Vladimir Nabokov Vindicated: The Importance of Butterflies in the Life of a Literary Master

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Pages from my copy of Nabokov's Butterflies, the author and butterfly enthusiast pictured on the left.

“I found it and I named it, being versed/in taxonomic Latin; thus became/godfather to an insect and its first/describer—and I want no other fame.” – from “A Discovery by Vladimir Nabokov, New Yorker, May 15, 1943

I don’t know why it seemed such a shot of adrenaline to read this article in the New York Times about Nabokov being vindicated on a butterfly migration theory--even down to the number of waves, and roughly when. “By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.” Maybe it’s because I’m a huge Nabokov fan, and know how important specific detail and precision  were to him as a writer. Maybe it’s because my father is an entomologist. But, mostly I think it is just energizing and inspirational to think of a man who left such a huge literary legacy managing to excel at what many would consider his hobby. Who doesn’t like to see a hardworking “amateur” win out?

Consider, too, that butterflies abound in the man’s fiction. Indeed, it’s hard to buy a book about Nabokov that doesn’t feature butterflies on the cover or spine. Yes, Nabokov loved chess, too, but butterflies make better eye candy than chess pieces. The dust jacket for The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov actually pins the letters much as one would pin butterflies for display. Tales like “The Aurelian” burst with appreciation for butterflies: “In these impossible dreams of his he visited the Islands of the Blessed…which are the haunts of the squat and dusky Corsican swallowtail. He visited the far North, the arctic bogs that produced such delicate downy butterflies…”

     Storiesofnab Nabokovbutterflies


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Posted by: Account Deleted | Saturday November 19, 2011 at 3:51 AM

Vladimir Nabokov,who lived a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies and a Harvard museum curator,has had his theory on butterfly evolution finally proved sixty-five years later.The foreword to Vladimir Nabokov's novel,Pale Fire concludes with a rather pithy observation on the limits of self-representation through art: for better or worse,it is the commentator who has the last word.

Posted by: b&b firenze | Wednesday January 26, 2011 at 6:55 PM

Nabokov's lepidopterophilia had wider-ranging repercussions than one might imagine. In a letter to Nabokov from Edmund Wilson in the mid-1950s Wilson drew a picture of a moth, telling Nabokov that he had just seen one like it on his walk and asking if it were a butterfly or a moth. Nabokov replied in typical Nabokovian fashion, with much detailed information, but without a whit of condescension. However, a couple of years later he begins an interview with the Cornell student newspaper--after Lolita fame--by disparaging anyone who cannot tell the difference between a moth and a butterfly (I wonder if Wilson ever saw that student interview). Fast forward a couple of years to the Wilson/Nabokov feud over Pushkin--and similar criticism of Wilson's limited understanding of the Russian language.

Posted by: Harold Augenbraum | Wednesday January 26, 2011 at 12:36 PM

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