Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

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All Books Are Maybe Books: The Millions Interviews Tim O’Brien

Dad’s Maybe Book, the first in almost two decades from the National Book Award-winning author of The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, began with stories and reflections Tim O’Brien wrote for his sons after becoming a father at the age of 58. Over time, the book evolved into a recursive meditation on fatherhood, fiction writing, and the unexplainable mysteries of life.

Midway through the book, O’Brien shares a scene from his own childhood in the 1950s, when his father—often drunk and absent—gave him a book of Hemingway stories and asked him to pick five to read and discuss with him. When he finished, his father was nowhere to be found. As a boy, it was devastating, but in looking back on it now, discussing the Hemingway stories and telling us how the best fiction doesn’t explain, he arrives at a stirring description of what fiction does instead:
The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable —who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave.
O’Brien and I talked about the book, the life lessons he offers, and how to tell a true story.

The Millions: At what point did you know this would be a book book as opposed to a “maybe book”?

Tim O’Brien: All books are maybe books until they’re finished. Even War and Peace and the Bible. So it went beyond just a title to something important about the way we live our lives. We’re always provisional and conditional. Maybe there’ll be tomorrow and maybe there won’t. So that’s kind of how it developed. After I knew I would have children, I gave up writing and thoughts of publication for many, many years, but periodically I’d sit down and write a little vignette about something that caught my attention that I’d laughed at or cried at. It began really as little messages in a bottle to leave for my children. The way I wish my own dad had done.

At some point along the line, my youngest kid saw me writing and he said, “What is it?” And I said, “I hope it’ll be a book someday.” It was the first time I’d even said that, kind of not believing it when I said it. He said, “What are you going to call it?” And I said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’ll be a book.” That’s when he suggested the title. Call it what it is. Call it a maybe book.

TM: Sometimes, in literature and in life, fathers inhabit a silence. Your book speaks from the place of late fatherhood, and you have a great deal to share, which made me think about how other fathers and sons might interact with the book. What did you want to share about fatherhood?

TO: There are several chapters called “Pride,” which get into my misgivings about the subject. We tend to erase our kids’ failures or remember the basket they made from the three point line, and then forget the 25 ones they missed. The same goes with grades and everything else you tend to take pride in. On the other side, disappointment and anger and sadness can come in. Then there’s the pride we take in our country and how we’ll kill and die for it. Pride can be a vice and it can kill people. So there’s this tension inside of me about this whole fatherhood and pride thing. Telling myself, “Watch it. Be careful. It can kill.” And not only can it, it does and has. This is an example of how the book moved from fatherhood to a kind of memoir, in a way. I suppose the book really is essentially a selective memoir. Not chronological, but picking out points of my life or things that have happened that have changed my life.

TM: You write about the dangers of certainty and absolutism. In our increasingly polarized world, what you think is the best way to beat them?

TO: Going After Cacciato ended with the word “maybe” as the second-to-last word, and it infects all my work, since I was in Vietnam when staying alive was always a maybe proposition. Everything seems conditional and I see few absolutes that I can’t some way modify or qualify or change my mind about.

There’s a kind of know-nothing rhetoric, when it comes to immigration and warfare. Who cares about the facts? We’re hearing it from very high places now on a regular basis, in the form of little tweets, which have their own kind of absolutist rhetoric. A tweet doesn’t qualify, show modification or exceptions to the rule. It just declares things. It’s disturbing. 

TM: Some of the book’s vignettes are similar in style to your short fiction, where you convey a truth while calling attention to the made-up parts. Did you start drawing intentionally on the writing style that you became famous for?

TO: That’s the age-old question of writing, in that it’s not going to be word for word dialogue. It’s going to be my reconstruction of things that were said, and so on, as faithful as I can be to what I recall. Never exact, but I think that’s true for everybody, not just me. If I were to ask you, “Tell me what happened yesterday,” how much you could get out of your mouth before you’ve blocked out the dish washing and the dialogue coming out of the TV set? I don’t think you could reconstruct what you said when you were shopping for groceries. But none of us can. So much is lost.

There’s a line in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: “Well, your memory speaks, but it stutters. It speaks in ellipses.” You do your best to give an impression of a thing that happened, but it’s not an exact replication of what occurred. A few things were so indelible they remained permanent. There’s a part where we’re vacationing in France and my mom died. I told my young kids, who were then 7 and 5. We were walking down this long road down to a little town in France, and one of my sons looked over to me. I asked, “Are you thinking about grandma?” He said, “No, I’m thinking about you thinking about grandma.” That’s indelible. I didn’t make that up.

Did Vladimir Nabokov Write the Great Refugee Novel?

How many seminal works of 20th-century literature were created by refugees? Just judging by the Nobel laureates who were exiles from their homeland — a list that includes Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz, and Joseph Brodsky — one might assume that themes of exile and homelessness permeated the modernist literary canon.

But that wouldn’t be true.  Many writers continue to inhabit their native soil in their imagination long after they have moved beyond its borders.  Thomas Mann never wrote a novel about the plight of a German exile on the shores of Malibu. Alas, I wish he had. Solzhenitsyn continued to devote his energies to writing about Mother Russia even after spending 18 years in southern Vermont.  The model for these writers is the great James Joyce, who left Dublin in 1904 only to obsess about it for the rest of his life. For every writer who grappled with the refugee experience in fiction, as did Singer, you will find a half dozen who skirted over it with indifference, even as they lived through the trauma of a displaced life.

As strange as it sounds, if I were forced to identify the defining literary works on the subject, almost every one on my list would be an old epic or scripture: The Odyssey (oddly enough, Joyce’s own role model for Ulysses) with its account of the hero’s exile from Ithaca; The Aeneid, with its tale of refugees from Troy; Paradise Lost, which opens with Satan and his crew receiving an eviction notice from Heaven; and, of course, the Book of Genesis, which kicks into high gear when the protagonists are sent packing from the Garden of Eden.

