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Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings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 are one of the very few people in the world whom I keenly miss when I do not see them.” In March 1971, when the famous battles over Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin were done, Nabokov tried to make peace, citing “the warmth of your many kindnesses, the various thrills of our friendship, that constant excitement of art and intellectual discovery,” but it was too late. Wilson had already written the pages in Upstate that Nabokov was to find unforgivable.

It is easy to sympathize with Wilson about the butterfly papers, particularly if you have been reading the central pages of Nabokov’s Butterflies, notably the articles “The Nearctic Forms of Lycaeides Hüb[ner],” “Notes on the Morphology of the genus Lycaeides,” “Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae,” and “The Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides Hübner,” generally regarded as Nabokov’s most important work in the field. Here’s an example of the writing, taken more or less at random from the second of these pieces. When Nabokov told Wilson that his work on this article “has been a wonderful bit of training in the use of our (if I may say so) wise, precise, plastic, beautiful English language,” he was presum-ably teasing Wilson a little, but only a little:

It should be noted that the essential shape of a macule and its halo, of a semimacule and its cretule, of an interval and its aurora, of a praeterminal mark and its scintilla, is obovate, sagittate, cordate, arcuate, with the wider part directed distad; this outline repeats that of a sessile macule which in its turn conforms to the shape of the apex of the cell; or in other words, the shape of any of these markings renders macrocosmically the shape of each distally broadening scale and microcosmically the general fanwise expansion of the wing and its cells, and is influenced in details of outline and direction by the apical andor cubital-anal development of the termen….

I don’t know whether “andor” is a technical term or a misprint for “and/or,” but my guess is that it’s the latter. This prose would not be difficult to understand if we (if I) knew the meaning of the words, but it would be difficult to read under any circumstances; it would be difficult to read because it is precise, and in its curious way, beautiful. I don’t quite see how it is wise or plastic, but I can keep trying.

This difficulty looks very different from that of Nabokov’s novels, if indeed they are difficult at all, but many readers have experienced them as challenging in just this way: too precise and too beautiful, too meticulously removed from what we think of as a shared world. This is pretty much Wilson’s verdict on Lolita, although his terms are moral rather than aesthetic. “The various goings-on and the climax at the end,” Wilson wrote in 1954, “…become too absurd to be horrible or tragic, yet remain too unpleasant to be funny.” Wilson’s view, like a great deal of other excellent literary criticism, is acute about the written effects and conventional or time-bound in its conclusion. Lolita is too absurd to be horrible or tragic, that is part of its difficult truth: its fidelity to the antics of reality rather than the literary habits of realism is both unpleasant and very funny. It’s easy enough to see (now) that Na-bokov was out to “upset the system of old conceptions,” to borrow his phrase about his butterfly work. He wanted to know whether our ideas of the absurd, the horrible, the tragic, the unpleasant, and the funny would survive the test of the precise and the beautiful.


There are some fifteen thousand known butterfly species in the world, Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates tell us in Nabokov’s Blues, a book about the recent consequences and prolongations of Nabokov’s research, and there are around ten times that many species of moths. Nabokov specialized in a group of butterflies known as Blues, many of which, in a nice Nabokovian touch on the part of nature, could be described as brown, copper, gray, silver, or even white. Their blueness “is not a pigmental color like those of white, yellow, brown, or orange butterflies; it is instead a structural color, produced by very fine laminations in the wing scales refracting the light.” Nabokov’s work, Johnson and Coates suggest, “thoroughly transformed the conventional taxonomy of the Blue butterflies of the Neotropics”—the Neotropics, in spite of the name, being mainly the temperate highlands of South America. In 1945, there were nine recognized species of Blues found in South America; in 1999 there were more than sixty. Johnson and Coates give lucid and readable accounts of Nabokov’s careers as writer and as lepidopterist, of the various states of play in lepidoptery since the 1940s, of later dramatic searches for butterflies in the Dominican Republic, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, of scientists combing Old World museums for dusty specimens, of cliff-hanging quarrels for precedence in setting up new nomenclatures.

