The Most Famous Lepidopterist in the World
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Most admirers of his literary works are sufficiently versed in language and literature to make their own judgments about the caliber of his literary accomplishments. But while no one who has looked even casually into Boyd's biography can now doubt the seriousness of his science, few have the expertise to judge the work for themselves. Was Nabokov a true scholar of Lepidoptera, or merely a dilettante whose contributions were unremarkable? Many might assume that the answer to that question was a hard and fast one, and that it could be answered simply by canvassing a few experts. This is not at all the case; his attainments are a matter of some disagreement among scientists, and his reputation in science, like his reputation in literature, has fluctuated over the years. Moreover, in science as in art, the judgments of individuals often reflect personal prejudices, inclinations and points of view. In Nabokov's case, they are also affected to some degree by the social history of science in America.
A cardinal point in many of the discussions of Nabokov's lepidoptery is that whatever his accomplishments, he attained them without benefit of formal training. He had no degree in biology, and as a lepidopterist he was self-taught, having studied butterflies from the early years of his childhood, a passion he described in incomparable images in Speak, Memory. His first published work in English was in fact a slender article about butterflies, "A Few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera," which appeared in one of his favorite magazines, The Entomologist, in 1920, while he was a student of French and Russian at Cambridge University during the first years of his family's exile.
For much of his adult life in Europe Nabokov had set aside time, when he could, to visit the continent's museums and, more rarely, to collect. Toward the end of 1940, soon after arriving in the United States and despite the exigencies of finding a way to support himself, he wasted no time in heading to the American Museum of Natural History in New York with an unusual butterfly he had taken on the flowery slopes above the village of Moulinet, in the Maritime Alps of France. He was given free access to the collections and helped along in his research.
And then, in 1941, after taking up a lectureship at Wellesley College, he stopped at the nearby Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University to visit the lepidopterological collection there. Finding the specimens ill-organized and poorly protected in glassless trays, he presented himself to Nathan Banks, the head of the entomological department, and volunteered to straighten up the collection. That association soon turned into a modest formal position, a part-time research fellowship that made him the museum's de facto curator of Lepidoptera. His starting salary of $1,000 a year eventually rose to $1,200, and the job lasted until 1948, when he accepted a professorship at Cornell University.
Though his Harvard contract required him to work only three half-days a week, the research he chose to pursue involved long, grueling hours -- at one point he told his friend Edmund Wilson that he was spending as much as 14 hours a day on entomology -- all sandwiched between his additional responsibilities of teaching at Wellesley and the labors of his writing. Yet, Nabokov later described those years at the Museum of Comparative Zoology as "the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life." During this period lepidoptery often seemed to eclipse literature for primacy in Nabokov's heart; according to Brian Boyd, his wife, Véra, more than once had to turn him gently away from entomology and remind him of his other ambitions. It was also during his tenure there that he researched his most elaborate and significant scientific work, upon which his reputation as a professional lepidopterist rests. As usual in much that involves Nabokov and his lepidoptery, the best description of what he did there is by Nabokov himself, in a letter he wrote to his sister Elena Sikorski in 1945:
My museum -- famous throughout America (and throughout what used to be Europe) -- is the Museum of Comparative Zoology, a part of Harvard University, which is my employer. My laboratory occupies half of the fourth floor. Most of it is taken up by rows of cabinets, containing sliding cases of butterflies. I am custodian of these absolutely fabulous collections. We have butterflies from all over the world; many are type specimens (i.e. the very same specimens used for the original descriptions, from the 1840's until today). Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc. I have an assistant, whose main task is spreading specimens sent by collectors. I work on my personal research, and for more than two years now have been publishing piecemeal a study of the classification of American "blues" based on the structure of their genitalia (minuscule sculpturesque hooks, teeth, spurs, etc., visible only under a microscope), which I sketch in with the aid of various marvelous devices, variants of the magic lantern....My work enraptures but utterly exhausts me; I have ruined my eyesight, and wear horn-rimmed glasses.The most sublime joy associated with this work was due to the summer butterfly-hunting trips to the West that Nabokov took every summer. Nabokov, who never learned to drive a car, estimated that in the glory years between 1949 and 59, Véra drove him more than 150,000 miles all over North America, mostly on butterfly trips. Those expeditions have taken on the aura of legend among lepidopterists as well as Nabokov's literary admirers, and it was a habit he maintained, with only the geographical scenes shifting, for the rest of his life.
