The Most Famous Lepidopterist in the World
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In 1959, Nabokov told Robert Boyle, the Sports Illustrated reporter: "This work took me several years and undermined my health for quite a while. Before I never wore glasses. This is my favorite work. I think I really did well there." His colleagues agreed. A few years after it was published, Alexander Klots wrote in his widely read Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America that "the recent work of Nabokov has entirely rearranged the classification of this genus." This notice meant much to the writer. Alfred Appel Jr. reported in his Annotated Lolita that when he was visiting Nabokov in 1966, Nabokov took a copy of Klots from the shelf, pointed to this quotation and said: "That's real fame. That means more than anything a literary critic could say."
Nabokov's masterly rearrangement of the group remains scientifically valid to this day. It was a laudable achievement. But in the larger scheme of things, "The Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides" was essentially a good, solid footnote to taxonomic history. Despite Nabokov's justified pride, it is not the kind of work that makes a reputation in lepidoptery.
More recently, however, new discoveries in the groups he covered has made it possible to view Nabokov in a new and more significant light. But in a twist, the new work involves "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae," Nabokov's one major paper that looked beyond Lycaeides, with its handful of Northern species. This treatise, which appeared in the entomological journal Psyche in 1943, was of an altogether different order from anything else Nabokov ever undertook, a pioneering classification of what are known today as the Latin American Polyommatini, a large and diverse group of Blue butterflies with members ranging from the southern tip of Chile through South and Central America and across the islands of the Caribbean.
For anyone familiar with the rest of Nabokov's scientific corpus, there are counterintuitive elements in his undertaking of such a task. Not only was it outside his familiar genus Lycaeides, it was on an unusual kind of scale. Rather than disentangling a muddle of species and subspecies within a single genus, it established a broad range of genuses, a framework into which subsequent researchers would insert their new-species discoveries. The study also involves what to many of his literary admirers cannot help but seem a prank of devious fate. Nabokov, the consummate collector, caught not a single butterfly in "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae." In fact, except in imagination, he never set foot in any of the exotic regions from which emerged the butterflies that most securely insure him a lasting share of scientific recognition. The specimens were part of the collections at Harvard or borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History.
It was also a particularly daring study for Nabokov, showing that he was not afraid to climb far out on a lepidopterological limb. The neotropical Polyommatini, whose members live in some of the most inaccessible parts of the Western Hemisphere, were little known during the 1940's, a time when the study of butterflies was not high on the world's agenda. Only about one-tenth of the species of this group listed today were known to lepidoptery then, and because of the war Nabokov had no access to the important collections of Europe's museums. Even without the war, intercontinental travel of that age was time-consuming and expensive, and biologists worked in far greater isolation than they routinely do today. Among other handicaps the situation entailed, it exposed Nabokov to a serious risk of sampling error. There was a strong possiblility that the available material might not offer a dependable basis for his revision of the group and that Nabokov's study would end up looking inept in light of new finds.
Yet, dissecting and drawing only 120 specimens (compared with the 2,000 in his big Lycaeides study), Nabokov proposed what he called "a rather drastic rearrangement" of the Latin American Polyommatini, naming in the process seven new genuses of Blues -- a reordering so thorough as to link Nabokov's name with the group forever if his study, preliminary and incomplete as it was, should stand up to re-examination by subsequent lepidopterists. On the other hand, if it failed, it would simply wind up as an idiosyncratic footnote of the Nabokov legend, a warning to others not to overreach, and Nabokov's detractors could say I told you so. In an interview for The New York Times in 1997, Charles Remington recalled that "eyebrows were raised when Nabokov published his research. A lot of people have been uneasy about how well his work would stand up under the scrutiny of good professionals."
Still, in Speak, Memory, Nabokov wrote that "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae'' was one of his three favorite scientific articles, along with his big Lycaeides paper. The third item on his list was a short note in which he named an additional species -- from the Cayman Islands, but sent to him from Oxford -- that had been found to fit into his neotropical classification. That addendum and a second one like it suggest that Nabokov was aware of what a can of worms he had opened up and that he planned to follow up in one way or another on what he called his "superficial and incomplete'' study -- which in fact, for an ordinary lepidopterist, would be a natural course to take.
Nabokov, though, was more than an ordinary lepidopterist, and in 1948, he left his lectureship at Wellesley College and his position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology to become professor of Russian and European Literature at Cornell. By then, he wrote, "I found it no longer physically possible to combine scientific research with lectures, belles-lettres, and Lolita, (for she was on her way -- a painful birth, a difficult bably)." Nabokov never elaborated on "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae," and for nearly half a century, neither did anyone else.
