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Tranquility and Harvard

From a letter to Elena Sikorski, November 26, 1945
From Cambridge, Massachusetts.

AT about half-past-nine I too set out, carrying my lunch (a flask of milk, two sandwiches). It is about a quarter hour's walk to the museum, along tranquil streets (we live in a suburb, in the Harvard area), then past the university tennis courts -- a multitude of courts, totally overgrown with gigantic weeds during the war years, when there has been no one to care for them. My museum -- famous throughout America (and throughout what used to be Europe) -- is the Museum of Comparative Zoology, a part of Harvard University, which is my employer. My laboratory occupies half of the fourth floor. Most of it is taken up by rows of cabinets, containing sliding cases of butterflies. I am custodian of these absolutely fabulous collections. We have butterflies from all over the world; many are type specimens (i.e., the very same specimens used for the original descriptions, from the 1840s until today). Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc. I have an assistant, whose main task is spreading specimens sent by collectors. I work on my personal research, and for more than two years now have been publishing piecemeal a study of the classification of American "blues" based on the structure of their genitalia (minuscule sculpturesque hooks, teeth, spurs, etc., visible only under a microscope), which I sketch in with the aid of various marvelous devices, variants of the magic lantern. When the weather is good I take a short break around midday. Other curators, from various floors, of reptiles, mammals, fossils, etc. -- all wonderful people -- also gather on the steps. My work enraptures but utterly exhausts me; I have ruined my eyesight, and wear horn-rimmed glasses. To know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope, where silence reigns, circumscribed by its own horizon, a blindingly white arena -- all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it (in a certain sense, in The Gift, I "foretold" my destiny -- this retreat into entomology). Around five I come home, already in the blue darkness of winter, the hour of evening newspapers, the hour when ... are rolling home, and radio phonographs burst into song in the illumined apartments of large ivy covered buildings....

[Selected Letters 1940-1977, 58-59]

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Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Nabokov's Butterflies, Tranquility and Harvard - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 71.