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Why? What For?


THIS WEB-BOOK is a comprehensive annotated catalogue of all the real and imaginary butterflies and moths found in Nabokov's published writings, including the scientific papers, the letters and the interviews. It is aimed at the general Nabokov reader who wants to know more about this author's lifelong passion for Lepidoptera, elucidating a good many lepidopterological allusions in Nabokov's fiction and making it possible to trace any particular insect through all of his writings. Ultimately, by helping to explain in some detail what Nabokov's science was about, this Guide hopes to provide a few logs for the narrow footbridge across the widening chasm that separates science from the world of letters.

The other purpose is to be of help to Nabokov's translators, revisers, publishers, editors and commentators. Wherever a particular butterfly is not fully named, wherever the name given by Nabokov is a colloquial or idiosyncratic one or wherever the scientific one appears only in an obsolete or abbreviated form, the reader is bound to be uncertain which insect Nabokov had in mind. Before the translator can even start to ponder how it should be rendered in his language and how its description should best be worded, he is invariably faced with the same recurrent problem: what particular insect is it, to begin with? This is the sort of question the Guide hopes to answer comprehensively. Annotating his own copy of the first edition of Ada for translators, Nabokov wrote (a quote I owe to Brian Boyd), "La première exigence à poser à un traducteur: qu'il sache à fond la langue de laquelle il traduit. La seconde: qu'il soit un écrivain dans la langue dans laquelle il traduit. La troisième: qu'il connaisse dans toutes les deux langues les mots qui désignent les objets concrets (naturels et artificiels, la fleur et l'habit)". Et le papillon, to be sure.

Fully identifying Nabokov's butterflies and moths – which is the main objective of the catalogue part of this Guide – is not as mean and trivial a business as one might suppose. You have to know the rules of taxonomy and the tools available (which are not to be found in any one particular place in the world), and you have to know how to use them before you can safely determine what "a race of Agr. pheretes from the Swiss Alps" in Nabokov's writings is, for instance. Even if you correctly guess that 'Agr'. stands for the genus Agrodiaetus, in recent manuals this genus has become extinct, having been submerged in the genus Polyommatus. However, there is no pheretes in Polyommatus. As a matter of fact, there is no pheretes at all. You will find that the specific name pheretes had to be abandoned as a synonym of what today is orbitulus. The species orbitulus in its turn was not placed in Polyommatus but in the genus Albulina, so Agr. pheretes today comes out as Albulina orbitulus, the Alpine Blue. Once you have that, and knowing that many names of 'races' have been discarded, you can search old butterfly books for a 'race' of orbitulus from the Swiss Alps. You will find one candidate only. There you have it, the Maloya Alpine Blue!

Hunting names in a way is like hunting butterflies, only that the hunt takes place not on mountain meadows but in secluded libraries where almost no one ever disturbs the dust. There are similar triumphs. The hunter may have exhausted all obvious possibilities searching for that "sooty swallowtail (Avinov's lucifer)". The expert he asks has no idea, and finally he is about to give up. But following some hunch, he opens that cardboard box with the sporadic installments of a stalled and index-less and most incomplete catalogue of butterflies and moths begun before World War I, selects a promising issue and cuts the yellowed pages no eye has ever beheld, and there is the devil, Iphiclides podalirius f. lucifer Avinov, 1918, a 'form' of the Scarce Swallowtail, described from Russia in Oberthür's serial work!

More often than not, such hunches will unfortunately lead to naught. There are more difficult cases, though. Sometimes it takes many a frustrated move until the sleuth can assert with any certainty that the particular butterfly he has been after is nonexistent. On the other hand, it is amazing how precise even Nabokov's shortest and most casual descriptions often are, allowing to determine the butterfly in question from very scanty but telling detail.

There is a seven page checklist at the end of Joann Karges' monograph on Nabokov's Lepidoptera (1985). It is an attempt to locate the butterflies and moths in Nabokov's works, identifying them, giving their family membership and adding a comment now and then. Why then another one? Mine was compiled independently. I began to list Nabokov's "leps" along with my German translations of his novels and short stories, digging into lepidopterological handbooks now and then. When I translated the 1967 version of Speak, Memory in 1984, I made a list of its many Lepidoptera which Véra Nabokov graciously took great trouble to check against her husband's manuals. And when in 1988 I began the editorial work on Rowohlt's twenty-four volume set of Nabokov's collected works in German, with books rich in butterflies and moths like Strong Opinions and The Gift coming up, I decided to settle the matter once and for all, took a much closer look at the nomenclatorial tools of lepidoptery and began in earnest to envisage a complete list, not anticipating in the least how much work was ahead of me.

Karges' book I got to know at a relatively late stage. If I went on in spite of it, it was not because Karges had to be corrected (though she has to in several instances) but because the catalogue I was envisaging was of a quite different scope. As it is now, it includes not only the leps from Nabokov's English fiction, as Karges' list does, but all the leps from all his writings including the technical ones, commenting in detail on those that figure prominently, supplying basic taxonomic information including the synonyms used or quoted by Nabokov and in recent literature, fully identifying the many insects mentioned obliquely or in less than scientifically precise terms and including an annotated catalogue of the butterflies and moths named by Nabokov or for Nabokov. It also has a referenced and hyperlinked list of his Lepidoptera by work and page number. Where appropriate and available, it adds linguistic information: pronunciation aids and the common names in English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. There also are capsule biographies of the entomologists mentioned by Nabokov or related to his scientific work. Finally, the Guide provides an introduction to what scientific names are all about, endeavors to briefly sum up Nabokov's scientific work and to explain what happened to the taxa he worked on since his death.

So the Guide is not a discussion – appraisal and critique – of Nabokov's entomological work. It is meant to be a tool. It should help the professional (the Nabokov scholar, the commentator, the publisher, the editor, the translator) to decide what to make of the multitude of allusions to butterflies and moths in Nabokov's fiction. And it should afford the non-professional, whether he be an amateur of prose or of butterflies, a closer look at a case of great rarity: a true interaction between art and science.



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