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Father's Butterflies

by Vladimir Nabokov

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)

DURING my adolescence, the butterfly enthusiast ("le curieux," as the honnêtes gens used to put it in judicious France, "the aurelian," as the poets said in grove-rich England, the "fly doctor," as they wisecracked in advanced Russian circles) who wished to acquire from books a general notion of the fauna of Europe, including Russia, was compelled to scrabble for his crumbs of information in entomological journals in six languages and in multivolume, hard-to-find editions such as the Oberthür books or those of Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich. The absence or utter inadequacy of "references" in the atlases ad usum Delphini, the tedious perusal of the index of names enclosed with an annual volume of a monthly journal, the sheer number of these journals and volumes (in my father's library there were more than a thousand of the latter alone, representing a good hundred journals) -- all this had to be overcome in order to hunt down the necessary reference, if it existed at all. Nonetheless, even in my exceptionally propitious situation things were not easy: Russia, particularly in the north, dwelt in a mist, while the local lists, scattered through the journals, totally haphazard, scanty, and cruelly inaccurate in nomenclature, only maddened me when at last I ferreted them out. My father was the preeminent entomologist of his time, and very well off to boot, but the ordinary amateur, unable to dispatch his scouts throughout Russia, and denied the opportunity -- or not knowing how -- to gain access to specialized collections and libraries (and an accidental boon, the hasty inspection of collections at a lepidopterological society or in the cellar of some museum, does not satisfy the true enthusiast, who needs to have the boon always at hand), had no choice but to hope for a miracle. And that miracle dawned in 1912 with the appearance of my father's four-volume work The Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire.

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Nabokov in The Atlantic
In 1941, The Atlantic Monthly became the first English-language magazine to publish Vladimir Nabokov's fiction and poetry. (See the editors' introduction to the April, 2000, issue.) This month, as a companion to the magazine's April cover story, Atlantic Unbound is pleased to offer the first two short stories by Nabokov to appear in The Atlantic, along with one of Nabokov's poems (published in the December, 1941, issue), introduced and read aloud by Nabokov's son and translator, Dmitri Nabokov.

"Cloud, Castle, Lake" (June, 1941)
A short story.

"The Aurelian" (November, 1941)
A short story.

audioear picture"Softest of Tongues" (December, 1941)
A poem. Introduced and read aloud by Dmitri Nabokov, in a recording made exclusively for Atlantic Unbound.

Although in a hall adjoining the library dark-red cabinets contained my father's supremely rich collections, consisting of specimens complete with thoroughly accurate names, dates, and places of capture, I personally belonged to the category of curieux who, in order to acquaint themselves properly with a butterfly and to visualize it, require three things; its artistic depiction, a compendium of all that has been written about it, and its insertion within the general system of classification. With no words and no art, without a penetrating and synthesizing process of thought, for me a butterfly would remain incomplete. Only one thing could wholly replace these three demands: if I had caught it myself, if the expression of the given specimen's wings corresponded to the individual particulars of a familiar habitat (with its smells, hues, and sounds) where I would have lived through all that impassioned, insane joy of the hunt, when as I climb the rock, my face contorted, gasping, shouting voluptuously senseless words, I do not notice thorn or precipice, and see neither the viper under my feet nor the shepherd, yonder, observing with the irritation of ignorance the spasms of the madman with his green net as he approaches his heretofore undescribed prey. In other words, it was impossible to reconcile the creative contact between me and the countless rarities collected by others and not defined in the journals, or hopelessly buried in them. And, even though, through the glass top and bottom of the ultra-sleek sliding cases of my father's collection (lowering my gaze for hours down endless rows of thickset, small Hesperidae, in various hues of black with specks from hydrochloric acid and checkered fringes, and turning the case upside down to examine pearlescent cabalistic markings -- little kegs, hourglasses, trapezes, on the rowan-tinged or sulphury-grayish undersides of the hind wings), aided by the inscriptions on the labels, I could make a meticulous study of the local mutability of forms, it was only when I found those species and races assembled, researched, and especially, illustrated in the just-published Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire that a fascinating, lifelike portrait would reveal to me the mystery of the prepared lepidopteron: henceforth it was mine.
Also in the April, 2000, Atlantic Monthly:

"77 North Washington Street"
The editors' introduction to this feature.

"Nabokov's Butterflies"
The introduction by Brian Boyd.

From the archives:

"Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov," by Charles Rolo (September, 1958)
"Above all Lolita seems to me an assertion of the power of the comic spirit to wrest delight and truth from the most outlandish materials."

From Atlantic Unbound:

"The Lolita Effect" (August 5, 1998 )
What Vladimir Nabokov and Bill Clinton have in common.

Related Links:

"A site devoted to the life and works of author, translator, and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov." The official Web site of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society.

Celebrating Nabokov's Centenary
A collection of articles, interviews, and reviews pertaining to Nabokov, along with sound clips of Nabokov reading his work. Posted in 1999 by The New York Times, in honor of Nabokov's 100th birthday.

Beyond Lolita
A biography, essays about Nabokov and his legacy, a collection of early reviews of Lolita, and a gallery of Nabokov's butterfly drawings. From CNN.com.

