THE keepers of this magazine's archives created an electronic filing system years ago, but unlike many of the nation's librarians, they never discarded the old card catalogue, lodged in a tenement of shiny oak drawers. And so we can still pull out the flaxen-hued cards listing works by the Russian émigré Vladimir Nabokov that have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, which in 1941 became the first English-language magazine to publish his fiction and poetry. This month we offer more: a diverse selection of unpublished writings by Nabokov, unified by their references to butterflies, his great passion.
Edward Weeks, the editor who brought Nabokov into the magazine, left a vivid portrait of the writer in his memoirs. In the early 1940s Nabokov was lecturing at Wellesley College and also working on the butterfly collection at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Introduced by Edmund Wilson, Weeks and Nabokov would have lunch together at the Ritz. "Vladimir was an Elegant," Weeks recalled, "in baggy flannels and a worn tweed jacket. When I think of him I remember first his beautiful hazel eyes, which so perfectly mirrored every mood, his mirth, his serious concern, or wry amusement." The first two stories Nabokov submitted to the magazine had to be translated from the Russian [click here to read the first one, "Cloud, Castle, Lake"], and Weeks recounted how Nabokov would labor over the literal English rendering, "inserting his magic figures of speech, similes like, 'the asphalt shining like the back of a seal' or 'a whitish moth had dashed in and was kissing its shadow all over the ceiling.'" The second of these stories, "The Aurelian," is one of Nabokov's best known. It concerns Herr Pilgram, a butterfly collector and shopkeeper in Berlin, who dreams of having the means to embark on a worldwide collecting trip; the means do indeed become available, but Nabokov has a more ironic destination in mind for Herr Pilgram.
"The Aurelian" was the last work of fiction that Nabokov composed in Russian. He bade farewell to the Russian language in a poem published in The Atlantic in December of 1941: "But now thou too must go; just here we part, / softest of tongues, my true one, all my own.... / And I am left to grope for heart and art / and start anew with clumsy tools of stone." [Click here to see the poem in full, and to hear it introduced and read aloud by Nabokov's son and translator, Dmitri Nabokov.]
Vladimir Nabokov published a dozen stories and poems in our pages. We're delighted to have him back.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; 77 North Washington Street - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 6.