It was only in the mid-1980's that new light began to shine on the Latin American Polyommatini, helped along by just the kind of coincidences and quirks of fate that Nabokov savored - events as apparently disparate as the discovery of an unusual little rain forest in the Carribean, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the large biodiversity surveys in South America. In the end, the thoroughly international task of completing Nabokov's research fell primarily to two men, Dr. Zsolt Bálint, a lepidopterist at the Hungarian Museum of Natural History who worked on Latin American Blues for his Ph.D. dissertation, and Dr. Kurt Johnson, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and one of the authors of this book. Later, a third researcher figured indispensably in the work, Dubi Benyamini, an Israeli lepidopterist who lent his expertise on the life cycles of butterflies to Nabokov's Blues.
Before turning his attention to Nabokov's groups, Johnson had published widely on Hairstreaks, lycaenid butterflies closely related to Blues. On the trail of these creatures in 1985, he spent the first of five seasons collecting insects in a unique biological oasis in the Dominican Republic. New discoveries of Blue butterflies there, including the first new Blue from Nabokov's group to be named in more than 40 years, changed the direction of Johnson's professional life in ways he could never have foreseen. They eventually led him, together with Bálint, Benyamini and a score of other lepidopterists, on a path of discovery across Latin America, guided above all by "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae," that neglected work Vladimir Nabokov had produced sitting on his bench at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Mass., in 1943.
Their efforts and discoveries resulted in a series of publications between 1986 and 1999, together amounting to a complete re-examination of the Latin American Blues, under far different conditions than those that existed in Nabokov's day. By the time the work was finished, Johnson guessed that 95% of all existing species of neotropical Blues had been discovered, far more material than Nabokov had access to. Such was Nabokov's obscurity in the mid-1980's, that when Bálint and Johnson began their work, he was basically a cypher to them -- beyond Lolita, neither had read any of his work, scientific or literary. But as time passed, they were amazed at how well Nabokov's previously obscure taxonomy accommodated their new finds. In fact, they eventually began to refer to their undertaking as the Nabokov project.
This book tells the story of how that project was carried out and attempts to suggest what its results mean for Nabokov's reputation in lepidoptery. It was the first thorough, ground-up reconsideration of Nabokov's group's since Nabokov's own in 1945. Unlike Nabokov's fundamental study, however, it was based on enough material to minimize sampling error. The researchers' attitude toward Nabokov himself also has some bearing on their conclusions. Most, if not all, assessments of his lepidoptery, large and small, have worked backward from his celebrity. It is significant that Bálint and Johnson began their research as an outgrowth of their own lepidopterological interests, with no reference to Nabokov at all until they were made aware of his taxonomy in the natural course of their work. Even then, years passed before they realized that their findings might be of interest to Nabokov's literary admirers. Finally, as surprising as it may seem, Bálint and Johnson were the first scientists to comment on Nabokov's work who were actually experts in the taxonomy of Blue butterflies.
There were unexpected ramifications. As the two learned more about Nabokov's science, they also became aware of a great artist whose passion for lepidoptery permeated and shaped not only his writing but literally his entire life. They increasingly realized that Nabokov, through his fiction, his recorded observations and his unusual place in the public spotlight, had captured the sense of almost mystical wonder that many lepidopterists feel in their work but few have managed to express, certainly not to a wider audience. Because of that as much as his pioneering study, Bálint and Johnson named many new species of Latin American Blues after characters, places or things in his novels and stories. In this, they had help from admirers of Nabokov's literature who had followed their work with great interest. Inevitably, Madeleinea lolita and Pseudolucia humbert, named for the two main characters of "Lolita," resonate the most, but many readers of Nabokov will find their personal favorites. For Bálint and Johnson, it was a fitting tribute, a measure of the extent to which they had come to see the Latin American Blues as Nabokov's rightful territory and "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae" as a work that would put Nabokov's stamp on lepidoptery. It was also meant as an indication that Nabokov's work is not a dead-end in science, a dead branch of some remote interest only because it was produced by a literary genius, but something that continues to put forth green branches in modern taxonomy. They would be even more surprised to learn as their reasearch continued that the implications of Nabokov's groups, their diversity and the regions they inhabit, would also embrace some of the larger questions that modern biologists are currently asking about evolution and biogeography.
No other branch of modern science boasts a guiding spirit like Nabokov. As a knowledge of butterflies can, to varying degrees, shed light on many of his works, so his life and writings continue to form a rich commentary, not only on the project named for him but on lepidoptery in general. There is hardly an aspect of lepidoptery today that his career does not elucidate in some meaningful way. If Nabokov is no longer the most famous lepidopterist in the world, he is still lepidoptery's most irresistible ambassador, much as he seems to have so deeply wished while he lived.
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[See also Dieter E. Zimmer's Guide to Nabokov's Butterflies and Moths and Zembla's bibliography of articles about Nabokov and butterflies.]
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