Vladimir Nabokov Centennial
A biography of Nabokov, a timeline of his life and work, book excerpts, a bibliography of his writings, and essays by Martin Amis and Brian Boyd. From Random House.

Nabokov Under Glass
An online exhibition of Nabokov's documents housed in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. Includes images of his writings, book covers, and sketches.

Ardis Picture Archives: Nabokov
A collection of photographs of Nabokov, posted by a publishing company devoted to Russian literature.

"We are staying amid marvelous green wilds with the wonderfully kind Karpoviches, where one can go around half-naked, write an English novel, and catch American butterflies ..."

I knew what labors, what tender care, and what diligence had been required of the miniaturist painters working under the supervision of my father (who himself also participated in this task: for instance, both the Triphysa zemphyra Godun. and the phryne Pall., on plate 34 of Volume I are the work of his own hand), for what I saw as an initiation into the mystery. I knew that, first, a photographic transparency was made of the butterfly; that this perfect outline awaited the press and caress of color from supremely refined brushes; that the butterfly itself, in greatly enlarged form, was projected like a sunrise before the artist, who, separated by a magic lens from his own enormous pink fingers, would color the pattern, photographed in actual size, but enlarged by the lens to the size of the projected model. I no longer remember the details of the method (I have always been ridiculously devoid of a technical bent).... It may turn out that I have missed the very essence that would have transformed the prismatically radiant muddle of light, lens, and color into a meaningful image.... Be that as it may, through the conjunction of three factors -- tracing under the magnifying glass, the special solution of the pigments found thanks to experiments on the chromatism of the scales, and finally, the diabolical spark of the individual artist (at various times my father had working for him such masters as Mastakov, Frenkel, Innokentiy Petrov, Rukavishnikov, and others) -- truly bewitching beauty was achieved. Today, after an interval of many years, as I examine anew those magnificent, velvety plates, I not only relish with greater maturity of perception their perfection, unattained by anyone else from Hübner to Culot, the silky, flower-dusty, vividly hazy delicacy of those colors (that last epithet contains no contradiction for one who has feasted on the pinkishness of a freshly emerged sphingid, or an auroral cloudlet, or the rainbow at the opening of the second chapter), but, in addition, I relive in my temples, oppressive and intense to the point of making them buzz, that swarthy winter morning with the lamp's reflection on the lacquered wood of the screen adorned with Chinese birds, when I was in bed recovering from one of the childhood illnesses across whose deserts I kept pursuing my father's caravan, and my mother brought me, with a special play of her features -- as if to say, oh, I'm holding something not especially interesting -- as she slyly, lovingly replied to the moans of my yearning, to the frenzied groping of my outstretched hands, sharing beforehand all the quiver, all the goose-pimpled nakedness of my soul, the joy that would have bounced me out of my bed had she waited another second, a magnificently solid, boxed, freshly printed, first volume of Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire. ...

* * *

A Job for Eternity
"I would feel poorer if I accepted the idea of there not existing still more vivid means of knowing butterflies and hills."

HOW I luxuriated in it in the blissfully languorous days of my convalescence, with a crumb of toast tormenting my buttock, weakness in my shoulders, a constantly filling bladder, and a cottony haze in my nape.... I liked the solidity of my father's method, for I liked sturdy toys. For every genus there was a supplementary list of Palearctic species that did not occur within the confines under examination, complete with precise "references" to textual location. Each Russian butterfly was allocated from one to five pages of small print, depending on its obscurity or variability, i.e., the more mysterious or changeable, the more attention it received. In places a small map helped to assimilate the detailed description of a species' or its subspecies' distribution, just as an oval photograph in the text added something to the careful exposition of observations of the habits observed in a given butterfly. The "leak" of a species westward as far as Andalusia was followed just as attentively as its adventures in the mountains of Central Asia. Corrections of old errors were enlivened by polemic thrusts, and I can picture the author's laughing eyes, as I read today, "When I dropped in on this genus [Syrichtus, an old name for the Grizzled Skippers] I found it in an awful state after a half-century of classifiers' struggles," or, when I come upon the good-humored demolition of some "discovery" by that German muddler who recklessly let loose with names (all mythological to boot, even Walpurgian), creating along the way, countless local, often imaginary races, even disrupting his own priority, such as it was, with secondary descriptions of the same subspecies from a different location -- but his entomological fervor and his splendidly assembled collections allowed him to be forgiven everything.

Illustration by Vladimir Nabokov Today, as I reread these four plump volumes (of a different color, alas, than the blue gifts brought for my childhood), not only do I find in them my fondest recollections, and revel in information that, at the time, was not as comprehensible, but the very body, flow, and structure of the whole work touches me in the professional sense of a craft handed down. I suddenly recognize in my father's words the wellsprings of my own prose: squeamishness toward fudging and smudging, the reciprocal dovetailing of thought and word, the inchworm progress of a sentence -- and even some embryos of my own parentheses. To these traits must be added my father's predilection for the semicolon (often preceding a conjunction -- something one does find in the language of his university tutors: "that scholarly pause," an echo of unhurried English logic -- but at the same time related to Montaigne whom he regarded so highly); and I doubt that the development of these traits under my frequently willful pen was a conscious act.


(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to part two, part three, or part four.)

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Father's Butterflies - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 59-75.