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April 2015, vol 11 no 1

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Jonathan McKeown

The Net

morning breeze
one dandelion seed
in a spider web

I have always loved the great Russian authors, but recently I discovered there is one thing I love even more than a great Russian author, and that is a great Russian author that writes in English. I discovered this – delightful surprise – when I finally got around to reading Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov during a recent and, as it turns out, fortunate bout of influenza. Fate it seems had decreed this book would stay with me more than 20 years since the day I first found it, "on special", in one of a set of bookshops in Brisbane, certain sections of which I used to trawl regularly as a young university student. Yes, this book had been cycled from bookshelf to box and back again – unread – through at least a dozen chaotic house moves and yet there it still was, caught in my library net. It is a Penguin paperback edition in pale peppermint relief with a sepia photograph of the young Caucasian author on the front, smoking and looking alert but very much at ease in the prow of a rowboat adrift at Cambridge during the Spring of 1920. Some reference another writer lately made to Nabokov moved me to find it out and settle down at last to reading.

butterfly farm
the wanderer throwing itself
against the net

Today I find myself diverted by one little cameo, an unlikely specimen, from a chapter which recalls the Nabokov family holidays to Biarritz – a place which, since hitherto I never knew existed, Nabokov has virtually created ex nihilo for my solitary good pleasure. Why has this odd passing character remained with me after reading? Why did he remain with Nabokov so perfectly preserved for 30-something years and then to be suddenly brought back to life? It occurs to me that the textual recollections of "the palpitating plage" by the 40-something year old man were first captured by a ten year old boy rarely seen without his butterfly net. Amidst all the "movement and sound" on the beach Nabokov recalls those "provided by venders hawking cacahuètes, sugared violets, pistachio ice cream of a heavenly green, cachou pellets, and huge convex pieces of dry, gritty, waferlike stuff that came from a red barrel." And among all these distracting delicacies he makes particular mention of the waffleman, whose uncouth manner is remembered with a curious sympathy, and whose fortunes his gaze seems to have followed on its erratic way up and down the beach. When called, he would bring his red barrel and plant it Pisa-like in the sand before his customers, presumably so they could judge for themselves the honesty with which he spun the "arrow-and-dial arrangement with numbers on the lid". (Biarritz – although Nabokov makes only a passing mention of it as being "absolutely out of bounds" – had a casino.) He remembers the rasping and whirring sound the spinning arrow made before it stopped: "Luck," he explains, "was supposed to fix the size of a sou's worth of wafer." And then concludes, "The bigger the piece, the more I was sorry for him."

still struggling
the tiger moth's wing dust
blackens the web