But these are not novels, and none of them deal with the modern experience of exile. For that I turn to Vladimir Nabokov and his novel Pnin. This Russian émigré would seem an unlikely candidate to focus on the plight of refugees. Nabokov left his homeland behind at the end of his teen years, was educated at the University of Cambridge, and was so successful at assimilation that he learned to write the Queen’s English better than the Queen — and her subjects too. If one is seeking a success story from the ranks of the displaced, Nabokov is the ideal candidate. Not only did he survive as a writer in his new language, but he became that greatest of rarities, an American literary lion who was also a bestseller.

Yet Pnin arrived at bookstores before Nabokov had tasted these successes.  And even literary acclaim could never assuage the bitterness of displacement and family tragedy. Nabokov’s father was killed in 1922 by another Russian exile and his brother Sergei later died in a German concentration camp. Around the time of his father’s death, the young author’s engagement to Svetlana Siewert was broken off because of her parents’ concern that Nabokov could not earn enough to support their daughter.  His subsequent marriage to Véra Evseyevna Slonim brought with it subsequent risks because of her Jewish antecedents.  When Nabokov left for the in the U.S. aboard the SS Champlain on May 19, 1940, he had already spent two decades of nomadic existence as a man without a country. He was not coming to America to seek fame and fortune, but rather as a last desperate move to escape the Nazis, who would enter Paris in triumph a few days later.

These experiences set the tone, of bitterness mixed with nostalgia for a vanished world, that permeates the pages of Pnin. The main character, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a comic figure on the campus of Waindell College. His old-fashioned continental ways and thick Russian accent are mimicked and ridiculed. His improvisations and mispronunciations turn familiar terms into extravagant variants — for example, his order of whisky and soda ends up sounding like “viscous and sawdust.”  When asking for the receipt in a restaurant, the best he can come up with is a request for the “quittance.”  His appearance, his gestures, and his general lack of awareness of American manners are fodder for campus gossip and mockery.

Pnin has much to offer the college community, but his Old World erudition is not valued at Waindell. The students have little interest in what he teaches, and the faculty treat him as an amusing distraction. Nabokov clearly turned to his own life story as the basis for this book, and I suspect that many of the jokes at Pnin’s expense are drawn from those the author experienced firsthand.  His willingness to turn his quasi-autobiographic protagonist into a comic figure is extremely brave — readers can’t help wondering whether they are getting an invitation to laugh at Vladimir Nabokov himself.

But as the book progresses, the tone gradually shifts. During the first hundred pages, you might even assume that this is a comic novel. But as the tragedy of Pnin’s life unfolds, in flashbacks and reminiscences, the reader is shocked into a deeper awareness of the reality of the refugee’s life in exile. The more we understand Pnin, the better we grasp how the whole fabric of his existence has been torn apart by the whims of history. The novel ends with us watching a professor offer a caustic impersonation of Pnin that goes on and on and on. But, by this juncture, we are no longer laughing.

Pnin, like any refugee, is just one many.  He is, as Nabokov reminds, a small part of “the active and significant nucleus of an exiled society which during the third of a century it flourished remained practically unknown to American intellectuals.” And why were these individuals so greatly misunderstood?  Well, for the very same reasons that refugees are feared today: because of the danger they pose to society. For Americans of the Cold War years, “the notion of Russian emigration was made to mean by astute Communist propaganda a vague and perfectly fictitious mass of so-called Trotskyites (whatever these are), ruined reactionaries, reformed or disguised Cheka men, tided ladies, professional priests, restaurant keepers, and White Russian military groups, all of them of no cultural importance whatever.”

For Nabokov, who usually makes his views known indirectly in his novels, such plain-spokenness is unusual.  This is a raw novel from a polished author, but raw in the best sense of them all. Nabokov may have been a great success at mastering the nuances of English and navigating through the U.S. publishing industry, but he had deep scars from his forced nomadic life, and refused to hide them in the course of this deeply moving book. In many ways, this novel is a deeply personal as his memoir Speak, Memory.

Although Nabokov is far better known today for Lolita, Pnin was his breakout book, the work that brought him to the attention of the U.S. literary community. Even before he could secure an American publisher for Lolita, Pnin found a receptive audience and got rave reviews.  His previous writing in English had garnered little notice, but now he was seen as a rising literary star. The first printing of Pnin sold out in just one week, and Newsweek proclaimed Vladimir Nabokov as “one of the subtlest, funniest and most moving writers in the United States today.”

You could still read Pnin for the humor today, but I think that misses much of the point. Nabokov originally wanted to call this book My Poor Pnin, and I suspect that he found more to weep over than laugh about in his refugee’s story. Nabokov would occasionally return to themes of nomadism and exile in later works — in Pale Fire, or even Lolita, which is very much a novel of wandering and homelessness. But in their evocation of the lost life of the exile, they never match the power of this 60-year-old book.

Nor did any other writer of that era. There are other outstanding 20th-century novels that address the plight of the immigrant. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club make it on my shortlist of must-read books on the subject. And in the 21st century, the refugee novel has emerged as a important category of fiction in works by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Mohsin Hamid, and others. But Nabokov’s Pnin gets my nod as the great forerunner of these works, the 20th-century masterwork on displacement in a time of sociopolitical upheaval. In a tumultuous period that found millions forced out of their homeland, and even more dead because they stayed behind, Nabokov was the most acute at turning these cumulative tragedies into a deeply personal novel that rings true on every page. In the current day, when exiles find themselves even less welcome wherever their sad fate sends them, we do well to remember that earlier generation, and how much we owe them. Perhaps we should also consider how often we still misunderstand the refugee’s plight.  This book is a very good place to start that process.

