Nabokov's Fyodor Takes Wing
by Kurt Johnson

A year after the publication of Nabokov's Blues by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates, more new Nabokov's Blues have taken wing.

Holotype of Plebejus fyodor sp. n.
Paratype female of Plebejus fyodor sp. n. (HNHM)

Figs 1-2. Holotype of Plebejus fyodor sp. n.--1: dorsum, 2: ventrum
Figs 3-4. Paratype female of Plebejus fyodor sp. n. (HNHM)--3: dorsum, 4: ventrum

Plebejus fyodor, newly named from the Tian-Chan range of north China. Actual size is only about that of a thumbnail, and the species differs markedly from other Asian Plebejus by its large and bold black spots and lack of any orange coloring around the wing edges. Dr. Y. F. Hsu, who collected a large series of this new species, said he immediately suspected it was a species unknown to science (courtesy of Folia Entomologica, the Hungarian Museum of Natural History).

The first wholly new Nabokovian blue--not South America, but from Asia-- was recently named Plebejus fyodor, after the main character in Nabokov's novel The Gift. This new species, from the Tian-Shan region--explored by Fyodor's father and dreamed about with relish by the young entomologist--was recognized last month in Folia Entomologica, published at the Hungarian Museum of Natural History. Previously, Drs. Johnson and Zsolt Bálint had honored Nabokov with two replacement names (new names replacing older, invalid names) in the Asian fauna-one butterfly named Plebejus pilgram and another named Plebejus ardis, but P. fyodor is wholly new to science. Chinese entomologist Y. F. Hsu discovered P. fyodor on a recent expedition to north China, and much of Nabokov's own work on the Lycaeides complex in Asia had to be sorted out in eventually naming it. Nabokov had never seen fyodor, but his "take" on the rest of the Lycaeides group from that region was exactly on target. Zoran Kuzmanovich, editor of Nabokov Studies, provided the etymology for P. fyodor:

Fyodor narrates Nabokov's novel The Gift, a record of his love of Russian literature, his lepidopterist father, butterflies and a young woman named Zina. But it is precisely 'under the spell' of butterflies that 'something' unfolds in Fyodor's soul and becomes the enchanted means by which Fyodor relives, as if he himself had undertaken them, his missing father's journey's to exotic hunting sites, from Altai to the Tian-Shan range where 'every color lived a magically multiplied life' and 'head and breast filled with an electric agitation.' The structure of The Gift strongly suggests that the father's love for butterflies is intimately connected with Fyodor's talents and passionate interests beyond Lepidoptera and thus give us one meaning of the book's title. Fyodor's father's insistence on the 'innate' strangeness of human life and his explanation of butterfly mimicry as exceeding the observing powers of the predators Nabokov would later raise to articles of faith in his own aesthestics.
Nabokov's notes on mimicry are indeed controversial and will be subject to further discussion among Nabokov scholars, particularly at the American Literature Association meetings being held at Harvard in May 2001. Brian Boyd, Kurt Johnson and Dieter E. Zimmer are each researching the historical contexts of Nabokov's views about mimicry.

Nabokov's personal copy of The Gift

On his personal copy of The Gift, Nabokov did not depict one of the demure little Blues he might have known from Eurasia, choosing instead a large gaudy African "Charaxes" butterfly. This may have been because, like P. fyodor, many of the mountain-flying blues of Asia are "discolored," i.e. not blue but dingy brown--a color that allows them to absorb more heat from the sun (courtesy of the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov; previously appeared in Vera's Butterflies, Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, 1999).

Another new Nabokovian Blue from South America honors Nabokov's pioneering work but is named for the region of Argentina from which it comes: jujuyensis. It is the Argentine sister species of Nabokov's now-famed Pseudolucia chilensis, the species from which Nabokov named the genus and the one now known to feed on a poisonous plant and thus anchor a "mimicry ring" of orange-colored Blues. As a result of his pioneering and painstaking anatomical studies, Nabokov was the first to recognize the orange-colored Blues as Blues. The Nabokov butterfly legacy continues to grow. A new paper being prepared by Dr. Zsolt Bálint and Dubi Benyamini will honor Nabokov with additional new Blues from South America.


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