The Most Famous Lepidopterist in the World
Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime -- but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.
Lepidoptery, the branch of science dedicated to the study of butterflies and moths, has its own legendary figures, and its history is both long and glorious. But for lepidopterists, as in fact for most entomologists, the light of celebrity seldom shines outside a narrow but passionate circle of scientists and collectors. During the Age of Exploration, when the influx of exotic new plants and animals from the four corners of a seemingly boundless globe astounded Europe, the study of biology, often a preserve of the well-born, offered a path to wealth and fame. Sir Joseph Banks, the 18th-century English biologist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his three-year circumnavigation aboard the British ship Endeavor, was a friend of King George III and one of the most famous men of his day. In the next century, Baron Alexander Humboldt, a Prussian nobleman who pioneered the study of South America's vast flora and fauna, was considered by many of his contemporaries to be, after Napoleon, the most famous man in Europe.
For natural biologists of the 20th century, however, the story takes on a different complexion. In 1973, the Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch shared a Nobel Prize -- the only entomologist ever to have won such recognition -- for deciphering the honey bees' intricate food dance, the ritualistic motions a worker bee uses to convey the exact location of sources of nectar, pollen and water, even miles away, to the rest of the hive. Von Frisch's work caught the public imagination for a while, but today, few non-scientists even remember his name. Other researchers, too, have claimed a share of the limelight. Edward O. Wilson, for example, has become a recognizable public-television personality on the strength of his popular writings on ants and his influential work on the biodiversity crisis. And the lively meditations of the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould on everything from dinosaurs to baseball have enshrined him among the media's most reliable scientific pundits. But for the most part, today's entomologists toil along with little public recognition. "Entomologists are obscure scientists. Not one is mentioned in Webster," explained one of their number, the novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov.
Nabokov himself was a peculiar case. In 1999, the centennial of his birth in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nabokov is known mostly as the Cornell University literature professor who, in the 1950's, wrote Lolita, a serious novel with a salacious reputation and an underaged heroine whose name filled a semantic gap in the English language. But he was much, much more.
In fact, Lolita was only a part of a long literary career that reached back to the 1920's and across two continents. Along with 17 novels, he wrote poems, plays, film screenplays and stories, some in Russian, some in English, but all with the same distinctive flair of language and imagination -- an astounding bilingual achievement.
In some ways, Nabokov's popular literary reputation reached a peak in the 1960's, but he maintains a passionate and distinguished following, and there are many signs of a resurgence. In academic circles, Nabokov is increasingly mentioned in the company of such lights as Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Three scholarly journals are devoted to his life and works. There is a Nabokov web site, called Zembla, after the imaginary kingdom in his novel Pale Fire. In the last several years, a remake of the film Lolita has been the controversial subject of wide media attention. In 1998, the editorial board of the Random House Modern Library, in a highly discussed list, ranked Lolita the fourth-best English-language novel of the 20th century, ahead of anything written by William Faulkner, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway or Saul Bellow; according to some of the participants, Lolita was actually ranked first by more of the invited judges than any other work. Pale Fire occupied the 53rd spot on the same list. Nabokov's Speak, Memory is another masterpiece, one of the most celebrated of modern literary memoirs. Furthermore, some critices believe that The Gift, written during the 1930's, is the century's best Russian-language novel. And in the world of scholarship, Nabokov's massive four-volume translation and commentary of Pushkin's great poem "Eugene Onegin," which he published in 1964, is still the most authoritative.
These are only a few of the highlights of his work, yet as impressive as Nabokov's writings are, his biography is almost as intriguing. In outline, Nabokov's life story seems almost like a fairy tale. His birth into a stupendously wealthy family of Russian nobles and a blessedly happy childhood and youth were followed by the loss of nearly all possessions, expulsion from home and the violent death of his beloved father. Then came decades of relative anonymity and the precarious struggles of exile, and a demanding career as a college teacher at Wellesley College and Cornell, before the great reward in the fullness of years -- somewhat incongruously in Nabokov's case, the particular kind of fame that only American popular culture can bestow. And for the epic touch, his was a life played out against a background of some of the greatest social and political upheavals of the 20th century: Nabokov was driven out of Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and then, 25 years later, out of Europe by the Nazis. These experiences supplied the author with one of his major literary themes: the poignant absurdity of the exile.