A Year in Reading: Mensah Demary

I became an editor, a notable fact, and for the next year, I floundered. All I wanted was a literary life — a professional and artistic life defined by the act of creating literature, whether as a writer, a publisher of other writers, and even a curator of writers for live audiences — but achieving a dream simultaneously reveals a void. At work, I apprenticed in New York to become a better editor; at home, with newly trained eyes, I reread my own writing, saw finally my own flaws. I handed Between the World and Me to my 59-year-old father for his birthday. Later that same weekend, I wrote an essay about the experience and the gift.

After rereading the unpublishable and rejected essay, I woke up every morning at 5:00 am, brewed coffee, and sat down to write and read for three hours. I retreated from social media, and canceled plans, passed on after-work parties, readings, invitations for drinks, dinners, said no to offers to pick my brain, to brainstorm over beers. The resulting somnolence deteriorated my daily mood, and the isolation led to my accepting time’s endless assault against my writing should I refuse to work, age the partial total of wasted days. This began my year of reading, parallel with my year of rereading, contained within my year of life.

I loved Haruki Murakami — Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — and applauded 2666. I read My Struggle: Book 1, its marvelous second half haunted me for weeks, and I discovered why peers laugh at Knausgaard. I reread Why Black People Tend to Shout by Ralph Wiley, and dragged a slab of wood into our bedroom, near the window closest to the door, and placed it atop two steel trestles. I purchased a black notebook and entered with it a conspiratorial relationship without illusion in regard to my writing, that is, I no longer believed Moleskine, the brand, could make me a better writer, nor do diaries produce literature I care to read.

The work proved increasingly difficult with each book I opened, with every essay I began and abandoned to a boneyard on my hard drive labeled files. From my desk, I watched as my neighbors lived their lives inside unveiled apartments, and pitied those who, after two feet of snow, went about the business of exhuming their cars. I read Distant Star, The Book of Disquiet, Sergio Y., The Story of My Teeth, Sudden Death, The Ballad of Black Tom, salt. by Nayyirah Waheed, In Gratitude, rest in peace, Labyrinths, Loitering again, Between Parentheses again, The Cross of Redemption again, and others. My colleagues were curious about my regimen; they asked me if it yielded results. I unlearned toxic assumptions with respect to the essay, as a form, initially ingested by happenstance and in proximity to the Internet, where essays proliferate. I thought about the essay collection, it too as a form, and how to warp it.

By spring, I lapsed — skipped a morning one week, two mornings the next — until I stopped my morning exercises altogether. I needed the sleep, and the post-winter sun ruined my writing space with its light increasing in duration and strength. The four of us — my partner and her twins — coalesced around one other, traveling to Myrtle Beach and Big Indian, chaperoning my father and his wife over the Brooklyn Bridge. I glared at the black device on my desk as my father on speaker spoke in small talk about my grandmother, his mother, convalescing since July. She is 89. The doctors seem to be doing that shoulder-shrug thing they do when their science fails them and they, in turn, signal to us, the patient’s family, not to give up hope, but to accept that the hope we have is all the hope we can expect to receive.

My 60-year-old father has still not read Between the World and Me, and there will be for him a small birthday party in New Jersey, after Thanksgiving, with home-cooked food and store-bought wine, with holiday music piped through Bluetooth speakers — Boyz II Men’s Christmas album is as old now as The Temptations’ rendition of “Silent Night” was to me when I first heard it as a child, when my aunt in black swayed near the woodgrain floor speaker, holding a half-filled glass, her grimace illuminated by the garishly decorated tree lit with reds and blues, as the party turned down, as Christmas refused to relieve her of the turmoil her liquor unlocked — and there will be some laughs, though muted by grief. I myself will not be there; I leave for Chicago and just last week, I rented a gray Dodge Dart from a sketchy Enterprise in Bay Ridge and drove to Vineland so I could attend the private viewing of my paternal uncle’s cooling body. Speaking of birthdays, he died one day before his own, at the age of 64, to cancer.

In the wake, I stand before his body in the casket, in my black suit, holding a copy of Speak, Memory, which I first read back in 2008 or ’09 but now have chosen to reread only after appearing here, inches from the coffin, the first time. The anachronistic book grounds me here, the second time, after I first witnessed my uncle’s evaporated body, scheduled for cremation tomorrow night, when I wondered how and why his final moments left a peaceful look on his graying, gaunt, sheared face. (I remember him for his gargantuan beard, gone now from real time.) On a round wood table beside the casket are his black leather cowboy boots doubling as vases for two bouquets of deciduous red and yellow roses.

My grandmother is not in attendance, her frail body yoked to life-saving machines, to bags of fluid to keep her hydrated and sustained, since she refuses to eat, and I question her memory. When I visited her in the hospital hours before the wake, I did not mention my uncle’s death. Instead, we watched the news together, a local affiliate broadcasted from Philadelphia; the same black anchor from my childhood, he hasn’t aged a single day, I said to her. I knew she was told of her son’s death, but I was unsure if she remembered — doctors and family members reported with greater frequency lapses in her short-term memory — and I did not have the heart to break her heart all over again had she forgotten, so I said nothing, and softly held her hand.

