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

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…”

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The novels are often replete with butterflies. Lolita was written during one of Nabokov’s butterfly expeditions across the United States, and the text reflects that influence. His Russian masterpiece The Gift requires a knowledge of butterflies to appreciate some of the jokes and allusions. And, of course, there are butterflies in the classic novel Pale Fire. Indeed, Brian Boyd assigns great symbolic importance to butterflies in his book Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery. In the chapter “Transformation,” for example, Boyd writes, “The New York magazine The Beau and Butterfly seems at first merely a playful allusion to The New Yorker…But…looks quite different once we have reason to see Hazel as transformed herself from drab Toothworth white to radiant Red Admirable.” (Boyd may go a little overboard in his analysis, but his two-volume biography of Nabokov is amazing.)

Boyd also edited the gorgeous, oversized volume Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings. In the context of the New York Times article, it was exciting to revisit the book, which includes the letters, fiction excerpts, and short essays about the author’s favorite topic. One thing becomes clear even after just briefly dipping into Nabokov’s Butterflies: Nabokov's studies clearly became something much more powerful than a hobby, the fascination that started in childhood turning into a full-fledged pursuit. (Nabokov's Blues makes a good companion volume to Nabokov's Butterflies.)

The comprehensive introduction by Boyd presents a snapshot of a man more or less obsessed, who was willing to roll up his sleeves and revel in the minutiae of the task: “From October 1941, [Nabokov] began to work, unpaid, setting in order the butterfly collections of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.” By 1942, Nabokov had published his first major paper, “on the genus Neonympha,” and was allowed to stay on until he left for Cornell in 1948. Much has been made of Nabokov’s transition to writing novels in English, helped by his college education in England, but it also takes talent and effort to become comfortable writing scientific papers in a second language.


Boyd writes, “During these six years he became the MCZ’s de facto curator of Lepidoptera and one of the authorities on South and especially North American polyommatine butterflies, the ‘Blues’.” Among his accomplishments in these early days (1943) was the establishment of “principles still used today in analyzing the genitalia of the Blues.” To give an example of the specificity involved in butterfly study, Boyd also writes that over time Nabokov became “one of the most advanced of the genitalists. Where others tended to consider ‘only the general features of the clasping parts of the male organ,’ he emphasized ‘the multiple differences in all of the parts of the genital anatomy, in females as well as males…He named new micro organs,” as a result, “developed new techniques to analyze the genitalia and offered new interpretations of the diagnostic value of their structure.” Clearly, this work required a different kind of precision than his fiction!

In time, Nabokov would earn the respect of many scientists for his work, but others accused him of being an “excessive splitter”---perhaps a charge also leveled, in some guise, at the ultra-precision of his fiction, but in this context meaning someone whose eye for taxonomic sophistication was “beyond that of many of his contemporaries.” This “made it easier for his work to be overlooked or misunderstood.” However, as in the case of the migration theory, most of Nabokov’s “splits,” concluding that similar butterflies were separate species, have since been proven correct.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Nabokov’s influence lies in the number of butterflies named in his honor, including Itylos luzhin (factoring in his love of chess), Pseudolucia vera, Nabokovia ada, Paralycaides shade, Madeleinea vokoban, Polytheclus Cincinnatus, and Leptotes krug. One imagines he might have been most pleased by the fact that to catch many of these references you must be familiar with the details of the work rather than the man.

In a 1943 letter in another section of Boyd’s book, to Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Nabokov writes, “I have finished a book on Gogol. I am finishing a big study of the genitalia of one group of butterflies (‘blues’).” Such letters hint at multitasking and an imagination perpetually combining his book life and his butterfly life. As Boyd notes, “At the end of Bend Sinister…“[Nabokov] pictures himself as both the author of the novel we are reading and as a lepidopterist.” Sometime, someone should create a timeline of Nabokov’s life that provides parallel tracks for both of these loves.

 Pages from the Paul Maliszewski-compiled "Paperback Nabokov", McSweeney's, 2000


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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.

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.

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