Vladimir Nabokov’s butterflies
“From the age of seven, everything I felt a connection with a rectangle of framed sunlight was dominated by a single passion. If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender.
[…] I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts”.
Many Russian readers regard Nabokov’s life as “unwriterly”: it lacks wild debauches and a string of romances. Instead there was a family that he loved and a daily round of dedicated work – at the desk, at the professor’s lectern, at the entomologist’s workplace. The lifestyle of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers bore more resemblance to that of a scholar. In his activities literature and entomology (more precisely lepidopterology – the study of butterflies) were always inseparable, but with time literature came to occupy first place, while butterflies became a relaxation and an unfailing source of inspiration. Butterflies flutter through the pages of Nabokov’s works and researchers have counted 570 mentions of them in his fiction. Other entomologists have named over twenty species of butterfly after characters from his works.
It all began over a hundred years ago in the estate of Vyra outside St. Petersburg, where the six-year old Volodya Nabokov caught his first butterfly. He remembered that day just as well as another, eight years later, when he wrote his first poem. For a St. Petersburg boy who spent every summer in the countryside, butterfly-hunting was nothing out of the ordinary, but for Vladimir this pastime rapidly developed into an absorbing interest. At the age of eight he began reading serious books on entomology from the family library and at nine he already attempted to make his first scientific discovery, writing about it to the leading Russian lepidopterist, Nikolay Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov’s reply disappointed the young naturalist: it turned out that the insect in question had already been described. But the passionate desire to make his mark in science remained with Nabokov throughout his life, and was finally satisfied in America in 1941, when he at last managed to describe an unknown subspecies.
Nabokov‘s amateur and later professional entomological activities saved him on more than one occasion. Studying the butterflies of the Crimea helped him to overcome homesickness after the family’s hasty departure in November 1917 from a Petrograd engulfed by a revolutionary nightmare. In April 1919, however, together with thousands of other Russian families, they had to go into emigration. At that point it became clear that his separation from his homeland would be long, if not permanent.
An article about Crimean butterflies in a British scholarly journal was one of Nabokov’s first publications in emigration. In twenty years of life in Europe, however, the writer was rarely able to make lengthy butterfly-hunting trips from Berlin or Paris – money was too tight. Only once, in 1929, did Nabokov and his wife go off to the Pyrenees for several months, and that was the very time when he began work on The Defense, his first literary masterpiece.
Butterflies also “supported” Nabokov after his second enforced flight – in 1940 to America, where the foremost Russian emigre writer was forced to start life over again. The first permanent employment that Nabokov could find in the States was the post of curator of Lepidoptera at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. An unknown Russian author had little hope of obtaining literary work or even a permanent teaching position and for the next seven years Nabokov passed his days at a desk in the museum, sorting the collection and mounting butterflies, sometimes spending as much as fourteen hours a day there. At first he even worked on a voluntary basis, without any salary. The years from 1941 to 1948 were the most productive in his scientific work. A regular income and the chance to pursue a favourite interest helped Nabokov to overcome the crisis of losing his Russian-speaking readership and the difficulties of a forced shift to English.
Nabokov’s writing career is truly unique: a mature Russian author with an established reputation, he was able, in midlife, to start writing equally brilliantly in English. And that despite the fact that between graduating from Cambridge in 1922 and arriving in America in 1940 he made little use of his English. Living and working in the Russian emigre milieu, he spoke and wrote mostly in Russian. It was his travels in pursuit of butterflies across the USA from east to west and back that provided Nabokov with the material for his American novels, and later Russia and America – two enormous countries with tremendous natural environments and great variety of human characters – finally blended into a single imaginary country in his novel Ada.
In 1958, following the unexpected commercial success of Lolita, Nabokov for the first time gained the freedom to plan his own life. He gave up his teaching and returned to Europe with his wife. Back in his youth he had dreamed of expeditions to the Central Asia or to the tropics in search of rare butterflies. The young emigre writer had no opportunity to do anything of the kind and the journeys only took place in the pages of his novel The Gift and a few short stories. Now, when the world-famous writer had both sizeable royalties and American citizenship, it was too late for long journeys: the 60-year-old Nabokov chose Switzerland with its easily accessible alpine meadows and butterflies. And when asked why he lived in Switzerland, he answered that one of the main reasons was the butterflies. In this period Nabokov began two major works: Butterflies of Europe and Butterflies in Art. He did not manage to finish either.
Nabokov died in a Lausanne hospital on July 2, 1977. Those close to the writer believed that his death was most likely due to a fall on a steep mountain slope during the last of many butterfly-hunts in the Alps. Of the numerous collections of butterflies that the writer assembled over seventy years only those that he made in America and Switzerland have survived. The former is now in the museums of Harvard and Cornell, the two universities where Nabokov worked, and in the Museum of Natural History in New York. The latter is in the Zoological Museum in Lausanne. A part of the Harvard collection, collected and labelled by Nabokov.