Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004887, Mon, 13 Mar 2000 11:07:20 -0800

Nabokov in Lancet, the medical magazine (fwd)
From: "Johnson, Kurt" <JohnsonK@Coudert.com>

Recent reviews of Nabokov's blues in top flight science and medical journals
seem to indicate keen interest in Nabokov's legacy as a scientist. The
following review, in Lancet, the medical magazine, has two themes of general
interest to Nabokov students and scholars: Nabokov's career as an example
of the transition from 19th to 20th Century science, and, his legacy as a
clarion call concerning the modern biodiversity crisis and the crisis in
taxonomy. This review, and also the recent one in HMS Beagle, suggest that
the science/medical magazines (perhaps more than the literary ones, and
certainly more than the reviews by "popular science" writers) pick up right
away on (1) the significance of Nabokov's contribution to science and (1)
its implications in light of various crises facing modern science. These
reviews may well bring more scientist readers to the forthcoming publication
of Nabokov's unpublished and uncollected writings on butterflies.


Nabokov and lepidoptery in the life sciences

Lancet 2000; 355: 939 - 940
Download PDF (1 Mb)

Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius

Kurt Johnson, Steve Coates. Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 1999. Pp 372.
$27·00. ISBN
1581950098 (Buy online).

In his Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America Alexander Klots
wrote of the genus Lycaeides that "the recent work of Nabokov has entirely
rearranged the classification of this genus". The response of Vladimir
Nabokov was "That's real fame. That means more than anything a literary
critic might say." Nabokov was born in April, 1899, and it is well known
that he had a strong interest in lepidoptery. However, his interest is
often dismissed as mere dilettantism. Full-time lepidopterists were either
ignorant of Nabokov's work or regarded it as amateur dabblings; perhaps
they also felt resentment at this part-timer who was nevertheless dubbed
"the most famous lepidopterist in the world".

Kurt Johnson is a lepidopterist associated with the Florida State
Collection of Arthropods, and Steve Coates is an editor at The New York
Times. This, their first book, fights on many fronts; it tries to restore
Nabokov's scientific reputation and give some account of lepidoptery's
place in his life and literary work; it pleads for the oft-ignored
discipline of taxonomy, more important now than ever in the light of the
crisis in biodiversity; and it is an exciting scientific adventure story
ranging across the "incorrigible continent" of South America and the
squabbles of the world of academia.

Nabokov's scientific work belongs in every sense to a different era; he
represents one of the last of the gentleman naturalists. Lepidoptery was
an interest inherited from his father, a prominent Russian liberal
assassinated in Berlin in 1922. The interest remained constant throughout
the upheaval of the Russian Revolution and exile in Cambridge, Germany,
and France. On coming to the USA in May, 1940, Nabokov soon visited the
American Museum of Natural History in New York City with certain puzzling
specimens he had collected in France. In the autumn of 1941, he visited
Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and found the collections in
disarray. First as a volunteer and then as a part-time research fellow in
entomology, he endeavoured to straighten out the collection. This was
typical of the war years; considerable lacunae existed in academia and
were filled with available workers, with little regard for their
professional training.

Nabokov's paper Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae is the key in the
reassessment of his position in science. It was a pioneering
classification of the Latin American Polyommatini, a diverse group of blue
butterflies with members found from the tip of Chile to the Caribbean.
This paper established a broad framework of genera for later researchers
to insert new species. In 1948 Nabokov left the Museum of Comparative
Zoology to become Professor of Russian and European Literature at Cornell
University. This marked the end of Nabokov's formal association with the
world of lepidoptery, and, with the publication of Lolita, Nabokov's fame
became a double-edged sword as far as his scientific reputation was

In the 1980s a series of expeditions to Las Abejas, a jungle enclave near
the Dominican Republic's Haitian border, began to turn up new specimens of
what were known as Blues. Over the next decade and a half, Johnson and
other lepidopterists travelled all over South America, becoming
increasingly aware of the crucial relevance of Nabokov's classification
system to the multiplicity of new species they discovered. Through this
book, the authors make us aware of the biodiversity crisis--species are
becoming extinct faster than science can ascertain their existence. The
humble place of the taxonomist, seen by some as a drone of biology, is
scarcely deserved, considering the importance of this work. The authors
are also at pains not to judge Nabokov by the standards of today; some of
his beliefs on mimicry and evolution appear scientifically unorthodox, but
reflect that when he was working these issues were still being resolved.

The crucial question for Johnson and Coates is "was Nabokov a true scholar
of Lepidoptera, or merely a dilettante whose contributions were
remarkable?" The casual observer might wonder how a "mere" dilettante
would make "remarkable" contributions, but the question is deeper; seeing
Nabokov as a scientist gives the understanding of his life and works a
whole new dimension.

The authors seem to suggest that a healthy relation between C P Snow's
"two cultures" requires not a facile unity but a deep appreciation of both
the humanities and the sciences. Nabokov's quote "Does there not exist a
high ridge where the mountainside of 'scientific' knowledge joins the
opposite slope of 'artistic' imagination" is often quoted in this context.
Far from an airy abstraction, this refers to a specific example; Nabokov's
1952 review of a book centred around the drawings of John James Audubon;
Nabokov found Audobon's butterfly drawings inept, and wondered "can anyone
draw something he knows nothing about?". Nabokov considered a knowledge of
natural science indispensable for a truly cultured sensibility; he was
shocked when his literature students at Cornell University were ignorant
of the names of local trees and birds.

We see Chekhov and William Carlos Williams as doctors and as writers; we
see Primo Levi as a chemist and as a writer. Johnson and Coates
convincingly try to persuade us that Nabokov should be seen as a writer
and as a lepidopterist. Nabokov himself said "whenever I allude to
butterflies in my novels . . . it remains pale and false and does not
really express what I want it to express, what, indeed, it can only
express in the special scientific language of my entomological papers."

This book will provide both enjoyment and enlightenment to any reader
interested not only in Nabokov but in the relations between the arts and
sciences, the current state of natural science, and the biodiversity

Seamus Sweeny