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  • Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings edited by Brian Boyd and Michael Pyle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The second doubt arrives with the subtitle ‘Unpublished and Uncollected Writings’. Unpublished?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.

Serious evaluation of the lepidoptery papers is supplied by Nabokov’s Blues, another joint work, by Kurt Johnston, one of the lepidopterists who vindicated Nabokov’s innovative reclassification of Latin American ‘blues’, and the journalist Steve Coates. They persuade us of many things: for example, that, at least in lepidoptery, scientific progress is less a smooth forward movement on oiled wheels than a disorderly sack race. They educate us in the theoretical implications of biogeographics and rainforest biodiversity. They urge the vulnerability of newly-discovered collection sites, as hungry humans push slash-and-burn agriculture ever closet to jungles seething with unknown butterflies. They tell us boys’ own tales of butterfly-chasing in South America – torrential rains, mudslides, sinister border guards. They try to persuade us that lepidoptery is the flagship of entomology (I prefer beetles). They flex their literary muscles: if there are lepidopterists in the world who wish Nabokov had not wasted his time writing all that literary stuff, these two are not among them. They tell us that ‘typical of the multiple layers of Nabokov’s allusiveness, pupa is the Latin word for “doll”, which recalls one of Lolita’s nicknames, Dolly,’ and when they have to name bevies of new butterflies, many of them caught by Johnson, they call in Brian Boyd and his cohorts to provide tastefully allusive Nabokovian names (they put fifteen hundred miles between Lolita, a ‘delicate little Blue, a crosscountry traveller with a captivating and enigmatic personality’, and Hairy Humbert).

They also teach us things we very much wanted to know. Brooding over the scientific papers, I had decided that Nabokov’s colour discriminations were marginally finer, more radiantly expressed, than those of another lepidopterist briefly quoted by Boyd/Pyle, but I was chagrined to find his scientific prose hard to follow. Johnson/Coates tell me that this is not an illusion of ignorance: that his scientific prose is notably awkward. We are used to glimpsing him flash through the canopy, all grace and power; here he chops his way clumsily through thickets on the jungle floor. Is the magic lightness of his later fiction a consequence of the displacement of heaviness towards his scientific writings – a heaviness which weighs on some of his literary criticism, when he sets us to counting the equivalent of butterfly scales?

Through all this, Johnson/Coates’s central concern remains steady: they want to establish Nabokov as a scientist of genius, accidentally sidelined by the idiosyncrasies of internal developments in this rather archaic discipline, but vindicated when, thanks in part to Johnson’s pioneering work, his system of classification for what came to be known as ‘Nabokov’s Blues’ was filled out by captures in the Caribbean and South America. It is a difficult case to argue. Nabokov was involved in lepidoptery research and publication for less than a decade, and his ‘classification’ paper rested on the analysis of only 120 museum specimens. Johnson and Coates have to adopt an uneasy futurist stance: ‘had he had the specimens in hand,’ they write, ‘there is no question that he would have made the same discoveries as the researchers who took up his work fifty years later.’

Would he? Nabokov never went to Latin America, or indeed to any rugged collecting zone, preferring motel-and-hotel safaris within the United States, with the magnificent Vera somehow contriving a facsimile of home comforts. He chose to maintain a grand silence on socio-scientific matters. As for his preference in butterflies, we learn that his beloved ‘blues’ are not glorious, fugitive slices of heaven, but a small-winged, drab, obscurely differentiated tribe which includes a great number of widely-distributed species. So why choose them? Presumably because he was serious, in love with difficult identifications – and because this rapidly differentiating family held out hope of the glory of identifying a new species, as he thought he had in 1938 when he caught a peculiar little blue in the Maritime Alps and proudly named it Lysandra cormion Nabokov. What he looks like is a dedicated taxonomist, enjoying working with concrete criteria, grumpily recalcitrant when faced by the austerities of evolutionary theory.

What he looks most like is an ardent boy collector whose passion never dims. He suffered the enchantment early: inspired by his father’s dusty collection, he killed and spread his first butterfly at seven. In 1945, in the thick of his lepidoptery decade, he boasts to his sister that his Harvard museum, the famous Museum of Comparative Zoology, is crammed with cabinets; he ‘is custodian of all these absolutely fabulous collections’. He has all the paraphernalia: ‘Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc’. He has just been taught a new skill: how to dissect the genitalia of his ‘blues’ under the microscope. He continues: ‘My work enraptures but utterly exhausts me ... to know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wonderful crystalline world of the microscope, where silence reigns, circumscribed by its own horizon, a blinding white arena – all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it.’ We cannot doubt his passion: horribly short of money, paid a pittance for a few hours’ work at the Museum, he is putting in six, ten, even 14 hours a day at the microscope. Meanwhile Bend Sinister lies on his writing table, and fragments of what will become Speak, Memory emerge sporadically to alleviate the family’s poverty. In 1956, with an academic job at Cornell and career lepidoptery behind him, Doubleday approach him for a book on his butterfly work. Nabokov rises jubilantly to the lure: ‘It would contain my adventures with leps in various countries, especially in the Rocky Mountain States, the discovery of new species, and the description of some fantastic cases of adaptation. I think I could achieve a perfect blend of science, art and entertainment.’

