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Writer and Scientist

There is a wide gap separating the literary mind from the spirit of science. It appears to be ever widening, as a secular trend is turning what used to be mere indifference into distrust and downright dislike. When literati first become aware of Nabokov's interest in butterflies, many of them will either yawn ("what tedious stuff!") or indulgently smile ("what a bizarre hobby!") – and will then go on to utterly and hopelessly misinterpret such stories as The Aurelian. As the Italian writer Giorgio Manganelli very politely put it when trying to come to terms with Nabokov's obsession: "I would like to add – my critical honesty is pathological – that I know nothing about butterflies, and that in their presence I experience a vague feeling of admiration, of inferiority, of irritation."[1]

However, one must be aware of two things. One is that though there are many outstanding entomologists who strictly speaking were amateurs, for Nabokov lepidoptery was not a mere hobby. It was a lifelong passionate interest that began when he had just turned seven, eight years before he began to compose his first poems, with his first Old World Swallowtail in Vyra, and did not end at seventy-six when he captured his last Eriphyle Ringlet in Davos. He himself called it "a passion, a sickness" and at times thought of it as a "real mania". In his second novel King Queen Knave he has the king say to the queen who does not care for butterflies, "In fact, I think to have a passion for something is the greatest happiness on earth".

Only a year after his arrival in the United States the passion became more. In 1941, the zoologist, Thomas Barbour, then director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, invited Nabokov to order the Museum's butterfly collection in his spare time. This developed into a research fellowship in 1942, earning Nabokov the modest sum of 1,000 dollars a year and lasting until 1948 when Nabokov left Harvard for Cornell. As soon as Nabokov settled at his workbench in the lab and mastered the techniques of preparation and microscopy, he became the unofficial curator of Lepidoptera at the MCZ and a professional though only part-time scientist, gaining the respect of his peers the only way a scientist is able to: by doing good science. Some of his colleagues with whom he exchanged professional information and specimens and who honored him by bestowing his name on some insect may not even have known that he was also a writer.

While today it would be difficult to get an appointment of this kind without formal training and a doctor's degree in zoology, it was nothing unusual up to the middle of this century. Entomology had never been a field to make a living in easily, and most of its basic knowledge had been gathered by amateurs who either possessed the means to devote themselves to a consuming hobby or who earned their living in some other way. Among the earlier lepidopterists there are more lawyers, officers, industrialists, merchants, adventurers, priests, printers and particularly physicians than professors of zoology. In the six years at the MCZ, Nabokov arranged the museum's Nearctic butterflies and published seven full-blown strictly scientific papers. His scientific reputation rests mainly on his two most ambitious ones. In "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae", 1945 (Lep9), he established a seminal taxonomic framework for Andean blues which, according to the follow-up work by Kurt Johnson and Zsolt Bálint, has remained basically valid to this day. In "The Nearctic members of the genus Lycaeides Hüb.", 1949 (Lep14), he sorted a small but muddled holarctic genus of blues.

His professional interest in butterflies did not wane after he quit his work at the MCZ. Perhaps more fervently than before, he went on long collecting excursions each summer in the west of the United States and in several alpine and Mediterranean countries in Europe. For a time he contemplated writing a comprehensive work on mimicry and crypsis in animals. From September 1963 to August 1965 he made plans and preliminary arrangements for a catalogue of The Butterflies of Europe that was to describe all its then 300 species and to comprise photos of about 2,000 specimens. It petered out when the publisher (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) failed to support it energetically because of "enormous problems of cost."[2] Beginning in 1965, Nabokov visited museums in Italy in France to find figured specimens for a project he called Butterflies in Art. It was to depict at least one hundred butterflies and moths and to show "the evolution of butterfly painting from ancient times and through the Renaissance, to 1700, with reproductions of still-life pictures of flowers and insects by Dutch, Italian, Spanish, etc. masters. This is a fascinating, never-before attempted and not too complicated project."[3] In 1970 he told Alfred Appel, Jr., that he was still at work on it. When in 1973 McGraw-Hill wanted a butterfly book from him ("personal, with vignettes or esthetic or literary digressions"[4] – something Nabokov hated), he offered to resume both projects, counting three to four years for the first and two for the second. Nothing came of this suggestion.