Lies and memoirs, said Roberto Bolaño, get along swimmingly. I feel accused of a crime, even though, strictly speaking, I do not consider myself a memoirist. Once fascinated by memoirs, I now avoid but not because of banality, that is, the requirement from critics that a memoirist’s life be thrilling, or extraordinary. I am as physically close to my uncle’s body as I’m willing to get, and no closer. I don’t recognize him, my living brain having to downshift to death, because he should be breathing, the movement registers as a detail about him, a major one easily overlooked until final exhalation. “Symbols and Signs,” a short story, first introduced me to Vladimir Nabokov; the insubordinate sentence first and finally revealed itself to me, through Nabokov; Literature marks the spot where generations of writers faithfully leap off, expecting to fly, only to slam face first into a pile of human bodies, but Vladimir the asshole soared, and writers will forever read and hate him, never understanding how he defied the laws, and why not them.
The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.
A story circulates the wake: When asked whether or not he had money for his own funeral, my uncle laughed and replied “I’ll be dead and it’ll be someone else’s problem,” and laughed again. That he laughed twice pleases me. Knowing my uncle, he was terrified of death but never beguiled by it; his callous stance toward the living in the face of his own demise seems to me a pragmatic, if heartless one. Speak, Memory describes the nothingness that bookends the life cycle of every organism as two black voids, fore and aft. A local preacher and friend to my cousin, the son of the deceased, says now in the wake, at the lectern, that in his final hours my uncle accepted the Lord into his life — I am skeptical, but if he was pragmatic enough to leave behind a funereal bill for the family to settle, then indeed he would wait until the last minute to resolve a situation that, prior to, existed but didn’t press itself upon his life. When I face the second black void, aft, I might rethink my position on the case of Me v. God, so to hear about my uncle’s late-hour, deathbed capitulation to Christ only makes the need for me to find him all the more urgent. Where is my uncle now?

The prison of time, said Nabokov, is spherical and without exits. Speak, Memory maps a human life during societal deterioration, a process relevant to the new climate. Nabokov’s home was an idyllic, plentiful wonderland centered inside a disturbed Russia approaching back-to-back revolutions. Nabokov’s childhood home was torched, leaving behind the iron staircase fashioned by his paternal grandfather; Vladimir, his mother, and his siblings fled for their lives to southern Crimea, while his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, remained behind, and was later assassinated in Berlin. The life of my family, said Nabokov, had completely changed; “we were absolutely ruined…the complete curbing of the public’s minds was achieved…in no time after the main contingent of the intellectuals had escaped abroad, or had been destroyed…the loss of my country was equated for me with the loss of my love.” Men who write about their homes should have their own wing inside a burning library, but I also believe in literature’s expanding universe, how, despite one million stories, we’ll read another story, and one more, year after year.

The wake is sparsely populated with family, some skeletal remains of fringe friends, a dozen former coworkers, a few lovers. It’s unclear how long ago he was diagnosed, though we suspected for years: My uncle was a nurse, and so is my father, and three or four of my aunts, and twice as many cousins, not to mention my grandmother, retired; his family knew his prognosis just by observing him. I sit with my right leg crossed over the left, Speak, Memory and my black device in my lap, as I stare at the casket, thinking about my year of reading and the black bolt above my childhood home in Newfield, adjacent to Vineland, captured with my device’s camera. I pull over to the side of the road, in front of the house my family no longer owns, and snap a few photos from the rental car. The November sky reminds me of the dulling bright eyes of a black dog thrashed by a heartless owner retarded by mediocrity. My father and his brother play each other in a game of tennis; with afros, they ride on motorcycles, side by side, down route 55. My brothers and I slip out the wake for a quick cigarette in the parking lot as the nearby cathedral bell tolls nine. The seats in front of me are empty, so I have a direct line of sight to my uncle’s face. My grandmother touches the screen fastened to my wrist; the nurses have removed her rings; on a rolling tray next to her hospital bed is a framed photo of her husband, my uniformed grandfather, who died 363 days before my birth. From the corner of my left eye, past my black eyeglasses frames, I see my father and his wife, frozen, clutching each other as they gaze at his brother, thinking god knows whatever those new to senior citizenship consider during a wake pre-cremation. My uncle drives an oxblood stick-shift Corvette convertible and parks it outside the strip club from where he plucks a date to escort him to the family barbecue. There she stands, the white dancer in black tights, and there we stand, the black judges holding red cups, bound by blood. Our scientific laws dictate that upon death, for maximum efficacy within, and least disquieting entry into, the loop, our bodies are to be burned and transformed into the ash we, for centuries before Reform, tried to hide with shame during harsh, white winters.

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A Year in Reading: Megan Mayhew Bergman

I re-read some of my favorite books for a class I taught at Bennington in the spring: Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, The White Album by Joan Didion, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Each was richer upon a second or third read and yielded particular pleasures — Michaels’ tight language and genuine despair, Didion’s high quality of ideas and singular style, Nabokov’s remarkable and unlikely sensory details. Sharing books I love with students is a tremendous privilege.

I gulped down a heap of non-fiction this year; standouts included E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Wilson bowls me over with his synthesis of ideas, the way he mashes up complex anthropology, biology, sociology and gives us not just ideas and explanations, but something prescriptive to hold onto (restraint). Foer wrote a brave book with Eating Animals; it was a hard book for me to read because I already share the core ideals, but it was a necessary book for me to consume. Finally, with Out of Africa, the reader gets the sense that Dinesen truly wrote a book no one else could. Her descriptions of colonial Africa, the natural landscape and complex socio-political climate are stunning, unsentimental, even sublime. Ultimately, my favorite non-fiction reads in 2012 got me thinking about the way we use nature, what we take, and how we justify it.

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A Year in Reading: Ed Park

Earlier this year, my friend Dave Tompkins emailed me with “a random Nabokov-related question.” (How did he know that that is my favorite kind of question?) There was a passage he was trying to find, “from either a Nabokov short story, or possibly Lolita,” concerning telephone poles. “He’s on a train, or in a car, and notices the succession of telephone poles he passes, seemingly being repeatedly knocked back — or down — by the window frame,” Dave wrote. “Does this ring a bell?”

I remembered the image, something we’ve all witnessed, but that only Nabokov thought to hammer — beautifully, emphatically — into prose. I couldn’t recall where it appeared. Pnin? Sebastian Knight? (Lots of train travel in both.) Dave wrote again the next day: “So i sat in Book Court and scanned Lolita for an hour. No telephone poles there! Must be in the [short stories]. I’ll keep at it.” A little later, Speak, Memory swam into my mind, and I emailed Dave the good news that our quarry had been located. (It turns out they are telegraph poles.)