For them the work of Nabokov’s which counts definitively is his 1945 “Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae,” a feat, they say, of “wondrous taxonomic daring.” “With a mere handful of specimens from a few far-flung localities in that intricate biological mosaic, he circumscribed a basic nomenclature for South American Blues.” They remind us, too, that Nabokov never set foot in South America, or even the Caribbean Islands, only analyzed samples of these kinds of Blues in the museum, so that his work represents the blend of detailed observation and imaginative reach he always called for in both science and art. “There is no science without fancy,” he said in an interview, “and no art without facts.” He also attacked such aphorisms in the next sentence, which is worth remembering too: “Aphoristicism is a symptom of arteriosclerosis.”

Nabokov’s Butterflies is a book trying to be many books: a thematic anthology of Nabokov’s evocations of butterflies in his fiction and correspondence and poems and memoirs; a place for previously unpublished material, notably a long chapter from a planned sequel to The Gift; a concentrated collection of Nabokov’s lepidopterological work. You get a sense of some hesitation in the gap between the subtitle of the book (“Unpublished and Uncollected Writings”) and the major chapter heading (“Selected Writings 1908–1977”). There are unpublished and uncollected writings here, but there are many pages of material which is neither.

The thematic anthology has its charms, but they are rather modest ones. It’s good to find here Nabokov’s butterfly stories like “Christmas” and “The Aurelian,” and the extraordinary chapter from Speak, Memory which Wilson admired, fun to read passages from Pale Fire which apparently have no reference to a butterfly at all and to be told, or reminded, what the reference is: the “two black islets” called Nitra and Indra take their names both from towns in the Slovak Republic and Italy and from butterflies of the American West. But many of the butterfly evocations in the novels, deprived of their narrative and figurative contexts, just read like blue, or amber-brown, prose: “A silence. Small blue butterflies settling on thyme.” “Blue butterflies nearly the size of Small Whites…were flitting swiftly around the shrubs and settling on the drooping clusters of yellow flowers.” “On serene afternoons, huge, amber-brown Monarch butterflies flapped over asphalt and lawn as they lazily drifted south.” And it’s hard to see what we gain from the frequent short flashes of administrative communication from the letters. “I went to see Obenberger at the entomological museum again.” “No tennis or butterfly-hunting for me this year.” “Heartiest thanks for your generous check covering your sustaining membership for the [Lepidopterists’] Society.” “At present my wife and I are in a charming canyon near Flagstaff, where I am collecting butterflies.”

The new material and the lepidopterological work are different propositions. There are nearly one hundred pages of previously unpublished nonfiction; there is a fragment (more like an outline) of Nabokov’s last attempt at a short story; and there is the text here called “Father’s Butterflies,” a rich, thirty-six-page addendum to The Gift, probably written early in 1939. In this piece Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, the narrator and hero of the novel, records his reading of his father’s “four-volume work The Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire,” and explains his father’s reflections on the ideas of species and evolution. “One must renounce habit,” Fyodor’s father writes, “one must have one’s thought assume an uncommon pose.” Fyodor’s father thinks of “cycles of a species in time and in space,” an idea which takes him “very far from the concept of evolution.” He articulates some of the notions which are familiar to us from Nabokov’s other work, and which have helped to make Nabokov look like a scientific amateur, a mere aesthete in nature’s laboratory. “But let us leave in peace the famous ‘struggle for survival’: strugglers have no time for art.” Strugglers don’t recognize in nature their “intelligent accomplice and witty mother.”

But then we realize that Fyodor’s father and Nabokov are both up to something mischievous in their anthropomorphy. They are not denying evolution, they are relocating it. “It was not species that evolved in nature, but the very concept of species.” A species is not a fact, it is an idea, a way of arranging the facts. The natural history we need to understand is the evolution of evolution. This is not skepticism, but it is a way of acknowledging the organizing mind in science, and it clearly makes taxonomy into an adventure, to return to the word Nabokov uses in his letter to Wilson. It also provides the solution to a riddle that seems to run through many of the excerpts in Nabokov’s Butterflies: Does Nabokov believe in names? What does he think names are?

