraine with Lucien Leuwen, the petty conversations of provincial aristocrats echoing around me.
We may think of stories as evasion, whether mediated through words on paper or moving images on a screen. They take us away from the world. The paradox is that, as I look back, these moments of deepest absorption in a fictional world are simultaneously moments of deepest physical presence. Arthur Gordon Pym and my Grade Seven Physics class are forever intertwined, as are Angelique and a bedroom in Benidorm, or the first floor of a Hangzhou Costa Coffee and the gay plotline of Glee. As I recall the faces of the characters and the progress of their adventures, colours and feelings come back, sharp and vivid. Such is the strange way that the mental worlds of past and fiction retrospectively merge, as two faces of a shiny ribbon twirling through time.