I liked that Dave would remember that image, enough to want to track it down. And I loved when, months later, I started reading Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, and found this patch on p. 36. Tall, innocent Oppen Porter is leaving his hometown after the death of his father and heading by bus to the titular city, where he will live under the care of his aunt.
I missed my bicycle already, bicycle travel was the perfect speed, traveling at this speed was pointless, you missed everything. But then I figured that if I was going to be a man of the world, I should learn to appreciate other modes of transport, I should give the bus a fair shake, and so I opened my eyes and I opened my mind and I saw something I never would have noticed on a bicycle unless I was going very, very fast down a very long hill. Because of the speed of the bus and how I was exerting no effort, the telephone wires on the side of the road, sagging between poles, went up and down with the same rhythm as my heartbeat.
Crushes: Joe Meno’s Office Girl, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Don Lee’s The Collective (an alternate universe in which the main characters are all Asian American artists); Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Anouk Ricard’s Anna & Froga; Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (memoir) and Jane Yeh’s The Ninjas (poetry). New credo is line from Yeh’s “Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman”: “O tempura, O monkeys.”

I was afraid to even open John Connolly and Declan Burke’s Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, because don’t I have enough to read already? But there was an essay from Bill Pronzini, which I had to read — Pronzini was one of the earliest champions of Harry Stephen Keeler. I’m glad I took his recommendation and downloaded Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), a dose of pure noir, packed with humor and jolts and darkly elegant writing. Two scenes are seared into my memory — but this is a spoiler-free space. Please read and we’ll compare notes.

Two stories by David Gordon, “We Happy Few” (Five Chapters) and “Man-Boob Summer” (Paris Review) — pure pleasure.

Online: Mary-Kim Arnold’s Tumblr (formerly known as We Pitched a Tent at Night), is a lyric essay unfolding in real time. Title of the year: “Finishing Bluets in a Strip Mall Gym in Livonia, NY.” And I loved Rob Horning’s gonzo dissection (in The New Inquiry) of a transcendentally abysmal Van Morrison album cover. Horning writes: “It’s like [Morrison] is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: ‘See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That’s how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing. Fuck you, here’s a rainbow.’ ”

Devin McKinney’s The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda and Dylan Hicks’s Boarded Windows. (I suppose I think of them in the same breath because their names begin with the same letter and they are both soft-spoken Midwesterners.) I didn’t think I cared as much about Fonda as I do about the Beatles (the subject of McKinney’s previous book, Magic Circles), but McKinney made me pay attention. This is biography as poetical, political essay. Boarded Windows is a self-assured debut that comes with a sort-of soundtrack, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which you should listen to right now. “Thank You For Your Postcard” is a perfect short story, constrained by what can fit on a 3×5 piece of decorated cardboard: “Later on the soles of our shoes/Were white with Tuileries dust/Thank you for your postcard/I read it on the bus.”

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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The Magician’s Forgotten Brother

Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Speak, Memory, the Russian emigre and American professor, a literary magician in two different languages, left behind a younger brother when he fled Europe to the United States on the eve of World War II. Sergey Nabokov experienced the same confusion of moneyed privilege followed by penurious exile as his famous brother. But Sergey was an artist without an art, a lover of music, ballet, sex, and men. At one point he became an opium addict. He was stranded in Berlin during the last years of the Third Reich.

Novelist Paul Russell has taken this forgotten figure, a footnote in the biography of a twentieth century genius, and brought him back from the shadows in a remarkable novel, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov. It is fiction built on fact, a Nabokovian exploration of the slanted truths of fiction. The title’s echo of Nabokov’s novel about biography, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is no accident. Sergey narrates his own story here in a voice that’s a cousin of his brother’s brilliantly freaky ESL English, and not a poor cousin either. The book is an homage to Vladimir Nabokov that also functions as a work of literary criticism (Sergey reads his brother’s early novels with intense familial understanding) and, like the best art, a work of life criticism, too.

Unreal Life is Russell’s sixth novel. His other books, which include Boys of Life, Sea of Tranquillity, and The Coming Storm, touched on some of the themes he explores here: love, art, beauty, and same-sex desire. But Unreal Life is Russell’s first historical novel, his most ambitious work, and his most epic. He has taken his old themes and put them at the center of the tragedy of modern European history.

Russell lives in an old farmhouse in Rosendale, New York — he teaches literature and creative writing at Vassar College on the other side of the Hudson. I recently spoke with him there about Sergey and Vladimir and the uses and abuses of fiction.

The Millions: When did you first think about writing a novel about Sergey Nabokov?

Paul Russell: My answer should be, “Ever since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov back in the early ‘80s.” I was certainly aware that Nabokov had a gay brother about whom he had very mixed feelings; he writes candidly — albeit briefly — about those mixed feelings in his autobiography Speak, Memory. But it wasn’t until I read Lev Grossman’s essay “The Gay Nabokov” in Salon that I realized here was a subject that had been lying in plain sight for years, and I somehow hadn’t seen it. So I’m very grateful for Lev’s work for making visible certain possibilities for story-telling that should have been obvious; I’m rather embarrassed they had to be pointed out to me like that!

TM: Why a novel? Did you ever consider doing a biography instead?

PR: I don’t really have the patience or talent or temperament to do the kind of research you’d have to do to write a proper biography. It seemed much more congenial to forge Sergey’s memoirs rather than have to track down real life, reluctant sources.  I’m a very shy person in many respects; if I can’t do a project while sitting at my desk in my study, chances are I won’t do it. I’m not so good at uncovering facts, but have become quite skilled at dreaming my way toward them. Besides, when I asked Lev if there was other material he’d come across in his extensive detective work but left out of the published essay, he told me he’d put in everything he had. The farther Sergey’s life strayed from his brother’s, the fainter the trail becomes.

TM: This is your first novel about a real person, right? Did you feel trapped or liberated by writing about someone who actually existed?

