Sunday, May 8, 2016

Outside my open bedroom window, a nestful of baby crows is screeching for breakfast. There must be five or six of them, all cawing at relentless top speed. They sound like adult crows on helium.

Around their tall treehouse, the sky is dull; the air is cool and damp; the forecast is showery. I will plant carrots, beets, leeks, and dahlias; bake sourdough bread; reread Nabokov's Pale Fire. The baby crows will eat and sleep and shout. The parent crows will hunt and fret.

By this time next week my oldest nestling will have graduated from college, though he used to be a terrible early-morning screecher, a 4 a.m. riser with the lungs of Mick Jagger. These days I'm still up at every morning at that hour, but now with an elderly half-blind incontinent poodle who will fall down the stairs if I don't shine a flashlight for her. The next stage, I guess, is getting up at 4 a.m. to fall down the stairs myself.

I can feel Nabokov, that king of anti-coziness, lying in wait for my next paragraph, hoping to trap me into pouring on the sentimental syrup . . . O Time, O Youth, O My Chubby Babies. How gleefully he excavates the lives of silly middle-aged American women. You'd think we had nothing better to do than love our homes and our children.

. . . which he himself loved passionately.

The complications of our duty: something drives the crows forward through the damp air, something within and beyond the shrieks of their young.

The centerpiece of Pale Fire is the long poem titled "Pale Fire," written by the fictional poet John Shade in the last few days before his death. Shade is a Frostian figure, both comic and heroic. But immediately after his death, the poem and its "meanings" are overtaken by its editor, a ridiculous and terrible man named Dr. Charles Kinbote, who turns out to be the deposed king of a small Eastern European country. Kinbote's liner notes manipulate the poem into an epic of nostalgia for his lost country, yet the poem itself is different nostalgia altogether: a tale in rhymed couplets circling around an aging couple who have lost a well-loved child to suicide.

Nabokov plays ruthlessly with the notion of meaning . . . what we ourselves think we mean, what others read into our words; lies and truths, small and large. What does it mean when an old man obsesses about the beauties of youth? What does it mean when a husband hides his bottle of brandy from his wife? What does it mean when a tyrant believes he loves his country?

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