Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005482, Wed, 20 Sep 2000 11:55:28 -0700

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

Here is a response from Dr. James Mallet to postings at Nabokv-L
with a request that I post it for him. He is not a subscriber.

you wrote:
>"... However, we must also remember that Nabokov never published
>his book on mimicry .... Does this perhaps mean he sensed the
>knowledge in this area for his time was still too unresolved?
>Or, is it just my tendency to always defend his science?
>Who knows."

From Mallet:

Nabokov didn't believe in mimicry, and it echoes throughout his work. Like
Ernst Mayr, perhaps, he rarely changed his mind, and the same ideas can be
seen throughout his life within his writings. The "red admirable" was one
of these ideas. In mimicry, for example, top of p. 248 in Nabokov's
butterflies (NB) has him in 1941 "writing a work on mimicry (with a furious
refutation of "natural selection")". As far as the mimicry book, there are
two letters by Vera to Houghton Mifflin (1952) making a very difficult case
for a book on mimicry (which they wanted to publish). My guess is that
Nabokov decided to can it by then, so had a bit of fun by making these
implausible requests: maybe what you say about him being cautious and not
wanting to go further is true.


.... and also never included DAR II ["Father's Butterflies"] in The Gift.


From Mallet:

Well, as a person who read an excerpt of "Father's Butterflies" in a
torn-out copy of a British sunday colour supplement and got interested in
Nabokov's Butterflies through it, I may have to disagree with your
implication that this shouldn't have been published. I loved it! It was
written in Russian as a ?postscript? (True?), rather than being excised
from the original manuscript. Then he moved from Europe to the USA due to
the rise of Hitler; I can well imagine it getting kind of lost. As a
scientist for 20 years, I have probably as many half-completed or in some
cases completely written manuscripts that I haven't published because I
just wanted to tweak them a little more, when more exciting things cropped

I loved "Father's Butterflies", and it was written very entertainingly for
one such as myself, and perhaps even non-lepidopterists. I understand that
it could have been difficult to translate, and that it might not be
publication-perfect, but the result seemed Nabokov through and through.
Maybe one reason he didn't put it out was because there was too much about
butterflies for the average punter. But I am very happy that Vladimir's son
translated it and authorized its publication! It is probably more revealing
about Nabokov than other parts of Dar. Yeah, maybe he didn't publish it
because it was too much about butterflies and himself, but it is a good
thing we have it now!


Kurt Johnson's comment to James in reply:

Yes, I agree that there are many nice things about DAR II. But DAR II is a
mixed blessing. Yes, I loved it too as a piece on lepidoptery, the love of
etc., of course, BUT given that it was my task to explore Nabokov's science
in N's Blues I found it was less helpful in that regard AND, having seen the
originals, and the English choices available for the eventual translation,
it was pretty obvious that Nabokov himself was flip-flopping about which way
to go with some concepts that were echoed in Fyodor's narrative. These left
the road open for rather arbitrary choices by the head translator, Dmitri,
whom I much admire and like, but who doesn't necessarily know about the
nuances of various words when it comes to how scientists read them. Oh
well. But, the "take" on DAR II by the reviewer at the London Review of
Books does indicate how DAR II might be a little deceptive re Nabokov's own
personal views. However, one does want to get at the truth here and I plan
to quiz Charles Remington in some detail when I'm up at Harvard giving the
program in October. He may well agree that Nabokov did have a metaphysical
commitment that would have overidden his objectivity. Speaking of Mayr, I
was in a seminar once with him and he was amazing...I wonder now what a
debate between Mayr and Nabokov, in person, one on one, would have been
like. Would have been pretty amazing to listen to. I heard that S. J.
Gould was writing on N's Blues and N's Butterflies for New York Review of
Books. If true, it will be interesting to hear his take on it all. There
are certain areas of the debate in which I know I'm not really qualified to
take part....I'm not as up to date, nor anywhere as well trained, in areas
of the philosophy of science and history of science as is a guy like Gould.
Anyway, all for now, and many thanks for your in put on this mimicry
question. I agree about DAR II BUT Nabokov could have decided to insert it
at any time in subsequent editions of the book, which were handled through
several publishers, I believe, as his career blossomed.


PS to Nabokov-on-liners. If you haven't seen the reviews of N's Blues and
N's Butterflies in London Review of Books, the reviewer there took "Father's
Butterflies" as evidence that Nabokov could have never accepted modern
evolutionary theory, a point with which I strongly disagree.