PR: A little of both. In one sense I had the plot, the basic trajectory of Sergey’s life: his unhappy boyhood in Russia, the family’s flight into exile after the revolution, his Cambridge education, his years in Paris, his Austrian boyfriend, his death in a labor camp outside Hamburg. In another sense, I didn’t have the plot at all — by which I mean the day-to-day details and concerns and preoccupations, all the various eddies that roiled the larger current as it swept him inexorably along toward his fate. I knew about Hermann Thieme, the Austrian, but I had to invent all the other love interests. I knew the famous people Sergey was friends with, but most of our daily lives aren’t lived among famous people. I had the skeleton; I had to invent the organs and musculature and flesh.

TM: When I wrote Gods and Monsters about movie director James Whale, I first felt freed by having facts to draw upon. Later, however, I became frustrated knowing that no matter what I invented, my protagonist would still have to end up at the bottom of his swimming pool. “Quit complaining,” my agent told me. “Most writers don’t know where their story will go, but you’ve been given a great ending.”

PR: I think it was Hemingway who said, “Follow any life far enough, and it ends badly.” For me, the great looming end was Sergey’s death in a concentration camp. This presented a number of difficulties, especially since, from the beginning, I wanted to write in the first person. I felt it important to give a voice — quite literally — to the silenced brother. To have the fiction of that voice somehow continue into the abyss of the camp seemed not only impossible, but in some way indelicate, even obscene. For a while I toyed with the notion of switching to the third person in order to follow him into the camp; in the end I chose to include a brief Afterword summarizing what happened to him after his arrest by the Gestapo in December, 1943 (he died in January, 1945).

TM: Sergey is not the only historical figure here. You also include Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein. What was it like using famous figures fictionally?

PR: Great fun, actually. Stein and Cocteau, paradoxically, intimidated me less than some of the minor characters whom I invented out of thin air. They practically wrote themselves in that their fictional incarnations often quote or at least paraphrase their real life counterparts in dialogue.

TM: What are the legal issues with writing about real people? What are the moral issues?

PR: The legal issues, at least in the US, are simple: you can say anything you want about the dead. The moral issues are, obviously, more complex. In terms of famous people like Cocteau, Stein, or Vladimir Nabokov, I think they’ve ceded any claim to privacy. Sergey presents a different case. He didn’t call attention to himself. He didn’t inscribe his heart on a page for all to see. Some people will feel I shouldn’t have written about Sergey at all, that I’ve stolen something that isn’t mine, that I’ve violated a privacy that, by virtue of the unassuming life he led, he still should retain his right to. Did I struggle with this question a lot? Not really. That may seem profoundly or perversely strange, but in order to write Sergey I had to become Sergey. For instance: I have no religious beliefs whatsoever, but in order to write about Sergey’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, I had enter as deeply and seriously into the mystery of faith as I could. Ballet doesn’t interest me at all, but I had to become a balletomane—or at least try to understand what it is to be a balletomane. Does that sound like madness? It’s the reason I write: to live more abundantly as others than it’s possible to live as myself. Because in writing about Sergey I was also writing about myself — not the self I had previously been, but the expanded self I was forced (or privileged) to become through the very act of imagining Sergey. There’s that line from Rimbaud: “I am someone else.” That’s what I strive for — at least in my writing. Maybe in my life as well.

But back to Sergey, and my violation or consecration of him. I knew from the beginning that, however complicated he might turn out to be as a human being, I wanted to honor the memory of this gay man who was silenced in so many different ways — by his chronic stutter, by his outré sexuality, by the labor camp, and finally by his brother, who failed to mention Sergey’s existence until the third version of Speak, Memory. I think Nabokov, to his credit, eventually regretted that — but it took him a long time to come to terms with his own collusion in that silencing.

TM: What would Sergey have thought of this book?

PR: Part of me suspects he’d have hated it. The Nabokovs were, in general, a reserved lot. But then I remember a letter he wrote to his mother, one of the very few instances of his correspondence that survives. In it he talks eloquently and openly about his love for Hermann Thieme:
There is such light in my soul, my entire life now is such [unprecedented] happiness that I can’t help but tell you about it. There are people who would not understand it, who do not understand such things at all. They would prefer to see me in Paris, barely making it by giving lessons, and at the end, a deeply unhappy creature. There are some talks about my “reputation” etc. But I think that you will understand, understand that all those who do not accept and do not understand my happiness are strangers to me. I wanted to tell you all this and, most importantly, I want you to accept my present life seriously — it is so extraordinary and fairy-like that  one has to [think] about it; and the way how many people do it — one can come to a completely wrong conclusion.
So I’d like to think that Sergey would have wanted his story — especially the story of his and Hermann’s love — to be told, and told forthrightly.

Readers will have to make up their own minds.

TM: Your most important famous figure, of course, is Sergey’s brother, Vladimir. What is your history with Nabokov? He is a very important writer for you, right? When did you first discover him? How has your relationship changed over the years?

PR: My first encounter with Nabokov’s work was beautifully Nabokovian. I was a junior in high school, and had checked Pale Fire out of the library. It didn’t have a dust jacket, so I had no warning of what I was getting myself into. As I began to read it, I couldn’t figure out whether John Shade was a real poet, and whether the poem was a real poem (whatever that might mean) and whether I was supposed to take the increasingly erratic commentary by Charles Kinbote (a real scholar?) seriously. I soon put the book down with a shudder — as if I’d stumbled on something monstrous. But as with all things monstrous, I couldn’t stay away for long. The next year, knowing a bit more about it, I read it through, and was delighted, especially by Kinbote’s wild and swooning erotic commentary, with which I completely identified. Then a few months later I happened to come across a description of Kinbote as the novel’s “mad narrator” and was once again thrown for a loop. It hadn’t occurred to me that Kinbote was mad. And of course, now I have enough confidence in my own powers as a reader that I can see that dismissing Kinbote as merely mad misses the point entirely.

