Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov
New Translations from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov
Бабочки Набокова: Неопубликованное и несобранное. Новые переводы с русского языка Дмитрия Набокова, редакция и аннотация Брайена Бойда и Роберта Майкла Пайла. Reviews / Обзоры
The wings of desire
Saturday March 25, 2000
Jay Parini discovers how much Nabokov's lepidoptery informed his literature in Nabokov's Butterflies
Nabokov's Butterflies: unpublished and uncollected writings by Vladimir Nabokov; edited by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle (Allen Lane, £25)
"From the age of seven, everything I felt in connection with a rectangle of framed sunlight was dominated by a single passion," wrote Vladimir Nabokov. "If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender." It was an unusual way to view the world, and one that not many readers - even those who adore Nabokov - may have fully appreciated.
In fact, the ferocity of Nabokov's obsession with butterflies has only just been made clear to general readers with the publication of Nabokov's Butterflies, a fascinating volume of unpublished and uncorrected writings on the subject, edited by the Russian author's tireless biographer and critic Brian Boyd, with Robert Michael Pyle, an expert in butterflies. All translations are, as usual, by Nabokov's son Dmitri, who has lavished time and unusual talent on his father's work over several decades.
More than 700 densely printed pages on this subject may strike even the most sympathetic reader as overkill. Does anybody really want to read page after page of Nabokov's highly technical descriptions of various butterflies? Are these writings "important" to anyone, even lepidopterists? Is there any connection between Nabokov's passion for "lepping" and his fiction? I suspect "no" is the correct answer to all but the final question, which one must answer resoundingly in the affirmative.
In his shrewd introduction Boyd teases out the connections between the writer and the lepidopterist. One comes to understand Vladimir Nabokov as novelist more completely and precisely by understanding that science gave this canny author "a sense of reality that should not be confused with modern (or 'postmodern') epistemological nihilism.
"Dissecting and deciphering the genitalic structure of lycaenids, or counting scale rows on their wings, he realised that the further we inquire, the more we can discover, yet the more we find that we do not know, not because truth is an illusion or a matter of mere convention but because the world is infinitely detailed, complex, and deceptive, 'an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms'."
Born into a wealthy and aristocratic Russian family just before the turn of the century, Nabokov caught his first butterfly at the age of seven, in 1906. His mother showed him how to pin the insect to a board. His father, too, had been a keen lepidopterist, so the child had obvious models before him.
But his monomaniacal interest in the subject is nothing short of breathtaking: Nabokov moved back and forth between literature and lepidoptery for the rest of his life, at one point spending six years - the happiest of his life, he claimed - at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where in 1942 he wrote and published the first of his four major papers, a study of the genus Neonympha. It was also during this period that he began working on "Blues", a variety of north American butterfly that became his speciality and inspired the trip to the American west that provided background material for his most famous novel, Lolita.
Nabokov's important writings on butterflies are reproduced in this volume, but in blessedly reduced form, since nobody except a professional lepidopterist would care to troll such material. Wisely, the editors have blended other kinds of writing by Nabokov with the scientific prose, beginning with the luminous meditation on butterflies from the sixth chapter of Speak, Memory.
These writings - poems, excerpts from his memoirs, letters, diary entries, criticism and fiction - cover the period from 1941 to 1947, when Nabokov was most ferociously involved in lepidoptery. His obsessiveness is wonderful to behold, as when he writes to Edmund Wilson about a lecture trip to Sweet Briar College in Virginia. "The weather in Virginia was perfectly dreadful and except for a few Everes comyntas there was nothing on the wing." Everything, in the end, was butterflies.
Until now, I had not realised the extent to which Nabokov's fiction depended on his attention to the natural world. There is, for example, an excerpt here from a story published in 1945 called "Time and Ebb". Somewhat self-critically, Nabokov wrote that "we" - meaning the people of the early 40s - "lived in the era of Identification and Tabulation; saw the personalities of men and things in terms of names and nicknames and did not believe in the existence of anything that was nameless". Coming from a trained lepidopterist, this is quietly shocking; one assumes that the work of "Identification and Tabulation" is the principal activity of the taxonomist.
But Nabokov's interest in lepidoptery went beyond sorting out and naming butterflies. He was not a mere tabulator. Indeed, there is something exquisitely metaphysical, even mystical, about his approach to nature's plenitude and complexity. He sought to uncover the sense of design that underlies the details of the physical world, and he delighted in the great cosmic mystery, the game of hide and seek that God seems to play with human beings.
There was, of course, a pedantic streak in Nabokov. From childhood on, as Boyd notes, "he preferred the small type to the main text, the obscure to the obvious, the thrill of finding for himself what was not common knowledge". His scientific writings of the 40s brim with minutiae, with countless obscure details lovingly searched out, sorted, underlined and displayed. A similar temperamental preference seems to underlie his massive commentary on Pushkin's Onegin, compiled in the 50s. It also informs novels such as Pale Fire - written in the form of a digressive literary commentary - and Ada, a late masterpiece in which the author's erudition and urge for complexity reach spellbinding heights.
Nabokov's Butterflies also contains a detailed, intimate profile of Nabokov as lepidopterist written by Robert Michael Pyle, who followed close on the Russian author's heels on one of his famous "lepping" trips. He concludes that Nabokov knew what "all butterfly folk knew: the rhapsodic thrall in which one may be held by butterflies and moths". He notes that two of Nabokov's most vivid fictional creations - Konstantin Godunov-Cherdynstev in The Gift and Ada Veen in Ada - were "butterfly folk".
The obsession with butterflies gathers a great deal of Nabokov into one powerful stream, encompassing work of otherwise incomprehensible variety. While few readers will want to study the scientific articles reprinted here, their presence in this striking miscellany operates in subtle ways to remind us that Nabokov (who referred to himself as VN), was also a student "of that other VN, Visible Nature". Nabokov offered, in his magnificent fiction, a complete taxonomy of the human spirit. He might not have been so meticulous and thorough were it not for the parallel interest in lepidoptery, so amply on view here.
Jay Parini is the author of five novels, including Benjamin's Crossing, and of biographies of John Steinbeck and Robert Frost.
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