Beneath the butterfly hunter's camouflage

Nabokov's Butterflies
July 7, 2000

Just as the reader of Hardy's fiction will pause over every reference to architecture, guessing that a man with two careers will camouflage his remarks on one profession by switching attention to the other, so the reader of Nabokov is bound to take stock of every reference to butterflies,on the understanding that a man who spent so much of his life on Lepidoptera could not write about "leps" without having a special quality of feeling and being a scientist who knew all about the uses of camouflage.

Butterfly collecting was a passion of Nabokov from the age of six, and it became the most constant factor in his life, a pursuit that he could take anywhere in Europe or America, and that he could return to whatever the circumstances he found himself living in, political or otherwise. He spent several years in research posts, notably at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and published numerous scholarly papers on problems of classification; all in all, he must have given a greater proportion of his working life to butterflies than to the writing of fiction. In 1944, in a letter to Edmund Wilson, he stated flatly, "I am devoting too much time to entomology (up to 14 hours per day)."

Despite this remarkable investment of time and energy, Nabokov himself was resistant to the idea that any really significant connections could be made between his literary and scientific bodies of writing. Nabokov's Butterflies , edited by that Nabokovian prime mover, Brian Boyd, assisted by lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle, proceeds on the assumption that resistance is futile. It demonstrates the full range of Nabokov's specialist contributions to the morphology of various genera, as well as excerpting from nearly his entire corpus of fiction and autobiography. Several of the excerpts are so short they do little more than register a passing mention of butterflies; others show clearly how extensively, how doggedly even, certain of his novels linger over descriptions of particular butterflies and moths in a way that appears superfluous ( Ada , 1969, is a good example, with 25 descriptions); a minority of passages, particularly those from the early stories, suggest how certain aspects of butterfly hunting might be intrinsic to Nabokov's motivations as a writer.

The relevant passages are of two kinds: those that explore the parallels between authorship and the behaviour of butterflies, and those that compare authors to lepidopterists. The first set of parallels hinges on the concepts of metamorphosis and mimicry. Nabokov's authorial identity is inseparable from his condition as emigre, as linguistic outcast, obliged to undergo a dramatic cultural transformation at the very outset of his literary career: "After a period of panic and groping I managed to settle down rather comfortably but now I know what a caterpillar must feel on the rack of metamorphosis, in the straitjacket of the pupa." His two early stories "Christmas" and "The Aurelian" both understand the potential of individual human life in terms of a series of total alterations. Revealingly, the text in which the process of metamorphosis is most fully implicated is that of the autobiography, Speak, Memory , a species of composition that Nabokov himself characterises as "this re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place."

The attention to mimicry is the outcome of similar pressures; Nabokov's obsession with mimetic phenomena in nature is driven by the conviction that animal camouflage is never the product of natural selection, never developed for the "crude purpose of mere survival". It is rather "a form of magicI a game of intricate enchantment and deception". Forced to adapt to an alien environment, the exile takes on the colouring of his new surroundings, but seeks to translate this urgent necessity into terms of skill and mastery. This, finally, is what attracts the literary author to the project of the lepidopterist, whose ultimate ambition is that of primal naming: he will only ever be truly happy "in that incompletely named world in which at every step he names the nameless", achieving a condition that redeems the predicament of the exile, learning for the first time the foreign names for familiar things. Almost in an aside, Nabokov betrays his desire to control his environment, in a parenthetical admission of how drastically uncontrollable the world outside has become: "I sort out in my mind my entomological discoveries: the exhausting labours; the changes I have introduced into systematics; the revolution - with bloody executions of colleagues - in the bright circle of the microscope. "

It was precisely the deaths and separations of the other kind of revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, that engendered in this uprooted sensibility the need to transform valediction and isolation into the positive image of the solitary collector, parrying the moments of loss, the sense of bereavement, by voluntarily wandering off alone, by moving all the clocks in his house forward to advance the moment of departure, taking by surprise all those who might otherwise depart from him.

Rod Mengham is director of studies in English, Jesus College, Cambridge.

Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings

Editor - Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle
ISBN - 0 71 399380 4
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 784
Translator - Dmitri Nabokov

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