Back Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly studies bring together two cultures

Vladimir Nabokov caught his first butterfly in 1906 and his mother, an avid mushroom collector herself, taught him how to pin and spread it. In Speak, Memory he recalls from his childhood:

From the age of seven, everything I felt in connection with a rectangle of framed sunlight was dominated by a single passion. If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender.

Vladimir Nabokov in 1973. (Walter Mori/Mondadori Publishers; Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

For the next seventy years hunting, collecting, and studying butterflies would prove one of the driving passions of Nabokov’s life. He and his wife spent summers in the 1940s driving from New England to Colorado hunting butterflies and Nabokov drew on those trips to create the detailed scenes of motel life in middle America that fills the pages of Lolita. In the stories “Christmas” and “The Aurelian,” in the novels Invitation to a Beheading, The Gift, and Pale Fire, Nabokov explicitly wove his knowledge of lepidopterology into his fiction.

Biographer Brian Boyd captured the interplay of Nabokov’s scientific and literary pursuits in his introduction to Nabokov’s Butterflies:

His love of Lepidoptera drew upon and further sharpened his love of the particular and the habits of detailed observation that gave him such fictional command over the physical world—biologically (birds, flowers, trees), geographically (localities, landscapes, ecologies), socially (manorial Russia, boardinghouse Berlin, motel America), and bodily (gesture, anatomy, sensation). He thought that only the ridiculously unobservant could be pessimists in a world as full of surprising specificity as ours, and he arranged his own art accordingly.

Nabokov’s two worlds came together again this week. Carl Zimmer reported in The New York Times that scientists have found persuasive evidence to support Nabokov’s theory of how the Polyommatus blues, the species he studied most closely, migrated in several waves across the Bering Strait and down into South America. The news has sparked discussions on blogs that would have tickled C. P. Snow, as scientists like John Hawks reflect on their favorite Nabokov stories, and literary bloggers like Erin Overbey and Jeff VanderMeer celebrate Nabokov’s scientific acumen.

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