Lepdioptery & Nabokov's style
International Herald Tribune - France
Pinning Nabokov's prose to his science
By Alexander Osipovich International Herald Tribune
Published: July 12, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG -- Just over a century ago, in June 1906, a 7-year-old Vladimir Nabokov caught his first butterfly.
Although he eventually gained worldwide fame as a writer - especially after the publication of his scandalous, best- selling novel "Lolita" - he also maintained a lifelong passion for lepidopterology, the branch of entomology that focuses on moths and butterflies.
Sometimes he was even dismissive of literature in favor of his scientific pursuits. He never expected writing to be a source of income, he told an interviewer in 1964. "On the other hand," he said, "I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum."
Scholars of Nabokov's writing have never quite known what to make of his work as an entomologist. Some have regarded it as a sideshow, part of a carefully crafted effort to shape his public image. Andrew Field, his first biographer, once called it "an elaborate literary pose."
But those who play down the seriousness of Nabokov's interest in butterflies tend to overlook the fact that he worked as an obscure curator of lepidoptera for seven years. From 1941 to 1948, he was a part-time research fellow at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, reorganizing its butterfly collection and publishing several well-received scientific papers.
Now, Dmitry Sokolenko is trying to reconcile the two Nabokovs once and for all. Sokolenko, 29, of St. Petersburg, has organized an exhibition in the city's Vladimir Nabokov Museum that probes the links between the writer's art and his science. Titled "The Nabokov Code," a riff on "The Da Vinci Code," it juxtaposes quotes from Nabokov's books with full-color images of butterfly parts.
The images, taken under a microscope, are the sort of thing that Nabokov would have seen every day while researching lepidoptera at Harvard; the quotes, meanwhile, are filled with allusions to insects. Sokolenko organized the show to advance an unusual hypothesis: that Nabokov's meticulous, masterful prose style grew out of his love affair with science.
"When you do what Nabokov did, when you shift your focus from entomology to literature, you hold onto all the methods and research tools that you've been using for years," Sokolenko said in an interview before the exhibition opened in early July. "I think that his painstaking attention to detail could only have come from his profession, from what he was doing in entomology."
Sokolenko is no stranger to science; he is a microbiologist. Raised in a family of engineers, he grew up in the central Russian town of Obninsk, a major hub for nuclear research during the Soviet era. After moving to St. Petersburg and earning a degree in biology, he took a job at the State Photography Center, a government-supported organization that helps the city's numerous museums preserve their aging photography collections. Two years ago, he organized a semi-educational, semi-artistic show of photos featuring harmful microbes.
By coincidence, Sokolenko's workplace is on the same street as the Vladimir Nabokov Museum, in the house where the writer lived until being forced into exile by the Russian Revolution. Sokolenko had first become hooked on Nabokov when he read "The Defense," a novel about a chess player gradually driven insane by his obsession with the game. Sokolenko started volunteering at the museum last October. While spending Sundays there, he learned about Nabokov's research at Harvard.
"Suddenly, I saw a completely different Nabokov, in the context of his entomological activities," he recalled. "At some point, I came to understand that Nabokov the writer had emerged under the influence of Nabokov the biologist."
Hoping to share his insight with non- scientists, Sokolenko started the project that eventually became "The Nabokov Code." He deliberately followed in Nabokov's footsteps, photographing butterflies that the writer mentioned in his novels or studied as part of his entomological research. The exhibition includes only one image with no direct connection to Nabokov: the highly magnified eye of a fruit fly..
The eye is juxtaposed with a quote from "Nikolai Gogol," one of Nabokov's best-known works of literary criticism: "The difference between human vision and the image perceived by the faceted eye of an insect may be compared with the difference between a half-tone block made with the very finest screen and the corresponding picture as represented by the very coarse screening used in common newspaper pictorial reproduction. The same comparison holds good between the way Gogol saw things and the way average readers and average writers see things."
Sokolenko's exhibition comes at a time when Nabokov's reputation is on an upswing in the rarefied world of lepidopterology. During his lifetime, some lepidopterists, perhaps jealous of his literary fame, carped about his lack of formal training. His knowledge of the field was entirely self-taught, harking back to an earlier age of gentleman-scientists. Still, his work at Harvard reclassifying the Lycaeides genus earned him a mention in Alexander Klots's 1951 "Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America," an achievement that reportedly delighted the writer, prompting him to boast about it even many years later.
More recently, two authors took a fresh look at Nabokov's research in the 1999 book "Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius." Kurt Johnson and Steven Coates examined Nabokov's efforts to classify a large and diverse group of butterflies now called the Latin American Polyommatini, which were little studied until the 1980s. Johnson, a lepidopterist, spent five seasons trapping butterflies in a remote rain forest in the Dominican Republic; as he tried to put them in a taxonomic framework, he realized that Nabokov had already done the job in an obscure paper published in 1945. He and his colleagues named several new species after Nabokov's characters, such as a Peruvian butterfly that was christened "Madeleinea lolita."
Sokolenko faces an uphill battle when he tries to convince scholars of literature that, as he puts it, Nabokov's "fantastic disposition for systemization could only have come from biology." Before they went on display in St. Petersburg, the images in "The Nabokov Code" were shown at an international Nabokov conference in France. The philologists there, Sokolenko said, perceived them as "works of art" rather than pieces of evidence for the importance of science in Nabokov's writing.
Luckily for Sokolenko, he has several more chances to prove his point. After it closes in St. Petersburg at the end of the month, his exhibition will travel to the United States and Germany, although dates and venues have not yet been announced.
"It will take scholars some time to come around to this position," he said. "That is, the position that Nabokov the writer grew out of Nabokov the biologist."
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