The Story Behind the Book

I don’t have any time for astrology; I’m too rational, thank you very much, and yet…

And yet, I can’t 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 couldn’t, then no one would have any time for astrology.

William Shakespeare may have been born on April 23, 1564. We don’t 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 “by” 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 don’t know how long it was before I learned that Nabokov’s birthday was April 23, but I remember thinking, “Ah! Of course!” 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 “on or about” 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.