Nabokov's Butterflies, Introduction

A cache of previously unpublished work -- fictional and scientific, playful and didactic -- by the novelist and distinguished lepidopterist: "the last important unpublished fiction by Nabokov." The translation from the Russian is by Nabokov's son, Dmitri. Brian Boyd, Nabokov's biographer, provides an introduction

Illustration by Vladimir Nabokov"Father's Butterflies" is not so much a narrative as an intricate fictional meditation, as if Proust's Marcel were to write on behalf of Stephen Jay Gould -- or, rather, given the tone of the reflections, on behalf of the physicist Paul Davies. Or as if Ada's Part Four, "The Texture of Time," were written not by the novel's narrator, the philosopher Van Veen, but by his sister Ada, the lepidopterist. In the first half of "Father's Butterflies," Fyodor recalls the magical memories of his early love for butterflies and his zeal to learn more about them. He muses on the inadequacy of the Schmetterlingsbücher, the butterfly books, of his childhood, even in his father's astonishing lepidopterological library, until the first tomes of his father's The Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire appeared, in 1912. In Fyodor's detailed, rhapsodic description of this four-volume set, and his contrasting it with the deficiencies of existing works, Nabokov imagines his own ideal butterfly guide, anticipating a project he himself would work on in the 1960s, The Butterflies of Europe. Even his loyal publisher, who had mustered an international consortium of co-publishers, hesitated as Nabokov kept expanding plans for a butterfly catalogue that would surpass in detail and design anything yet seen -- until, in 1965, after two years' work, Nabokov abandoned the project rather than run the risk that no one would ever publish something so ambitious. But for Konstantin Godunov money is no object, and the manner and matter of his four resplendent volumes are more uncompromising, more scientifically and artistically luxuriant, than even Nabokov would have dared to dream that a publisher might agree to. The loving homage that Nabokov has Fyodor make to his father's work resembles Borges's haunting descriptions of imaginary worlds through the description of imaginary books, in stories like "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius," except that Nabokov's world is part of ours, but a part where nature, science, and art fuse as never before.

The second half of "Father's Butterflies" focuses on a very different work -- a compressed thirty-page summary of Konstantin Godunov's thinking on evolution and butterfly speciation that he writes in a trance of inspired concentration, on the eve of his departure for his fatal last expedition. In this compact treatise he preserves the fruit of a lifetime's hard thought, as if he already knows he will never have another chance. In The Gift, Fyodor had argued, against Chernyshevsky, that art is in some mysterious way prior to life, that there is some strange kind of artfulness behind life, "behind all this, behind the play, the sparkle, the thick, green greasepaint of the foliage." That conviction had developed in him partly through his father's influence, especially his father's fascination with the "magic masks of mimicry." (In the 1950s Nabokov himself would want to write a book on animal and plant mimicry so ambitious in scope that, like the later Butterflies of Europe, it scared off the publisher who had proposed it.) Konstantin Godunov speculates boldly about the origins of species and the origin of the species concept, accepting evolution but rejecting Darwinian natural selection.

Nabokov would later say of Van Veen's section "The Texture of Time" in Ada that he hadn't made up his mind whether he quite agreed with his character's ideas. Had he been asked a similar question of Konstantin Godunov's treatise in 1939, he might have said the same. But in 1940 he began lepidopterological research at the American Museum of Natural History, and in 1941 at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and he rapidly became the expert on the Blues. Working on these butterflies in the laboratory, he discovered that nature was even more complicated than he had had Konstantin Godunov imagine. He wrote his scientific papers in a manner that was far removed from the unconstrained speculations of his character's treatise and that proved to be seminal and prescient for researchers in the field even into the late 1990s. Had he already spent years in the laboratory before 1939, Nabokov would almost certainly have given Godunov's reflections a different turn. But as they stand, they offer the most fascinating example in all his works of Nabokov's passion for physical detail and metaphysical scope, for precise natural observation and shimmering supernatural implication.

Brian Boyd is a professor of English at the University of Auckland. His books include the two-volume biography (1990) and (1991). Dmitri Nabokov, a guest professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has been translating his father's work into English since the 1950s. The work by Nabokov in this issue is excerpted from edited and annotated by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, with new translations from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov, to be published this month by Beacon Press.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Nabokov's Butterflies, Introduction - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 51-56.

I copy out the following full-blooded, flowing periods (from his preface to the genus Lycaena):

During the blaze of noon, between two sumptuous thunderstorms, the mud of Russian roads serves as a drinking establishment for the male Blues, but not every damp spot is suitable; the intensity of visitation is determined by a certain average saturation of the soil as well as the greater evenness of its surface. On an attractive spot like this, with a round, runny border and a relatively limited diameter (rarely exceeding two feet), a group of butterflies settles at close quarters; if one startles the gathering, it rises en masse and remains suspended in a "sorting" hover over the given spot on the road, descending to it anew with mathematical precision.... Only the air cooling toward evening, or the arrival of clouds, puts an end to the banquet. I have had occasion to observe the presence of one and the same specimen of Meleager's Blue sitting from eleven in the morning until a quarter to six in the evening, when the long shadow of a nearby oak had reached the very spot where, besides my friend and a few other engrossed Blues and a handful of golden adonis, there remained (from three in the afternoon) a small cluster of boyarishnitsa (Black-veined Whites), whose general appearance was reminiscent either of little paper cockerels or a regatta of sailboats heeling this way and that. In all those hours the composition and size of the gathering would vary and more than once I inadvertently shooed away my Meleager while fishing out some trifle I needed from the general heap. Now, with the onset of shade, it would soar with elastic grace and, having chosen a bough to perch on -- a choice not at all typical for Lycaena in a normal state, but quite characteristic as a temporizing maneuver for a butterfly that has left a "drinking place" -- would settle on a Rubus leaf, as if hoping that the dusk and the chill were but the passing influence of a cloud and that, in a moment, one could return. In a few minutes I noticed that it had dozed off; with that, the observation ended.
The Creative Writer
"There is a species of butterfly on the hind wing of which a large eyespot imitates a drop of liquid with such uncanny perfection that a line which crosses the wing is slightly displaced at the exact stretch where it passes through -- or better say under -- the spot: this part of the line seems shifted by refraction, as it would if a real globular drop had been there and we were looking through it at the pattern of the wing."

I would like to cite many more such artistic and scientific sapphires, but I do not know what to pick out -- the account of the extraordinary difficulties (in Volume III) involved in the capture of the salt-marsh [owlet moth] Plusia rosanovi, which darted like lightning from place to place, vanishing each time among the pebbles, so that the only chance of catching it (light fails to lure it) was to take advantage of the split second when, before squirting out, it "came to a boil" at the feet of the stealthy hunter. How lovely it is, by the way, how one's eye is caressed by, the dark-cherry forewing, traversed by a mauve-pink stripe and adorned at its center by the golden emblem of its genus, in this instance a tapering, bowed half-moon -- and if it is hard to render the flowery velvet of the background, what is one to say of the "emblem," which, on the actual moth, resembles a dab of gilt redolent of turpentine, and must therefore be copied (and recopied!) in such a way that the painter's work transmits, besides all the rest, a resemblance to the work of a painter! Or else such trifles, unforgettable for me, as the line referring to a pair of a new species of Acidalia [a former name for the inchworm genus Scopula] "once brought to me by Dr. P. P. Paradizov, who had taken them off a wall in the Astrakhan railroad station on October 11, 1889"? Or the discovery in northern Finland of a stunning blue-black Arctia [a genus of Tiger Moths] covered with slender red figure eights?

Presented by

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In