It is easier to handle things that have names,” he writes in a previously unpublished butterfly note. Fyodor’s father, in The Gift, is said to be “happy in that incompletely named world in which at every step he named the nameless,” a heroic, Adamic enterprise. There is a “sharp pleasure” in particular knowledge, Nabokov says in a late note, which is “unknown to the man walking under trees he cannot even name.” We may think here of the marvelous moment in Ada when a young man says to the heroine, “I guess it’s your father under that oak, isn’t it?” Ada says, “No, it’s an elm.” It isn’t her father either, but that’s also part of the joke. But then Nabokov says in a Times Educational Supplement book review reprinted in Strong Opinions and in Nabokov’s Butterflies that “what matters, of course, is not naming or numbering the groups [of butterflies] but correctly assorting the species so as to reflect relationships and distinctions.” Elsewhere he opposes “giving names to things” to “the true scientific spirit,” and scorns the worship of “Identification and Tabulation,” the idols of a generation which “did not believe in the existence of anything that was nameless.” He says in a letter that he is interested in “morphological affinities…not in naming things,” although he adds immediately that he finds it “inconvenient to have no names—or doubtful names—for phylogenetically important forms.”

There is more than convenience here, though, and the apparently conflicting views meet in Fyodor’s father’s theories. When he says that “certain whims of nature” are “like a code or a family joke” and “accessible only to the illuminated, i.e., human, mind, and have no other mission than to give it pleasure,” he is saying not that we invent nature, or that nature doesn’t exist unless we perceive it, but that nature doesn’t make any sense unless we perceive it. Nabokov firmly believes that we need names in order to see things; and that names are not things, only ways of seeing.

Reading Nabokov’s lepidopterological articles is a trial for the untutored, as I have suggested. And it doesn’t provide much immediately identifiable insight into the moods and themes of Nabokov’s literary work. There are plenty of butterflies in the fiction and the poetry of course, but not as many as you might expect, and their meanings are usually quite predictable, not any kind of key. What you do get from reading the articles is a closeness to the actual working of what Nabokov repeatedly calls his mania—that is, you don’t just identify it as a mania, you read the mania’s sentences, you inhabit its time.

But is it a mania? Nabokov says it is. He also calls it a sickness, his obsession, and his demon. He writes of his “desire” for a butterfly, seen when he was a child, as “one of the most intense I have ever experienced.” He wrecked his eyesight by dissecting specimens at the museum at Harvard, and he knew that by clocking in day after day at his workbench he was neglecting his fiction and failing to make some real money and provide for his family. He wrote to Wilson in 1944 that he was “devoting too much time to entomology (up to fourteen hours per day),” and that “although I am doing in this line something of far-reaching scientific importance I sometimes feel like a drunkard who in his moments of lucidity realizes that he is missing all sorts of wonderful opportunities.”

I think the idea of mania (and of addiction) gets us close to what is happening here, but what gets us closest is Nabokov’s account, in Speak, Memory, of a chilly and haunting childhood episode. One of the features of the butterfly mania as Nabokov evokes it is an “acute desire to be alone,” accompanied by a quite ruthless pursuit of this desire. A schoolmate comes to stay with the young Nabokov—he would have been fourteen at the time. This is “a boy of whom I was very fond and with whom I had excellent fun.” The boy has recently lost his father and is in mourning. He has cycled some twenty-five miles to spend a few days with Nabokov. Nabokov can’t wait to escape the boy’s company, because he knows it will interfere with his butterfly hunting, and flees the house without saying anything to his friend. The adult Nabokov writes the following extraordinary sentences:

Breakfastless, with hysterical haste, I gathered my net, pill boxes, killing jar, and escaped through the window. Once in the forest, I was safe; but still I walked on, my calves quaking, my eyes full of scalding tears, the whole of me twitching with shame and self-disgust, as I visualized my poor friend, with his long pale face and black tie, moping in the hot garden—patting the panting dogs for want of something better to do, and trying hard to justify my absence to himself.

I don’t know how much of the shame and self-disgust is in the remembering rather than in the memory, but it’s horribly convincing either way, as is the scrupulous imagining not only of the abandoned boy and his black tie but of the boy’s kindly thoughts.