Despite the brilliant resume, for most of his career Nabokov wrote in comparative obscurity, first for the small and fragmented world of the Russian emigration and later for a narrow, though ardent, readership in English. Until 1958, the "year of grace," when Lolita was published in the United States, Nabokov was unable to support himself solely on his literary creations. But suddenly, the little girl and her creator became international sensations.
A small circle admirers was already aware of yet another strange and wonderous facet of Nabokov's life: that he collected and studied butterflies and had published articles on lepidoptery in scientific journals; that he was an acknowledged expert in a group of small butterflies called Blues, and even that he had held an official position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. An entire chapter of his memoirs, which were published serially in the New Yorker magazine beginning in the late 40's, had been devoted to his love of butterflies, and Time, Vogue and other magazines had sent photographers to capture him at work at his desk in the museum. As word then spread that lepidoptery had provided a steady stream of themes, metaphors, background and incidental detail to much of Nabokov's literary production, including Lolita, his engagement with butterflies became an irresistible sidelight of his fame.
Throughout his literary career, Nabokov had reserved lepidoptery on a special shelf as a potential alternative profession. He told interviewers that if not for the Russian Revolution, he might indeed have been a full-time professional lepidopterist. As it was, even after he became an international superstar of literature, he ranked lepidoptery as one of his three professions, along with teaching and literature. "My passion for lepidopterological research, in the field, in the laboratory, in the library, is even more pleasurable than the study and practice of literature, which is saying a good deal," he told an interviewer in 1966.
This double fascination for literature and lepidoptery took on mythical proportions among his admirers, and interpreted as a reversion to the Leonardo archetype of the scientist-artist, a distinct oddity in the late 20th century. There was lofty talk of the mystical places where art and science meet. Academics and journalists alike enthusiastically seized on this curious side of the exotic author, and often, Nabokov, butterfly net in hand, just as enthusiastically obliged with a collector's pose in cloth cap, shorts and high socks.
In fact, Nabokov seemed to regard himself as a sort of public ambassador of lepidoptery. As early as 1951, when he had already established a modest literary reputation, Life magazine had asked him for assistance in a projected article about his collecting. Nabokov responded enthusiastically, suggesting suitable quarry and collecting sites in the American West, his favorite hunting grounds.
All these western butterflies can make wonderful pictures, and such pictures have never been taken before. Some fascinating photos might be also taken of me, a burly but agile man, stalking a rarity or sweeping it into my net from a flowerhead, or capturing it in midair. There is a special professional twist of the wrist immediately after the butterfly has been netted which is quite fetching. Then you could show my finger and thumb delicately pinching the thorax of a netted butterfly through the gauze of the netbag. And of course the successive stages of preparing the insect on a setting board have never yet been shown the way I would like them to be shown. All this might create a sensation in scientific and nature-lover circles besides being pleasing to the eye of a layman. I must stress the fact that the whole project as you see it has never been attempted before.To be sure, Nabokov no doubt appreciated the latent possibilities for literary self-promotion, but his personal desire to court a wider audience for his lepidoptery was pure and authentic, and it survived to the end of his life, well after any need for the financial rewards that publicity might bring had vanished. Images of Nabokov on the hunt are familiar to his readers today. A photograph of an intensly focused Nabokov, age 66, net at the ready, taken by Philippe Halsman for an article in the Saturday Evening Post, from the perspective of the invisible prey, has become a literary icon. It is probably the most famous photograph of the author, but it is only one fragment of the evidence of the public's enchantment with his quirky pursuit. Brian Boyd, Nabokov's principal biographer, could write that by the end of 1959, Nabokov had become the most famous lepidopterist in the world.
Amid the adulation, however, one glaring fact stood out. It was impossible for most people to know what to make of all this. Journalism could offer little guidance, beyond reciting Nabokov's professional affiliations. Lepidoptery, like much natural science, stands outside the experience of most journalists as of most of the readers of his literature. On one level, there was the simple question of how serious Nabokov was about butterflies. For reasons that will become apparent, it was really only in this decade that an answer to that question was possible for the large majority of interested readers; one of the many glories of Brian Boyd's two-volume biography -- Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, published in 1990 and 91, respectively -- is that it clears up any doubts about Nabokov's profoundly serious and dedicated attitude. Before that, even readers well-disposed to Nabokov had to make of his lepidoptery what they would, as many still do. Most are merely bemused or perplexed. The benevolent are free to see the harmless eccentricity of a crank, while the most uncomprehending critics have detected an elaborate, self-serving literary pose.
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