Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005481, Wed, 20 Sep 2000 10:10:03 -0700

Review. of N's Butterflies in Nature (fwd)
From: "Johnson, Kurt" <JohnsonK@Coudert.com>

The gift of Lepidoptera


James Mallet is at the Galton Laboratory, Department of Biology, University
College London, 4 Stephenson Way, London NW1 2HE, UK.

Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings
edited by Brian Boyd & Robert Michael Pyle
Allen Lane/Beacon: 2000. 800 pp. £25/$45

A literary giant and also a great butterfly systematist.

Butterfly collecting is often seen as a perversion - look no further than
John Fowles' The Collector for an example. In Nabokov's Butterflies , which
is a collection of extracts from Vladimir Nabokov's novels, poems, letters,
interviews and scientific papers on butterflies, Brian Boyd and Robert Pyle
have done a good job of dispelling that myth with regard to Nabokov. Yet an
obsession with butterflies was indeed central to Nabokov's life. His
knowledge of the Lepidoptera both distinguishes him from all other novelists
and contributes strongly to the impact of his literary work. Butterflies are
in every Nabokov book, and his novels were often written while collecting.
"Butterflies help me in my writing. Very often when I go [on a collecting
trip], and there are no butterflies, I am thinking. I wrote most of Lolita
in this way."

Nabokov's novels are rich in details about natural history, stemming from
the acute observations that enabled him also to become a great butterfly
systematist. His accurate descriptions of plants and insects make a
refreshing change from the tosh about nature found in many novels. The
editors explain that the main purpose of Nabokov's Butterflies is to
describe the connection between butterflies and Nabokov's art. Their other
aim is to introduce Nabokov's writing to butterfly enthusiasts such as
myself. They succeed on both counts.

The longest piece in the book is Father's Butterflies. Although intended by
Nabokov as a postscript to his novel The Gift (1937), it was never included
in any of the book's editions. The rise of Hitler led to this extraordinary
manuscript fragment lying unread until it was translated by Nabokov's son
Dmitri especially for this collection.

Many believe The Gift itself to be Nabokov's greatest novel. It is also the
last novel that he wrote in Russian. The book is highly erudite, and teems
with allusions to nineteenth-century Russian literature (it is this
literature that is the 'gift' of the title). Its prose is interwoven with
hidden poetry, as well as hidden meaning. Written in Berlin for the Russian
émigré literary circle, its multilayered story tells of an aristocratic poet
and author, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, who lives in Berlin. Fyodor writes a
biography about a nineteenth-century Russian writer, and this biography
itself forms a chapter in The Gift. The book's publication causes a furore -
Fyodor dares to mock the Russian literary giants of the previous century (as
Nabokov does, of course, in The Gift). The book ends as Fyodor prepares to
write another book (The Gift itself, according to Nabokov's foreword).

Father's Butterflies explains how Fyodor acquired a fascination for
butterflies from his father. Fyodor's father is the Asian explorer and
butterfly collector that Nabokov himself had wished to become before the
revolution. Lepidopterists will identify immediately with Fyodor's boyhood
symptoms of butterfly mania. Fyodor's affliction was contracted from viewing
the rows of neatly pinned specimens in the glass-topped drawers of his
father's collection; also from butterfly books and journal articles, by
rearing caterpillars and collecting the imagos in the woodlands and meadows
of his native Russia. Nabokov saw his own love of butterflies as a disease
that his father before him had contracted from one of his German tutors:
"from one of the latter, [my father] caught and passed on to me the passio
et morbus aureliani."

Winged legacy: Nabokov's wood nymph, finally named Cyllopsis pyracmon

According to my colleague Igor Emelianov, butterfly collecting was
introduced into Russia from Germany by Catherine the Great, and remained a
hobby of the aristocratic élite. Similarly, literature such as The Gift is
hardly for the masses. With its combined textual and lepidopterous
obscurities, The Gift becomes almost a symbol of the sophistication,
decadence and weakness that led to the Bolshevik revolution. This is not to
belittle Nabokov; the flaw of élitism demonstrated by The Gift is perhaps as
threatening to our own technocracy as it was to the Russian aristocracy of
80 years ago.

Still, without the butterflies and the crystalline natural history,
Nabokov's novels and poems, especially in their later and lighter English
style, would have lacked much of their power. But how good a scientist was
he? Nabokov was no dabbler. He discovered new butterfly taxa (he was
inordinately proud of 'Nabokov's wood nymph' - Cyllopsis pyracmon nabokovi )
and wrote systematic treatises in reputable entomology journals. His
knowledge of Eurasian and New World butterflies was encyclopaedic and
respected. He variously contemplated both a book of the butterflies of
Europe and one on the butterflies of North America long before the standard
works by Lionel Higgins and Norman Riley (A Field Guide to the Butterflies
of Britain and Europe, 1970) and Alexander B. Klots (A Field Guide to the
Buterflies of North America, 1951) were conceived.

Spot on: wing-mapping enabled Nabokov to identify fine distinctions between
races of 'blues'.

Nabokov held some curious views. He hated the name 'red admiral', which his
knowledge of early entomological literature enabled him to see was a
corruption of the more appealing 'red admirable'. He believed that mimicry
between poisonous and non-poisonous species was too exact to be explained by
natural selection, and his systematics papers, with their elaborate and
peculiar analyses of spot patterns on the wings of 'blues' (Lycaenidae),
were sometimes derided as incomprehensible by other lepidopterists. But in
the main, his systematic revisions are still important today. According to
the butterfly taxonomist Gerardo Lamas, "had he become a professional
lepidopterist, he would have been outstanding, despite his rather odd ideas
on mimicry and other evolutionary subjects".

What drove this unique novelist-lepidopterist? Nabokov's Butterflies gives
clues in a previously unpublished lecture to Russian literature freshmen at
Wellesley College: "Whichever subject you have chosen, you must realize that
knowledge in it is limitless. And yet there is a semblance of consolation
within this dismal state of affairs: in the same way as the whole universe
may be completely reciprocated in the structure of an atom, an intelligent
and assiduous student may find a small replica of all knowledge in a subject
he has chosen for his special research. And if, upon choosing your subject,
you allow yourself to be lured into the shaded lanes that lead from the main
road you have chosen to the lovely and little-known nooks of special
knowledge, if you lovingly finger the links of the many chains that connect
your subject to the past and the future, and if by luck you hit upon some
scrap of knowledge referring to your subject that has not yet become common
knowledge, then will you know the true felicity of the great adventure of

To which I am sure they replied, "Will that be in the test, sir?"