TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR by Arthur Phillips
donít have any time for astrology; Iím too rational, thank you very
much, and yet...
And yet, I canít help but hear the hum of celestial music whenever I
look at those lists of celebrities and historic figures that share my
birthdate. Okay, maybe not President James Buchanan, whose myriad
accomplishments escape my memory just now, and maybe not Shirley Temple,
and maybe not Mumia Abu-Jamal or Valerie Bertinelli. But once you start
looking carefully, and winnowing the chaff, you can surely find patterns
that make sense. If you couldnít, then no one would have any time for
William Shakespeare may have been born on April 23, 1564. We donít know
for certain; we only know that he was christened on April 26, and that
points to the 23rd as the likeliest birthday. We do know that he was
good enough to die on April 23, 1616, which seems somehow to confirm the
23rd as his birthday, too, because, well...just because. Miguel de
Cervantes (of Don Quixote fame) died the same day in 1616, for
good measure, and a part of his book seems to have been adapted for the
English stage by Shakespeare and his collaborator-trainee John Fletcher
as a play called Cardenio. That play is now lost, although a 1727
rewrite of it has lately been granted a strange sort of academic
approval as sufficiently Shakespearean to justify labeling it as ďbyĒ
him. Things become slippery: maybe that was his birthday, maybe this is
his play. Maybe. Sort of.
I discovered Vladimir Nabokov, as most lucky readers do, through Lolita.
The more of his work I read, the more securely I felt that I had been
introduced to a kindred spirit, a friend on the page. (A feeling,
incidentally, very much like the one I began to have when I first made a
serious effort to read Shakespeare on my own, not as schoolwork.) I
donít know how long it was before I learned that Nabokovís birthday was
April 23, but I remember thinking, ďAh! Of course!Ē The birthday only
proved something, astrologically, as it had with Shakespeare.
But then, as with Shakespeare, the fine print came into focus. Nabokov
was born on April 23, 1899, Old Calendar. When that Julian
Russian calendar was updated to our familiar Gregorian calendar in 1918,
they had to readjust by jumping ahead two weeks. As it turns out, back
in his childhood (when birthdays matter), Nabokov was celebrating his on
what he called April 23 in St., Petersburg, but what someone in
Minneapolis would have been considering May 6. That said, when in 1919
he moved to Gregorian England, he chose his birthday (what a rarity!);
he chose our good old April 23, though he might have felt he was
cheating by a couple weeks. Some biographies still say he was born ďon
or aboutĒ the 23rd. Maybe. Sort of.
Which brings me to THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR, a book starring me and
Shakespeare, and smiled upon (I hope) by the spirit of Nabokov. It is a
birthday gift to the three of us, a story about all three of us, except
not quite, all born on the same day.
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