In his biography, Brian Boyd writes, "Little did Nabokov know [in 1940] that by the time he left America he would himself be the most famous lepidopterist in the world."[5] Nabokov himself was keenly aware that, lacking formal training and having thorough expertise in the morphology and biogeography of only a limited number of genera, he could not pretend to be one of the great lepidopterists of his time, comparable to men like Nikolai »Kuznetsov in Leningrad, James »McDunnough in Ottawa, Norman D. »Riley in London and many others whose work he respected and admired. Given the fact that fame in lepidoptery does not spread to the public any more, there simply are no famous lepidopterists in this century at all. Nabokov, however, was famous, and he was a lepidopterist, so that some of his fame as a writer could fall back on lepidoptery. The mere picture of this highbrow author in shorts or a wet windbreaker intently stalking a butterfly or swinging his net for show (especially the Halsman photo showing the Mighty Man from the perspective of a low-flying butterfly) has captivated the public imagination and done more than anything else to convince the public at large that there may be something to lepidoptery after all, or at least to butterflies. In her review of Nabokov's Blues and Nabokov's Butterflies, the University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum says, "There is no reason to inflate Nabokov's scientific contribution; it is not necessary for him to have been one of the greatest lepidopterists. He achieved distinction in another arena; he is the best writer about insects of the 20th century, and possibly ever… With an eloquence borne of deep knowledge, he brought the excitement and wonder of insect lives to millions around the world."[6]

The other thing one must be aware of is that one cannot hope to understand Nabokov's fiction if one ignores his scientific work. Not that the Nabokov reader has to know his way around entomology, though that could help. But it is essential to grasp the peculiar turn of temperament that made him split his interests in such a way. His literary and his scientific work share a few basics. They were both suffused with an aversion to rash conclusions and audacious – or sloppy – generalizations. It is well known that he was wont to stress the individual trait and that he loathed general notions, going so far as to claim that for him a word like 'red' was meaningless, as there are only so many different shades of red. Such an attitude, if taken to the extreme, would have made him unfit for taxonomical work. He would have recognized only individuals and not been willing to assemble them into groups on the strength of certain shared similarities. But luckily he never carried that attitude to the extreme. Just as in his fiction he of course used words like 'red,' as a taxonomist he was intent on detecting and weighing differences as well as similarities, for that is what the science of taxonomy is made up of. In taxonomy there are 'lumpers' and 'splitters,' and Nabokov had a reputation for being a splitter. But several genera defined and named by him attest to the fact that he perfectly well knew how to lump dissimilar but related species when the necessity arose.

Also both the writer of fiction and the naturalist drew on a profound delight in precise comparative observation. For Nabokov, a work of nature was like a work of art. Or rather it was a profound work of art, by the greatest of all living artists, Nature, and as much a joy to the mind and a challenge to the intellect as a Shakespeare sonnet. Hence it deserved to be studied like it, with never ending attention to detail and patience. Among literati, 'pedantry' is a scornful word. With scientists, in a way it is the constant prerequisite, the state of mind without which there can be no hope of even the slightest progress towards understanding. There is no poetic license in science where the power of expression counts for nothing. Nabokov was allergic to hearing this kind of scholarship dismissed as pedantry. "Je ne comprends pas comment on peut qualifier de pédanterie la connaissance des objets naturels ou le vocabulaire de la nature", he told an Italian interviewer in 1969. John Wain, thinking of the novel Pale Fire, once said that Nabokov had raised pedantry to the status of a literary art. He certainly had infused his fiction with the spirit of science. As much as he valued the flights of imagination, he did not conceive of them as opposed to the study of nature. (His disdain for big words like 'reality' and 'realism' may have stemmed from the feeling that they were often used to camouflage ignorance, referring less to the nature of things than to a commonplace preconception of them.) For him, truth was beautiful, and there was no beauty without truth. The aesthetic and the scientific endeavor were not in each other's way. They supplemented each other. "There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts."

What was lepidoptery to him? A lifelong passion, at times an obsession, as it was for Pilgram in The Aurelian, for Fyodor's explorer father in The Gift or for Ada. It also was a source of intimate and detailed knowledge of a part of the natural world. (An entomologist has to know a good deal about botany.) "Nabokov considered an interest in natural science – not necessarily butterflies – an essential part of a cultured and healthy mind receptive to the wonders of the world around it."[7] An obsessive passion may be debilitating. Nabokov used his to deepen his understanding for the workings of nature. The significance of his scientific work for his art is that it suffused it with a particular kind of pedantry: careful observation and comparison, a taste for the intricate and unique, a disdain for rash conclusions and commonplace formulas.

[1]  Review of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Corriere della Sera, Sep 4, 1980

[2]  Nabokov's Butterflies, p. 624

[3]  Nabokov's Butterflies, p. 696

[4]  Nabokov's Butterflies, p. 740

[5]  Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, 1991, p. 16

[6]  May Berenbaum, "Blue Book Value," Science, vol. 290, no. 5489

[7]  Kurt Johnson & Steve Coates, Nabokov's Blues, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 309



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