Over lunch a friend and I talked about the unending sense of wonder and weirdness we, as non-natives, experience anew every day in Texas. She wanted to show me a hawthorn in front of the student center already, in February, in flower. The white blossoms, each about half an inch across, grow in bunches, ready-made bouquets called corymbs. Many are still closed and withhold their scent, but we, two Northerners, stood on the sidewalk and marveled at the spectacle of flowers in winter, when something flitted among the upper branches. It was a monarch butterfly, right on cue, as though Texas required further confirmation of its capacity to surprise.
The insect flew twitchily, flower to flower, as though exploring, not feeding, and was gone. I thought of Nige and the envy I felt at his recent sighting of a red admiral in London. Then I remembered Nabokov, another admiration Nige and I share, who called the butterfly a “red admirable.” Then I remembered (I think in digressions) Pnin, in which Nabokov famously described the Karner blue, one of the butterfly species he identified and named. But the monarch also shows up in that novel:
“Again, on serene afternoons, huge, amber-brown Monarch butterflies flapped over asphalt and lawn as they lazily drifted south, their incompletely retracted black legs hanging rather low beneath their polka-dotted bodies.”
[Thanks for the quote at the top go to Ron Slate, whose review of The Straw Sandals: Selected Prose and Poetry by Pierre-Albert Jourdan (Chelsea Editions, 2011, tr. by John Taylor), alerted me to a writer with whom I sensed immediate kinship. More about Jourdan later. For now, here he is on another unnamed butterfly: “A butterfly’s shadow flutters across the sunlight in front of me. And suddenly the butterfly exists more solidly, takes on weight. Its lightness projected onto the ground signifies a fate that we share.”]