Brain Pickings

Nabokov’s Legacy: Bequeathing Butterfly Theory

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Getting schooled in the arts and sciences, or what literature has to do with lepidoptery.

Tomorrow, the 34th anniversary of Vladamir Nabokov‘s death, isn’t just a chance to observe the author’s contributions to the literary canon; it’s an opportunity for triumph. Nabokov admirers have long known of his double life as a lepidopterist — a scholar of butterflies — and master of prose (in multiple languages, no less), but it’s taken the scientific community time to catch up with his achievements in the former pursuit.

In January of this year, Nabokov’s 1945 hypothesis was finally recognized as scientific fact, putting the lie to that tired adage, “jack of all trades, master of none.”

My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Since Brain Pickings exists to celebrate cross-disciplinary creativity, we’ve long been enamored of the multi-talented linguist and lepidopterist. A true combinatorial force, Nabokov brought the precision of entomological study to his writing, and the playfulness of his words to the hunt for new butterfly species. (And as if that weren’t enough, he was also a synesthete.)

As an artist and a scholar, I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

It wasn’t until this year, however, that the author-scientist’s thesis on a particular blue butterfly was proven true. While Nabokov served, initially on a unpaid volunteer basis, as the curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, he speculated that the American Polyommatus had evolved over millions of years of emigration from Asia. And we now know that he was right.

During his 20 years in the U.S., Nabokov spent almost every summer traveling west both to work on his writing and search for new specimens. In fact, for proof of the cross-fertilization of his efforts, one need look no further than his masterpiece Lolita, a road-trip novel that mirrored the author’s own criss-crossing the country.

I spent what remained of the summer exploring the incredibly lyrical Rocky Mountain states, getting drunk on whiffs of Oriental Russia in the sagebrush zone… And yet–was that all? What form of mysterious pursuit caused me to get my feet wet like a child, to pant up a talus, to stare every dandelion in the face, to start at every colored mote passing just beyond my field of vision? ~ the fictional character Vadim Vadimych, in Nabokov’s final novel Look at the Harlequins!

So in celebration of his equally impressive contributions to two disciplines, we’ve gathered some of Nabokov’s entries in a third, the field of visual arts. Allowing his creativity free rein, Nabokov’s beautiful butterfly drawings–often penciled on the title and endpages of his many books–were actually pure products of his imagination. Like his work, these hybrid creatures combined existing species in new ways that only he could have conceived.

The author on a hunting expedition with his son Dmitri, near Gstaad, August 1971.

Image via Glenn Horowitz Bookseller.

Unlabeled butterflies on a copy of the first American edition of Lolita from 1958

Kurt Johnson, author of Nabokov's Blues, identifies the four overlapping butterflies as North American species, reflecting the journey across the U.S. of Lolita and Humbert during the novel, and also the author while writing it.

Image via the Nabokov Museum.

Unnamed butterfly from a copy of King, Queen, Knave

The author created a fantastical hybrid of the Hairstreak and Australian Lacewing butterflies.

Image via Christie's.

The invented Morpho sylvia, for Nabokov's Wellesley College colleague, short-story writer Sylvia Berkman.

Morpho is a genus of bright, large, metallic-blue South American butterflies.

Image via the Wellesley College Library.

Eugenia oengini from the endpaper of Conclusive Evidence, the first version of the author's autobiography.

Named for Aleksandr Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which Nabokov translated.

Image via Nabokov's Butterflies.

Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?.” ~ Vladimir Nabokov

Brenthis dozenita Nab.

On receiving the 1971 American edition of the 1958 short-story collectionNabokov's Dozen, the author drew this invented species -- calling it 'Dozenita Fritillary' -- and presented it to his wife as a gift on January 19, 1971. The drawing resembles an actual northern bog species which Nabokov describes in the opening of Speak, Memory.

Image via Nabokov Museum.

Arlequinus arlequinus male, drawn for the author's wife in a copy of Look at the Harlequins!, Nabokov's last completed novel published in August 1974.

At Nabokov and Véra's first encounter in 1923 she was wearing a harlequin mask.

Image via the Cornell University Library.

Charaxes verae Nabokov male, an imagined species drawn on the endpaper of the first English edition of The Gift, for the Nabokovs' forty-third wedding anniversary in 1968.

The Russian inscription reads, 'Here is the tenderest of butterflies, worth of our anniversary.'

Image via Nabokov's Butterflies.

The captions above draw on an excellent, but sadly out-of-print volume called Nabokov’s Butterflies. For more on his fluttering finds, however, read the brilliant Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius; or visit the fantastic online galleries of the Nabokov Museum. And if it’s more gorgeous scientific sketches you want, check out our review of Field Notes.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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