By the time I’d finished college I’d read all Nabokov’s novels, and wrote my honors thesis on him. I was at the same time trying to become a fiction writer by imitating the master. That was of course a terrible idea, though it took me a long time to realize that. In graduate school I intended to write my dissertation on Dickens, but ended up returning to Nabokov — unfinished business, I guess. By the time I completed my dissertation I’d freed myself of his influence — in fact, I never wanted to think about him again, which is the way I imagine many people feel about their dissertation subjects. When I started teaching at Vassar, I realized I didn’t want to do scholarly work but instead write novels, so that’s what I did. Most readers would probably agree that, up till now, my work has been distinctly un-Nabokovian (a reviewer in The Village Voice once described me as a cross between E.M. Forster and Jean Genet!) I do think there’s something poetic in having finally learned how to write like Nabokov — only not the genius Nabokov, but the forgotten Nabokov of modest and dissipated talents.

Each Seed Its Own Shell and Coffin: Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall

In his memoir Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov considered the quandary he’d given himself, remembering his own life and putting it to paper:

They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years—to use a soul-rending Horatian inflection. The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know. . . . So perhaps it is time we examined ancient snapshots, cave drawings of trains and planes, strata of toys in the lumbered closet.

Nabokov understood the transience of day-to-day life; the way a cup of coffee empties itself almost immediately after its pouring, a ring of moisture its only shadow. We must give over to decay, and what we leave behind—the memories we’ve created through interactions with other people—must serve as our authentication. Accepting our impermanence is both the most terrifying and most comforting thing we may have to do, both our mortal limitation and our eternal emancipation.

Anthony Doerr’s newest collection of stories, Memory Wall walks this perfect line of memorial trepidation. Doerr’s voice has no limits, and each of his six stories quietly probes the grasp we keep on our memories.  He begins, rightly, with a tale of memory displaced and dispossessed. The title story allows us to observe the consequences as Alma, an elderly white South African suffering from dementia, preserves her memories on plastic cartridges, which line the walls of her Cape Town home like glittering seashells. Alma’s memories—particularly those of her late husband, whose attention to her dwindled as he became increasingly obsessed with archaeology—are like fossils partially unearthed, our portrait of her a composite at best.

As her memories are recounted (by the way of thieves digging through the cartridges, in the hopes of finding buried treasure), we come to understand exactly why each memory’s disappearance means so much to her, and why each cartridge demands such attention. “Water in a vase, chewing away at the stems of roses. Rust colonizing the tumblers in a lock. Sugar eating at the dentin of teeth, a river eroding its banks. Alma could think of a thousand metaphors, and all of them were inadequate.” This is what it is to lose the ability to recount your life; this is the loss of personal history. Doerr compounds Alma’s loss by making it unspeakable, by placing her recalling just out of reach.

Each of Doerr’s stories could be contained in one of Alma’s cartridges, each a testament to the desire to make memory into a tangible totem. “Procreate, Generate” imagines a couple’s difficulty conceiving, the trauma of having “seventy-five trillion cells in their bodies and they can’t get two of them together.” “The Demilitarized Zone” examines a man missing his soldier son during wartime, each letter received delivering a fresh blow. “Village 113” follows a woman preserving seeds even as her village prepares to be submerged to make way for China’s massive Three Gorges Dam. She sees history in every inch of the town: “Every stone, every stair, is a key to a memory. . . . Everything accumulates a terrible beauty.” The seeds she salvages become “as heavy as a child,” her cross to bear, her memories and the memories of the town made manifest.

Doerr’s voices are not all aged, or even fully matured; in “The River Nemunas”, he fully embodies a fifteen-year-old girl, flying to Lithuania after the death of her parents, and ultimately chasing down her mother’s ghost in the pursuit of a legendary sturgeon. “The urge to know scrapes against the inability to know. . . . We peer at the past through murky water; all we can see are shapes and figures. How much is real? And how much is merely threads and tombstones?” Finally, in “Afterworld”, elderly Esther suffers from epileptic fits that serve as blasts of clarity, bringing her back to her youth as an orphan in Nazi Germany, and to the fateful moment in which her life was miraculously, inexplicably, spared. The lucidity in the midst of her seizures crystallizes her understanding of the past: “Draw the darkness, Esther thinks, and it will point out the light which has been in the paper all the while.”

Doerr’s protagonists seem destined to suffer from their own memories at the same moment they create and thrive in new ones, but at least they never feel anonymous or generic. The language he employs to shape each character’s voice is so specific to that character’s circumstance, so fresh and precise, that he always keeps us engaged. Sometimes the metaphors Doerr employs are a bit trite—yes, fossils represent memories, we may have seen this coming—but each perspective is so genuinely articulated that snark doesn’t seem necessary. It is rare to find an author whose voice feels artless and sincere; even if the story might feel predictable, we have to applaud his guilelessness. Doerr’s is the voice of a natural weaver of tales, and it feels only right that his final thoughts would carry undertones of the Brothers Grimm: “Every hour, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.”

In a world where so much meaning comes at the expense of innocence and wonder, the truths illustrated in the simplicity of recollection, of bringing memories hidden in murky water to the level of surface observation, prove as engaging as epic poem. Doerr’s voice, to be sure, will not be forgotten.

Nabokov’s Scraps: The Original of Laura

I planned to review The Original of Laura back when it first came out last year, but I found that I didn’t have much to say.  The book was marketed as the final unfinished novel of Vladimir Nabokov, and as a “masterwork that was nearly destroyed.”  Really, though, it’s just a jumble of disconnected fragments, in such rough form that they can’t be evaluated.

Still, some reviewers have been extraordinarily hostile to The Original of Laura, and have given Nabokov absurdly harsh treatment for this batch of handwritten index cards that he specifically insisted should never be published.  It seems only decent to remind everyone that this isn’t the volume to use as proof of much of anything about Nabokov’s writing.  The Original of Laura doesn’t show a falling-off in Nabokov’s powers as a novelist.  It shows little except that he died before he could put the novel on paper in anything even hazily resembling publishable form.