He was widely acknowledged as a great collector. The several thousands of captures he made between 1940 and 1960, the 20 years of his life spent in America, are now part of the collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Amercian Museum of Natural History, the Cornell University Museum of Entomology (now known as the Museum of Cultural and Natural History) and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, including, he proudly wrote in Speak, Memory, great rarities and types (the crucial single specimen by which a species is defined). The thousands of butterflies that Nabokov caught in Europe between his move from the United States to Switzerland in 1959 and his death in 1977 are now stored as a unified, independent collection at the Cantonal Museum of Zoology of Lausanne.
As a collector, Nabokov was joyfully promiscuous. As a scientist, however, he specialized in Blues, a widespread group of small butterflies known today as the Tribe Polyommatini, a part of the lycaenid family. Actually the name Blues is somewhat misleading, because many of them are other colors, including brown, white and gray. Blues are found on every continent where there are butterflies (that is to say, every one but Antarctica). Historically, they have lacked prestige among both academics and amateur collectors, certainly never short of a few enthusiasts, but not with the public following of the showy, exotic butterflies like Swallowtails, the iridescent blue Morphos or velvety green, blue and orange Birdwings.
Between 1941 and 1952, Nabokov published eight articles on the blue butterflies of the Western Hemisphere. Written in a highly technical format, they could mean little to non-scientists. Nabokov was right when he remarked later in his career that the articles, per se, could be of interest only to a few specialists. Admirers of his literature had to turn to other sources to learn what his lepidoptery was about. But those sources could be baffling, and for that Nabokov himself and certain apects of his personality must bear some of the blame. Nabokov the man, like Nabokov the author, was a playful spirit with a twinkle in his eye, a prankster who liked to test the character of the people he met with comic inventions presented seriously, or with straight opinion and unvarnished truth expressed under the protective cover of a wink. He was also well aware of the ludicrous impression butterfly hunters made on ordinary people, and of the absurdity inherent in the sight of a grown man in summer-camp garb swinging a net at tiny insects flitting through some weeds. But if anything, he relished the serious pleasure he took in every aspect of lepidoptery all the more for the absurdist mask it sometimes wore, and he exploited this paradox time and time again in his literature and in his relations with the public.
Nabokov's irrepressible humor was much in evidence in June 1959, when Robert H. Boyle, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, tagged along with him on a collecting outing at Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona. The resulting article, a notable incidence of genre-stretching by the magazine, appeared the following September. Amid other antics, like setting the clock ahead -- so he said -- to fool Véra into making an earlier start, Nabokov remarked to Boyle: "When I was younger, I ate some butterflies in Vermont to see if they were poisonous. I didn't see any difference in a Monarch butterfly and a Viceroy. The taste of both was vile, but I had no ill effects. They tasted like almonds and perhaps a green cheese combination. I ate them raw. I held one in one hot little hand and one in the other. Will you eat some with me tomorrow for breakfast?" The joking , on this occasion and on others, was an inseperable part of Nabokov's personality, so much so that Nabokov's biographer Boyd judged Boyle's article as "perhaps our finest moment-by-moment image of Nabokov the man."
In the realm of literature, Speak, Memory, particularly Chapter 6, is an unforgettable chronicle of the birth of a lepidopterist's passion. But concentrating as it does on Nabokov's youth rather than his mature professional interest, it leaves the door open for misinterpretation of the role of butterflies in Nabokov's adult life, as if it were only a boyish pursuit. And one of its strongest messages is that lepidopterists are a class apart:
I ... found out very soon that a 'lepist' indulging in his quiet quest was apt to provoke strange reactions in other creatures... Stern farmers have drawn my attention to NO FISHING signs; from cars passing me on the highway have come wild howls of derision; sleepy dogs, though unmindful of the worst bum, have perked up and come at me, snarling; tiny tots have pointed me out to their puzzled mamas; broad-minded vacationists have asked me whether I was catching bugs for bait; and one morning on a wasteland, lit by tall yuccas in bloom, near Santa Fe, a big black mare followed me for more than a mile."This theme of ostracism also appears in The Gift, though that novel contains Nabokov's strongest, most extensive and most positive literary treatment of lepidopterological themes. The narrator, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev a writer and lepidopterist and the son of a great Russian naturalist-explorer, asks:
How many jeers, how many conjectures and questions have I had occasion to hear when, overcoming my embarrassment, I walked through the village with my net! "Well, that's nothing," said my father, "you should have seen the faces of the Chinese when I was collecting once on some holy mountain, or the look the progressive schoolmistress in a Volga town gave me when I explained to her what I was doing in that ravine.''
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