But there is no apology here, no sense of regret, and I get the same feeling about Nabokov’s long hours at the museum, and about the intense and persistent detail of the lepidopterological articles. What we see is an exclusive, unchangeable attention to one’s own collecting and classifying passion, and a careful counting of the moral cost. But the moral cost is simply, fully paid, as if it required only small change, and left no residue. The quaking calves, the scalding tears, the twitching self, the lonely boy are all vivid enough, but they are in the end merely the measure of the young (and older) Nabokov’s passion, not a criticism of it. They are the sacrifices one makes to desire, and although I’m not keen on reading fiction as autobiography, we do seem here to have entered the worlds of Lolita and Pale Fire and Ada without even noticing the passage.

This is what Johnson and Coates mean when they shrewdly note that the importance of butterflies for Nabokov is not that they symbolize something but that they are butterflies. “The scientific motif,” they say, “is subsumed into the larger themes of Nabokov’s work,” notably “the concern for the human being twisted into grotesque shape by an obsession of one kind or another.” Nabokov himself was not twisted into grotesque moral shape, but he had an intimate practical understanding of the lure and threat of the grotesque; and an austere vocation, scientific or artistic, is perhaps the acceptable form of what in other modes looks like the cruel neglect of almost everything else that matters in life.


This proposition is complicated, but not I think refuted, by the fact that Nabokov’s vocation was a vocation for two. “The more you leave me out,…the closer to truth you will be,” Véra Nabokov told Brian Boyd when he was working on his biography of her husband. Stacy Schiff has devoted a whole crisp and intelligent book to putting Véra in, but the result is still more a portrait of a composite invention than of two separate persons. Véra also told Boyd, “I am always there, but well hidden.” Schiff says the Nabokovs’ marriage “defined them both” and “shaped his work,” and “in many ways, the distant, unapproachable, irreproachable ‘VN’ was her construct.” It’s not that Véra had no life or mind of her own; just that what mattered most in her life was his art. “I hope we can find the peace he needs,” Véra wrote once, in what Schiff calls “a perfectly married locution.” In another locution, Véra manages to both express herself and speak the idiom of their joint achievement: “My husband would never commit a coincidence.”

At all times,” Schiff beautifully says, “she appears to have believed that she stood not in her husband’s shadow but in his light.” “Appears to have believed” registers Schiff’s skepticism, and sometimes she gets a little angry with Véra for not wanting to make herself into a more modern, independent woman. “From the list of things Nabokov bragged about never having learned to do—type, drive, speak German,…cut a book’s pages, give the time of day to a philistine—it is easy to deduce what Véra was to spend her life doing.” Schiff evokes memorable scenes in a supermarket parking lot in Ithaca and during a move from house to house: Véra carries the bags of groceries in the snow, looks for the car keys, loads the trunk, while Nabokov sits in the car, “immobile, oblivious”; Nabokov carries a chess set and a small lamp into the new house, Véra struggles with two bulky suitcases.

But more often Schiff strikes an ironic balance in these matters: “In Véra he had found someone who did not begrudge him the mileage he wrung out of his real and learned helplessness.” And Schiff has the great virtue, not common in biographers, of neither fawning on her subject nor quite losing patience with her. The tone is unfailingly cool, because Schiff knows that sympathy for Véra would be inappropriate and pity for her out of the question. Véra “believed in full candor,” Schiff says. “It may have been one of her least winning characteristics.” “She was constitutionally incapable of self-pity, even of self-dramatization”—one of her most winning characteristics, surely. “It is easy to imagine her standing before a mirror,” Schiff says—because Véra always looked so stylish—“less easy to imagine her meeting her own reflection there.”

Véra Slonim was born into a well-off Jewish family in St. Petersburg in 1902. She married Nabokov in Berlin in 1925, and she died in 1991, just under fourteen years after her husband. Their son Dmitri records what he thinks was the single moment of despair in her life. The woman who had survived the Russian Revolution and four sets of exile (in Germany, France, the United States, and Switzerland), and who for some years carried a pistol in her handbag in the hope of getting a chance to shoot Trotsky, always managed to seem unrattled by history, poverty, or fame. On the evening when Nabokov died she said to Dmitri, “Let’s rent an airplane and crash.” For a moment, before she returned to the archive and the care of her husband’s posthumous career, it looked as if her vocation was over.