Sunday, January 06, 2008

Invitation to a Beheading

Dear Vladimir Nabokov,

I have had some trouble finding your classic novel. Finally, the University of Kentucky library systems provided a lovely pencil-annotated version of Invitation to a Beheading, copyright 1959, (Presented, a book nameplate explains, by J. Wesley Littlefield of the Class of 1933).

I haven't finished the book yet. As I read, my right index finger strokes the pages that remain, relieved to find, still, a good two-thirds of the whole waiting.

This is my first letter to you, and I feel a little shy. I feel, perhaps, like Cincinnatus, a lone dark obstacle (pg. 24) who will be unable to maintain control of cunningly established illusion. Perhaps you will wrinkle your eyes—you might remove your spectacles and with a tissue from a rectangular cardboard box, huff and swipe at a singular fingerprint, replace them—and confirm my opacity. Your Cincinnatus could at such moments take hold and remove himself to a psychologically safe place. I think that I did not learn, early enough, the trick of such mental transportation.

Self is such an odd containment. We hover about the stark cell that is the heart of ourselves. It is a tiny habitat, really, with just a few rules, a nearly unreachable glint of sunlight, and, if we are fortunate, a writing desk.

I wonder whether all of us, early or late, come to recognize the imprisonment we enjoy. And, if we are fortunate enough . . . believe me, I do not for a minute disrespect the miraculous in this . . . if we are fortunate enough to be loved by some—mother? father? sister? brother? friend? dog?—we will without doubt be the victim of some—mother? father? son? aunt? butcher? baker? Someone complains about "our basic illegality" and we are undone.

Such is life and it is, often, to the pain if not to the guillotine. So we begin to look to the end with an odd fixation, either in fear and trembling or with mild obsessions, or with resolute faith in something higher, better, bigger, other than our little cell selves.

"The compensation for a death sentence is knowledge of the exact hour when one is to die," believes Cincinnatus? But how senseless a belief is that, for we have all heard the whispered sentence, "Prisoner, in this solemn hour. . . " with soft breath tickling our ears.

"So we are nearing the end. The right hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there were still plenty left (and our fingers were always gladdened by the placid, faithful thickness) has suddenly, for no reason at all, become quite meager."

I am anxious to discover what else your have to say in your book before my index digit plucks and turns the final leaf.


P.S. I found this butterfly you drew for Vera. How nice.

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