Nabokov, the novelist who nabbed butterflies
Cambridge, Mass. — ``Bug-eyed.'' It's a picture of Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian-American novelist, behind butterfly-reflecting spectacles. Another amusing photograph catches Nabokov, clad in shorts, nabbing his prey with a huge net as he clambers over a hillside.
He describes himself in ``Speak Memory'': ``I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in Knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts.''
As he flitted about the world, dodging totalitarian governments or lecturing, he chased butterflies and left a trail of collections in Russia, the Crimea, France, and the United States. His first collection came to grief in his own childhood home when the ample figure of ``Mademoiselle'' unwittingly crushed the treasures he had temporarily deposited in an armchair. She didn't look before she sat.
But why was he so hooked on butterflies? In the same book he explains: ``I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a source of intricate enchantment and deception.''
And in case anyone didn't take him seriously about his passion, he asserts his sincerity in ``Pnin.'' Two of the characters watch butterflies ``like blue snowflakes'' fluttering around their feet, and one says it's a pity Vladimir Vladimirovich isn't there to tell them all about these enchanting insects. ``I have always had the impression that his entomology was merely a pose,'' says the other one. ``Oh no,'' says the first.
As a matter of fact, the little blue butterfly in question is one Nabokov named and described, according to a letter he wrote to Edmund Wilson. It was Lycaeides samuelis Nabokov.
Nabokov was particularly interested in the ``blues'' of the Lycaenids, especially with the minute variations among them which are intricate and deceptive, indeed. He spent a number of years doing research on them in Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology while he taught courses in literature at Wellesley College. Several species and a genus of lepidoptera are named for Nabokov, by the way.
Cases of ``blues'' are currently on display at the museum in an exhibition called ``Nabokov's Butterflies,'' along with material showing how he made the distinctions among them.
But the organizers of the show, which runs through March 21, have done much more to illuminate Nabokov's lepidopteran fancies. They provide a short biography, a map of his collecting travels in the United States which literally pinpoints the species where he collected them, photographs, some of his scientific papers, and perhaps most interesting of all, quotations having to do with butterflies and moths in his writings. Each quotation is accompanied by a precisely labeled specimen, and these range from the minute and insignificant to the huge and spectacular.
Harvard was apparently grateful to have Nabokov work on some of its butterfly collection but wasn't too impressed with his scientific ability beyond the evident expertise in butterfly biology that enabled him to classify so well. One exhibit label says, ``His scientific contributions were primarily descriptive, rather than synthetic.'' It goes on to point out what it calls his naivet'e and lack of sophistication about the broader concepts of biology and evolution. What is clear from the papers on display is his delightful manner of describing the butterflies. Such a pleasure to read!
Nabokov couldn't resist going after butterflies, mounting them, classifying them, reveling in them. And although he sprinkled references to them throughout his works, he did so rather sparingly, for he recognized a problem. He stated it in ``Strong Opinions'': ``The butterfly that lives forever on its type-labelled pin and in its O.D. [original description] in a scientific journal dies a messy death in the fumes of arty gush.''