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Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings


Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov

New Translations from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov
Edited and Annotated by Brian Boyd, Robert Michael Pyle

Boston, 2000

Reviews / Обзоры

Бабочки Набокова: Неопубликованное и несобранное. Новые переводы с русского языка Дмитрия Набокова, редакция и аннотация Брайена Бойда и Роберта Майкла Пайла. Reviews / Обзоры

The Observer ©

Forget Lolita - let's hear it for lepidoptery...

Science doesn't quite meet literature in a collection of technical papers and butterfly inspired writing in Nabokov's Butterflies

Adam Mars-Jones
Sunday March 19, 2000

Vladimir Nabokov was an expert on butterflies. He not only collected them obsessively but invented techniques to make their classification more precise. This volume brings together technical papers and butterfly-themed passages from his work. The closest comparable case of a major author having world eminence in another expertise would be A.E. Housman, who emended corrupt classical texts with the same analytical exquisiteness that Nabokov used to revise the classification of butterflies, according to the details of their dissected genitals.

Classical philology is hardly a more popular or accessible pursuit than lepidoptery, but the volume (edited by Christopher Ricks), which includes passages from Housman's technical writings as well as the poems, is an outstanding success.

The advantages of that book over this one were that it was wieldy, that it never left the domain of culture and that it showed a side of the writer absent from his verse. The slyly fatalistic persona of the poet made a fascinating contrast with the professor of Latin, who was a doughty if not brutal scrapper, and never split a hair in argument if there was a chance of splitting the person to whom it was attached.

When Nabokov wrote in 1947 that his scientific papers 'have no interest whatever for the layman', he was expressing pride as much as melancholy. Any reader would enjoy the passage reprinted here from his novel, The Gift, about the living arrangements of those large blues which have 'concluded a barbaric pact' with ants: 'I saw how an ant, greedily tickling a hind segment of that caterpillar's sluglike little body, forced it to excrete a drop of intoxicant juice, which it swallowed immediately. In compensation, it offered its own larvae as food; it was as if cows gave us Chartreuse and we gave them our infants to eat.'

His prose, though, is impenetrable even when there are touches of the same precise fancy dimly detectable: 'The most conspicuous thing about the upper portion is the presence of a pair of formidable semi-transparent hooks [the subunci or falces of a peculiar shape not found in allied genera], produced from the opposite side of the distally twinned uncus and facing each other in the manner of the stolidly raised fists of two pugilists [of the old school] with the uncus hoods adding a Ku Klux Klan touch to the picture.'

Nabokov's Butterflies is edited and annotated by Brian Boyd, a professor of English (and biographer of Nabokov) and Robert Michael Pyle, a lepidopterist, each of whom provides a substantial introduction. The editors find a harmony in Nabokov between artist and scientist - and it would be nice if there were traces of that virtue in their collaboration. There is overlap and contradiction in their opening remarks.

The literature man might usefully have advised the butterfly man to pitch his essay consistently. On one page, we are advanced students, not needing to be reminded of the meaning of 'phenology'. On another, we are back in primary school, struggling to understand the advantages of a system of classification, and asked to imagine 'running a big city without telephones'.

In return, Pyle could have suggested that Boyd not gloss over the crucial hostility towards evolutionary theory in Nabokov's scientific work.

Mimicry, about which Nabokov wanted to write an ambitious book, seemed to him impossible to explain in evolutionary terms. Boyd remarks only on the likelihood that 'had he begun serious work on mimicry, he would have found sufficient evidence of purely physical explanations to be forced to abandon his dearly-held metaphysical speculations'.

Pyle isn't so sure, or rather - bizarrely - he asserts (citing no source) that Brian Boyd 'is not so sure, suspecting Nabokov might well have counter-argued in ways no one would have guessed'. A writer who famously 'confessed' (Speak, Memory) that he did not believe in time was always going to resist an explanation of life that requires nothing else. What is striking in Nabokov's Butterflies is the consistency of his opposition to scientific orthodoxy.

He asserts that mimicry, by the gratuitous splendour of its imitations, disproves evolution, in fiction, memoir and scientific paper. In an essay on Lysandracormion, he uses such heretical phrases as 'the secret decrees of nature', while also giving that agency a whiff of Detroit by talking not of genetic variations but of 'bringing out' particular 'makes' of butterfly.

Nabokov seems to interpret mimicry as an artificial flaw in an aesthetic design, a clue left for those able to see it. The amount of emotion he invested in the metaphysics of lepidoptery - his special sense that mimicry proved an exemption from determinism - would be hard to underestimate. Temperamentally, he hated system as much as he loved pattern, and it would be shattering for him to find the enemy in the stronghold of his beloved system underlying pattern.

Nabokov ruled out of court any psychological reading of his life or work (and his critics largely oblige), but is it so surprising that the ambitious book on mimicry which would settle the matter never got written?

He visualised a 'high ridge', where the mountainside of scientific knowledge could join the opposite slope of artistic imagination, but the winds up there are high also, and no hiker, not even the most experienced, can guarantee to keep his footing.

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