Vlad the Impaler

Inga Clendinnen

  • Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings edited by Brian Boyd and Michael Pyle
    Allen Lane, 783 pp, £25.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9380 4
  • Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates
    Zoland, 372 pp, £18.00, October 1999, ISBN 1 58195 009 8

Ever since Lolita ignited the American literary scene in the late 1950s Vladimir Nabokov has been the most famous lepidopterist in the world – indeed, the only one most of us have ever heard of. The covers of books written about him quiver with these interesting insects; even the name ‘Nab-o-koV’, properly spread, seems to have a butterfly look to it. And we can all toss together a quick case for butterfly-chasing to be seen as a comprehensive metaphor for his literary art: ‘in a luminous landscape a single vibrant dancing mote in exuberantly idiosyncratic but ultimately patterned flight’ kind of thing. Now we are being offered two large books seeking to uncover rather less opportunistic linkages between the lepidopterist and the writer.

Nabokov’s Butterflies comes with impeccable credentials: Brian Boyd, Nabokov’s biographer, has composed it in association with the lepidopterist Robert Pyle; the translations from Russian are by Dmitri Nabokov. Nonetheless, doubt rises early. We are immediately confronted by Philippe Halsman’s photograph of the most-famous-butterfly-hunter-in-the-world ready to swipe, the gaze for once directed straight at us, the chubby knees beaming ingenuously; and we know the quarry is no palpitating ‘lep’, as he called them, but palpitating us. This bit of calculated charm appears in most books about Nabokov, but decently tucked away. Here it provides the jacket illustration.

The second doubt arrives with the subtitle ‘Unpublished and Uncollected Writings’. Unpublished? Nabokov was not a wasteful writer: to borrow his own metaphor, we can see passages of the great novels of the middle years intimated in the overheated and humourless ‘Sirin’ writings of the Berlin years as incipient butterfly wings glowing through the shroud of a chrysalis. Boyd does his best to soothe us: we will be given ‘a great deal’ which ‘either has not been previously published or, if published, has not been easily accessible’, especially Nabokov’s lepidoptery papers. That is an intriguing promise, especially if we are to get expert help in fathoming them. But the lepidopterist turns out to be himself a budding novelist, and uses his introduction to take us on a novelist’s journey of missed chances and non-encounters with his hero spiced with ‘real conversation’ interviews with peripheral acquaintances from the glory days in America: a performance that irresistibly recalls some of the biographical techniques joyously lampooned in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

On to ‘uncollected’. What can that mean? Surely Boyd has already collected and reflected on everything to do with butterflies in his biography? Every time the shadow of a butterfly dashed across a page he would be off, net in hand, and return to lay out the spoils. So why this seven hundred-page chronological compendium of every reference Nabokov ever made to butterflies and moths, from the scientific papers through one-liners down to single phrases (‘like a cabbage-white butterfly flying over the trenches’) to possible allusions, some of which, infuriatingly, escaped me? Boyd offers justifications. For example: ‘The entire selection of Nabokov’s work, published and unpublished, scientific and literary, polished and provisional, can be read as a single case study in specialisation and diversity, in development and metamorphosis’; the ‘shifts in scale ... from a line or two to fifty pages of continuous text ... refocus the part and refresh the whole,’ and so on. I was not refreshed, but suffered that mix of surfeit and unappeased hunger which infects the reader of inept anthologies.

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