Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Vladimir Nabokov, Scientific Genius

In the spring of 1970, a 71-year-old Vladimir Nabokov gave chase to a rare, orange butterfly on the slopes of Mount Etna, sweating and panting, his lips “white rimmed with thirst and excitement.” Tucking the specimen into the inside pocket of his jacket, he told a New York Times reporter, “It is a feeling I usually get at my writing desk.” Nabokov began collecting butterflies as a child in Russia, and when he came to the United States he spent his first years working in museums and publishing a dozen papers on lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths. He liked to be photographed with his huge gauzy net—high on a mountainside near Gstaad, Switzerland, or bounding down a country lane in Ithaca, New York, where Carl Mydans famously photographed him for Life in 1958. Hinting occasionally at a “merging between the two things,” the fiction and the collecting, he courted the image of novelist-as-scientist, or, as the late Karl Miller called him drily, “Monsieur Butterfly.”

Since the success of Lolita in the mid-1950s, Nabokovites—both lepidopterists and literary critics—have tried to re-create his exhilarating field trips, as though the way he captured butterflies might reveal something about the way he captured ideas and details in his recondite, meticulous prose. In 2000, Robert Michael Pyle, co-editor of the anthology Nabokov’s Butterflies, reminisced about his own trip through the Swiss Alps to Montreux in 1977, where he hoped to gain entry to Nabokov’s inner sanctum—the Montreux Palace Hotel where he spent his last years—and discuss the region’s wildlife; he even slips into Nabokovian diction to describe his hike. (“I brachiated downhill like some anxious ape, swinging from beech to smooth wet gray beech.”) In Fine Lines, a new book about Nabokov’s scientific work, entomologist Robert Dirig makes a pilgrimage to one of the novelist’s collecting spots in the Smoky Mountains, where he sees for himself the “glorious blooms of flowering dogwood” and hears rustling in the branches. In another essay in the volume, four biologists compare current scientific methods with Nabokov’s, expressing excitement to “have walked in Vladimir Nabokov’s footsteps, both literal and conceptual.”

But while the romantic and adventurous appeal of these field trips is clear, it’s more difficult to reckon with the work those trips actually produced. Nabokov made more than 1,000 technical drawings during the course of his research, and Fine Lines presents 148 of them with editors’ notes (only a handful have been published before), followed by ten essays from scientists and scholars. Despite the image of a finely observed wing shaded in brown and burnt sienna on the cover, most of these are not drawings of whole butterflies, or anything immediately recognizable as coming from a butterfly. Many are intensely magnified views of butterfly genitalia, which to the untrained eye look more like the down-covered stamens of flowers. (One index card compares 54 mystifying anatomical variants.) Nabokov did keep some whole butterflies in his collection, fixing their intricately patterned wings with a silver pin; but he also kept cabinets full of reproductive organs only, which held the information most useful to him as a scientist.

This body of work, Fine Lines argues, should “shed light on his artistic perception and creativity.” But it can only do this, if at all, in the most roundabout way. The drawings show a very different type of interest in butterflies than we see in Pnin, when they flutter “like blue snowflakes,” or in Pale Fire, when Charles Kinbote watches a red admiral “dizzily whirling around us like a colored flame.” In fact, the more we find out about Nabokov’s work as a lepidopterist, the more difficult it is to grasp what he saw in butterflies, and how much his study really found its way into the worlds of his books.

Nabokov was born in Saint Petersburg in 1899 and grew up with an attic full of rare and expensive illustrated books on flora and fauna. He began to master the volumes on butterflies—Ernst Hofmann’s Die Gross-Schmetterlinge Europas and Samuel Hubbard Scudder’s Butterflies of New England among them—and caught his first specimen when he was seven years old, as he recalls in his memoir Speak, Memory. His fervent desire then was to name a new species. At age nine, he wrote to a prominent lepidopterist with what he thought was a discovery, only to be dismissed as one of many “schoolboys who keep naming minute varieties of the Poplar Nymph.” Still, he cherished this aspiration into adulthood, writing in his 1943 poem “On Discovering a Butterfly” that “poems that take a thousand years to die” merely “ape the immortality of this / red label on a little butterfly.”

By the time he left Europe for America in 1940, however, he was somewhat accomplished in the field. He had been subscribing to English and German journals since childhood, and he had published two papers—on butterfly species of the Crimea and the Pyrenees—in The Entomologist. This was enough to win him his first appointment at the American Museum of Natural History, where he learned dissection, and a few years later he gained a position as curator of Lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He joked in a letter to Edmund Wilson that he had “managed to get into Harvard with a butterfly as my sole backer,” though he was not necessarily less a professional than other staff; fewer than one in ten curators there at that time held a Ph.D.

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