Nabokov on the Wing

Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov–Wilson Letters, 1940–1971

edited, annotated, and with an introduction by Simon Karlinsky
University of California Press, 388 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius

Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates
Zoland Books, 372 pp., $27.00; McGraw-Hill, 372 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings

edited and annotated by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, with new translations from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov
Beacon, 782 pp., $45.00

Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)

Stacy Schiff
Modern Library, 456 pp., $14.95 (paper)


“It is amusing,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1942, “to think that I managed to get into Harvard with a butterfly as my sole backer.” Nabokov was forty-three at the time, and was referring to his position as research fellow at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which he held until 1945, when he took up an appointment in language and literature at Cornell. He had also been teaching Russian at Wellesley for most of the time he was living in or near Cambridge. Wilson thought Nabokov’s New Yorker piece on his childhood passion for butterflies, later to become Chapter Six of Speak Memory, “one of the best things you have done in English,” but didn’t pay much attention to Nabokov’s scholarly work in lepidoptery, in spite of Nabokov’s quiet insistence on treating it (almost) in the same breath as his fiction.

“I have dissected and drawn the genitalia of 360 specimens and unraveled taxonomic adventures that read like a novel,” he wrote to Wilson. “I am sending you a copy of a preliminary paper on the classification of the holarctic Lycaeides forms. It has produced a tremendous stir in the butterfly-man world since it completely upsets the system of old conceptions.” “My huge butterfly work is soon coming out—shall send you a copy.” Wilson enjoyed the use of words like “fulvous” and “cinereous” in one of Nabokov’s early butterfly papers, but otherwise felt it “was a little technical for me.” This was Wilson’s preferred escape route. “Your butterfly paper is too technical for me to get out of it all that I am sure is there.” Occasionally he is curter: “Thanks for the butterfly monograph.”

Nabokov and Wilson agreed to disagree about many things (Malraux, Faulkner, Henry James, Lenin, Russian history, English and Russian prosody), which makes their long friendship all the more impressive, and their eventual falling-out all the sadder. The “revised and expanded edition” of their correspondence includes fifty-nine new letters, most of them small courtesies (“We were extremely sorry to have to postpone our party,” “it was a joy to see you”), but there is also a long and gruesomely detailed letter from Nabokov about his severe illness from food poisoning in 1944. Most of this letter is quoted in the second volume of Brian Boyd’s biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, but it is good to see it complete and in context.

The fulsome tributes to their relation, especially from Nabokov, ring out in the letters like cries of the mind’s passion, echoes of a hunger for intellectual challenge and companionship which Nabokov at least was otherwise inclined to say he didn’t feel. “Our conversations,” Wilson wrote in 1945, “have been among the few consolations of my literary life through these last years—when my old friends have been dying, petering out or getting more and more neurotic, and the general state of the world has been so discouraging for what used to be called the humanities.” And three years later Nabokov wrote: “You…

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