In love with the minutiae of taxonomic identification, he pioneered what he regarded as both a sure-fire identifier and an indicator of speciation by laboriously counting the rows of scales and the number of scales in the rows on his blues’ wings, all of it immaculately recorded and proudly published in elaborate list sand tables. Challenged by a professional entomologist (specimen numbers too small, no statistical analysis), he was at once outraged and apparently incapable of grasping the force of the criticism. In love with the mystery of mimicry in nature, its ‘subtlety, exuberance and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation’, he loftily rejected Darwinian explanations. From Speak, Memory: ‘I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of infinite enchantment and deception.’ Stephen Jay Gould chivalrously insists that in Nabokov’s lepidopteral heyday of the 1940s, ‘the modern Darwinian orthodoxy had not yet congealed [sic] ... a Nabokovian style of doubt remained quite common among evolutionary biologists, particularly among taxonomists immersed in the study of anatomical detail and geographic variation’, but I doubt Nabokov would ever have come to heel. And in the mid-1960s, when he was growing too old to puff up and down mountains, he contemplated a more horizontal mode of hunting and collecting: searching the museums of Europe for representations of butterflies for a ‘Butterflies in Art’ book. He hoped this preposterously random enterprise would answer two questions: whether ‘certain species’ were ‘as common in ancient times as they are today’, and whether ‘the minutiae of evolutionary change be discerned in the pattern of a five-hundred-year-old wing’. By 1970 he was admitting to physical ‘obstacles’ – dark storage spaces, the need for ladders, for torches – but he remained enchanted by the hunt, and nonchalant about its intellectual implausibilities.

The boy’s passion sustained him through life, denying the pains of exile by his seasonal immersion in delights which effortlessly spanned continents: physical exertion, attentiveness to the details of sun, dew, vegetation; the exhilaration of stalking and capture; then the complicated joys of spreading, labelling, arranging and simply brooding over one’s collection – every one of these activities demanding the intensity of consciousness that Nabokov recognised as bliss. He offers oblique confirmation in one piece which might possibly justify the whole Boyd/Pyle compilation: a 52-page ‘second addendum’ to The Gift, written in 1939, which Nabokov chose to leave unpublished, now deciphered and translated by his son. It celebrates the fictional Fyodor’s father, an imperishably glamorous and lordly lepidopterist forever dashing off on his collecting trips to a misty, dream-spun China, with Cossacks and camels in devoted attendance. Some of the writing dazzles; too much of it cloys. It is a protracted act of filiopiety, and it prefigures the shape, mood and emphases of most of Nabokov’s later lepidoptery. We have tales of epic captures, with places sanctified by the impossibly rare creatures taken there. The hero devises a ‘prodigiously original’ system of natural classification, like ‘a knight’s move of the board into space’, which obliterates vulgar evolutionism, reduces professional entomologists to gibbering fury, and, given the meanness and the malice of the world, is promptly buried. There is also a sideswipe at ‘genitalists’: Nabokov did not learn the techniques of dissection until his first American years. The hero-father publishes a four-volume ‘Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire’ which breathes a ‘classic finality’: every Russian butterfly, including the most obscure, is richly, precisely and personally illustrated (‘both the upper and undersides ... local variations ... delightful snapshots’) and awarded ‘from one to five pages of small print’. This phantom publication seems to have suffused Nabokov’s imaginings of his own stillborn ‘Butterflies of Europe’, a project he did not finally abandon until 1965. I doubt whether that ambitious projection was primarily intended for scientists. The (now published) notes evoke dramatic narratives of captures (Nabokov was tirelessly self-referential in such matters), the ravishing detail and the velvety realism of the imagined plates, fantasised as ‘arranged in series as done in the glass-topped trays of cabinets’. It was to have been a whole museum in a single book.

I think he has a particular reader in mind. In that same year of 1965 he wrote to a lepidopterist who had sent him a volume on American butterflies, praising the illustrations but deploring the text: ‘It is curious how authors and publishers of so-called “popular” butterfly books never seem to realise that the only audience who matters – the bright, eager, gifted boy – will toss aside with bored disgust the book in which he cannot find that bizarre little thing he has just caught in a Vermont beechwood.’ Entrancing detail, comprehensiveness, excitement, the ‘bright, eager, gifted boy’, the hopeful gaze, the scrambling knees – perhaps the Halsman photograph does not mislead after all. Perhaps we are being shown the eternal Volodya in the septuagenarian butterfly-hunter.