Reading some of the reviews, you can come away with a sense that the text is far closer to completion than it actually is.  Not a single sustained sequence, not a single fully developed character, not a single clear line of narrative emerges from these short, disjointed scraps of writing.  Nabokov is one of the least straightforward novelists in history, and his books can’t really be understood in isolated or incomplete pieces.  Imagine evaluating Pale Fire on the basis of, say, early drafts of Nabokov’s handwritten index cards from thirty or forty pages of the least revealing parts of Kinbote’s commentary, without even a single index card from the main poem.

The fragments of The Original of Laura have something to do with someone named Flora and someone named Wild, and something to do with some book called My Laura, and something to do with Wild’s notion of mentally dismembering his body as a form of death-by-willpower.  Yet since this is Nabokov, it’s not only possible but probable that the relationships among these elements are far from obvious.  Even the most seemingly clear aspects of the fragments are part of larger patterns that we will simply never recover, and that it’s irresponsible for us to pretend we can examine.

I understand why some of the reviews have been so nasty.  The book has been brought out in an expensive, ornate edition, accompanied by a lot of off-putting pre-publication hype.  Yet Nabokov isn’t responsible for that hype, and his son Dmitri Nabokov has acted with integrity by insisting that the book appear in a form where its incompleteness can be seen and instantly grasped.

Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov has taken some weirdly disproportionate hits for the aspect of the book that deserves the greatest praise.  He hasn’t hidden the unpolished, provisional state of the text.  Instead, he has heightened it, reproducing the handwritten index cards so we can inspect for ourselves just how far the book is from being done.  Critics who have attacked him for his textual decisions should lighten up (and should keep in mind that he’s a first-rate translator who has earned his place as the protector of his father’s legacy).  Besides, would we really be happier with an edition of the novel where a team of editors had quietly cleaned up the prose and attempted to pull everything together into a falsely unified story?

Whether the fragments should have been published at all is a harder question.  I think Nabokov’s last wishes should have trumped our curiosity, even if the writing had been in a more nearly finished form and had amounted to a great final work.  Again, though, Dmitri Nabokov has been savaged for his open, decades-long struggle with a decision that many other literary estates have made much more secretively, often ignoring or downplaying the author’s desires in an attempt to avoid criticism.  Outsiders might not agree with Dmitri Nabokov’s decision to publish, but it was his choice to make, and he had the courage to make it without trying to minimize the difficulties of his position.  It seems to me he’s being punished mainly for his honesty, for doing in a straightforward and honorable manner what many literary estates do with cynical, calculating furtiveness.

This isn’t a minor point.  With the publishing world’s old standards and traditions dissolving all around us, why should we go out of our way to rip into people who make a special effort to take their literary duties seriously?  Dmitri Nabokov is, after all, responsible for bringing out, among many other books, The Enchanter and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov—two valuable posthumous Nabokov works where the son’s editing and translating are exemplary.  Indeed, Dmitri Nabokov’s lifelong dedication to his father’s writing deserves a far more appreciative assessment than it has lately generated.  This will be corrected in the long run, but why not just go ahead and correct it today?  Vladimir Nabokov has every reason to be grateful for his son’s devotion.

Anyway, The Original of Laura is out now, and we can see that Nabokov was right to believe his final fragments weren’t yet ready for publication. This knowledge should remind us how high Nabokov’s standards were for his craft.  It should also free us to turn back to the books that he actually saw into print.  From The Eye to Lolita and Pnin, from Glory and Laughter in the Dark to Speak, Memory and Pale Fire, Nabokov’s best writing will last long after The Original of Laura is properly forgotten.

The Big Bug Invasion

Even though this blog is devoted almost exclusively to books, I would be remiss if I did not mention the remarkable natural phenomenon that has been going on around me these past few days. The 17 year cicadas have emerged en masse from underground. Everyone, I’m sure, in their lifetime has had an encounter with a swarm of one type of bug or another, termites, bees, mosquitoes perhaps. In one of my grungier apartments in Los Angeles I once walked into to the kitchen to find more ants than one ever likes to see in one place. But the cicadas, they are something completely different. Brood X, as the scientists call this particular population, inhabits highly localized spots in the mid-Atlantic and Ohio River valley, and in some areas, like where I live, there are as many as 1.5 million per densely forested acre. The bugs themselves are large, larger than nearly any bug I’ve encountered, but they are oddly non-threatening. They are so dumb as to be barely functioning organisms. Walking through my yard, I’ll see a cicada approaching at a distance of fifty feet, and it will continue to fly in a straight line until it plows into me and then falls to the ground, dazed or unconscious. Each morning there are hundreds of them in piles against the side of the house, which they were unable to avoid during their night time travels. We sweep them away and an hour later there are dozens more. They give off this high pitched drone, and when you get a million or so together you can hear them from inside the house. Combined with the ungodly humidity, the noisesome, gigantic bugs have lent a prehistoric feel to the summer, not unlike the dinosaur simulation I remember from Epcot Center when I was younger. I half-expect a giant plastic animatronic T. Rex to be lurking behind my house. But they’ll be gone in a month, not to return for another 17 years, and I’ll be able to put away the plastic whiffle bat that I use to beat them back every time I leave the house.Vladimir Nabokov, of course, adored a more likeable sort of bug, the butterfly. In yet another fantastic “Second Reading” column, Washington Post book reviewer, Jonathan Yardley revisits Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. If this all sounds familiar to you, you may recall that a New York Times article about Nabokov inspired me to write about this book a few weeks back.And in non-bug news, E. L. Doctorow, whose new book Sweet Land Stories came out recently, comments in the Washington Post on the heckling he received during his controversial commencement speech at Hofstra University last weekend.

Nabokov and His Butterflies

This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.

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