Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004671, Sun, 9 Jan 2000 10:11:56 -0800

Washington Post Sunday Book World review of _N's Blues_
The Ardent Collector
By Donald Smith

Sunday, January 9, 2000; Page X07
NABOKOV'S BLUES: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius

By Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates

Zoland. 372 pp. $27

Reviewed by Donald Smith

During the early 1980s, some unusual shipments of rare butterflies began
arriving at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The
collector wanted to know their identity but refused to say exactly where
he'd found them, other than in a remote rain forest somewhere along the
Dominican Republic's border with Haiti. Curiosity piqued, the museum's
Kurt Johnson flew down to investigate for himself. There, in what he
describes as a "remarkable little biological jewel box called Las Abejas,"
Johnson ran into the ghost of Vladimir Nabokov.

The man now generally regarded as one of the literary giants of the
century had an even more interesting mind than his subtly layered stories
suggest. During one brief span in his life, Nabokov was a salaried
scientist. The author of Lolita, that brilliant literary oddity about a
middle-aged man's unhealthy obsession with a 12-year-old girl, is still
held in high esteem for his contributions to lepidopterology -- the study
of butterflies and moths. However, disagreements linger over the purity of
his professional status and the importance of his accomplishments.

These questions are taken up by Johnson and New York Times editor/book
reviewer Steve Coates in Nabokov's Blues, a reassessment of the great
author's scientific legacy based on new findings. The publication
coincides with the centenary of Nabokov's birth, with its world-wide year
of celebrations and conferences. The "Blues" of the title refers to a
diverse group of small butterflies found throughout the world and
especially to the Latin American residents who caught Nabokov's eye.

Although an ardent and wide-ranging collector throughout his life, Nabokov
never actually set foot in Latin America. His career as a paid scientist
consisted of six years during the 1940s as part-time curator of
butterflies at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology and
authorship of 22 articles -- a thin curriculum vitae by most standards. A
friend and sometime colleague, Yale University emeritus professor of
evolutionary genetics Charles Lee Remington, once characterized Nabokov as
"an excellent butterfly researcher" -- nothing more nor less.

Nabokov's interest in butterflies dates to a precocious and privileged
childhood in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, Russia. Fleeing first the
Bolsheviks and then the Nazis, in 1941 the impoverished young aristocrat
made his way to Wellesley College as a lecturer. A visit led to part-time
employment at Harvard, where his first job was to clean up and organize
the museum's butterfly collection. This humble platform became a

The lepidopterological study for which he is best known is a highly
technical 1944 monograph of the North American species of a single genus
of Blues, Lycaeides, involving the minute examination of some 2,000
specimens and the sorting-out of species and subspecies. All this he did
at the same time that he was teaching college and writing fiction and
poetry. To Nabokov's great satisfaction, the work was praised by Alexander
Klots in his authoritative Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America
as having "entirely rearranged the classification of this genus," though
others have dismissed it as a largely mechanical exercise.

Blues focuses on a more obscure paper published the following year.
Working with a much more limited range of specimens available to him at
Harvard, Nabokov here ventured a substantially more ambitious scientific
goal: a pioneering classification of a large, diverse group of Blues found
throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, now known as the Latin
American Polyommatini. The bulk of this book concerns subsequent studies
of the same group by Johnson and others. Their expeditions were inspired
by those first specimens sent from Las Abejas in 1981 by Milwaukee Public
Museum collector Albert Schwartz, who feared that disclosure of their
pristine location might lead to its corruption. The research trail led
back to Nabokov's seminal work, which had faded from view soon after
publication. Their findings largely validate Nabokov's conclusions, making
him, in the authors' judgment, "grandfather to a very important group of
butterflies" and securing his legacy in the field for all time.

This subject might be of marginal interest to readers not especially
concerned with butterflies, were it not for the important images and
themes that lepidopterology furnishes to the work of an enormously popular
and critically acclaimed author. Some of these references, it must be
said, probably lie in the imaginations of literary critics. For example,
much has been made of Nabokov's dissection of butterfly genitalia.
Freudian cues notwithstanding, the simple, disillusioning fact is that
this tedious procedure is needed to differentiate closely related species.
In the (believe it or not) intensely competitive world of lepidopterology,
where researchers pursue a new species the way knights do the holy grail,
poring over microscopic reproductive gear is merely standard practice.

In Blues, a fluttering of Latin names rushes by the reader, along with a
few charts and diagrams, including a mechanical rendering of male and
female genitalia in pre-docking mode. But this is intended to be a popular
account. The authors lucidly explain scientific terms, though their
language often requires careful attention, as in: "The discovery of
significant anatomical divergence might reinforce the external differences
already apparent in the wing patterns of some of the new captures." Some
readers may find themselves delving into the infinite complexity of these
enthralling creatures more deeply than they care to. Still, Blues is bound
to charm and edify anyone who loves Nabokov, natural history, and
especially butterflies. When offered a professorship of Russian and
European literature at Cornell University in 1948, Nabokov reluctantly
shed his part-time museum job. But he kept up his interest in butterflies,
as the story of the "nymphet" Lolita, published seven years later, makes

Since Leonardo da Vinci, few thinkers with serious scientific pretensions
can be said to have also created great art or vice versa. In our time, the
physician-poet William Carlos Williams may come closer than most to
combining these roles. Johnson and Coates make good arguments that Nabokov
belongs among that elite.

Donald Smith, executive co-producer of National Geographic and National
Public Radio's "Radio Expeditions," is completing a novel.

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