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Four Interviews

From an interview with Robert Hughes, September 1965
Filmed for Television 13 educational program, New York.
Broadcast February 1966. Published in part in Strong Opinions.

[Nabokov's selection from transcription of interview, cameras rolling.]

LATE September in Central Europe is a bad season for collecting butterflies. This is not Arizona, alas.

In this grassy nook near an old vineyard above the Lake of Geneva, a few fairly fresh females of the very common Meadow Brown still flutter about here and there -- lazy old widows. There's one.

Here is a little sky-blue butterfly, also a very common thing, once known as the Clifden Blue in England.

The sun is getting hotter. I enjoy hunting in the buff but I doubt anything interesting can be obtained today. This pleasant lane on the banks of Geneva Lake teems with butterflies in summer. Chapman's Blue and Mann's White, two rather local things, occur not far from here. But the white butterflies we see in this particular glade, on this nice but commonplace autumn day, are the ordinary Whites: the Small White and Green-Veined White.

Ah, a caterpillar. Handle with care. Its golden-brown coat can cause a nasty itch. This handsome worm will become next year a fat, ugly, drab-colored moth.

[Strong Opinions 60]

From an interview with Robert Robinson, February 1977
For the BBC-2 Book Programme. Published in The Listener, March 24, 1977. Reprinted in Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, ed. Peter Quennell.

Q: Do you find that you re-read your own earlier work, and if you do, with what feelings?

A: Re-reading my own works is a purely utilitarian business. I have to do it when correcting a paperback edition riddled with misprints or controlling a translation, but there are some rewards. In certain species -- this is going to be a metaphor -- in certain species, the wings of the pupated butterfly begin to show in exquisite miniature through the wing-cases of the chrysalis a few days before emergence. It is the pathetic sight of an iridescent future transpiring through the shell of the past, something of the kind I experience when dipping into my books written in the twenties. Suddenly through a drab photograph a blush of colour, an outline of form, seems to be distinguishable. I'm saying this with absolute scientific modesty, not with the smugness of ageing art....

Q: The world knows that you are also a lepidopterist but may not know what that involves. In the collection of butterflies, could you describe the process from pursuit to display?

A: Only common butterflies, showy moths from the tropics, are put on display in a dusty case between a primitive mask and a vulgar abstract picture. The rare, precious stuff is kept in the glazed drawers of museum cabinets. As for pursuit, it is, of course, ecstasy to follow an undescribed beauty, skimming over the rocks of its habitat, but it is also great fun to locate a new species among the broken insects in an old biscuit tin sent over by a sailor from some remote island.

Q: ... Have you any sense of having narrowly missed some other role? What substitute could you endure?

A: Oh, yes, I have always had a number of parts lined up in case the muse failed. A lepidopterist exploring famous jungles came first, then there was the chess grand master, then the tennis ace with an unreturnable service, then the goalie saving a historic shot, and finally, finally, the author of a pile of unknown writings -- Pale Fire, Lolita, Ada -- which my heirs discover and publish.

From an interview with Pierre Dommergues, September 7, 1967
In French.

IN summer, [my life] is calmer. My wife and I set off traveling in search of butterflies. I adore mountains, in Switzerland, in Italy, in the south of France. I like staying at a thousand meters and climbing every day up to at least two thousand meters to chase alpine butterflies there. I know few things sweeter than to go out early in the morning with my net and take the chairlift towards a cloudless sky, following underneath myself, at the side, the shadow of the airborne chair with my seated silhouette, the shadow of my net in my fist, sliding along the slopes, waving under the alders, still climbing, slim, supple, rejuvenated and stylized by the effect of projection, crawling graciously in an almost mythological ascension. The return isn't so pretty, since the sun has changed place, and you see the shadow stunted, you see two big knees, everything has changed.

[Les Langues modernes 62 (January-February 1968)]

From an interview with Simona Morini, February 1972
Published in Vogue, April 15, 1972.

Q: Lolita is an extraordinary Baedeker of the United States. What fascinated you about American motels?

A: The fascination was purely utilitarian. My wife used to drive me (Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Buick, Buick Special, Impala -- in that order of brand) during several seasons, many thousands of miles every season, for the sole purpose of collecting Lepidoptera -- all of which are now in three museums (Natural History in New York City, Comparative Zoology at Harvard, Comstock Hall at Cornell). Usually we spent only a day or two in each motorcourt, but sometimes, if the hunting was good, we stayed for weeks in one place. The main raison d'Ítre of the motel was the possibility of walking out straight into an aspen grove with lupines in full bloom or onto a wild mountainside.

[Strong Opinions 198-200]

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Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Nabokov's Butterflies, Four Interviews - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 73.