Vladimir Nabokov, Butterfly Illustrator
BY ELIF BATUMAN
Vladimir Nabokov began collecting lepidoptera at the age of seven. Throughout a long and protean literary career, his passion for insects remained unwavering. He published his first verses as a teen-ager, shortly before the Russian Revolution; in 1918, he fled St. Petersburg for Crimea, where he surveyed nine species of Crimean moths and seventy-seven species of Crimean butterflies. Two years later, as a first-year student at Cambridge University, he described his observations in a scholarly paper for The Entomologist. In 1940, having written nine novels in Russian and one in English, Nabokov immigrated to New York, where he became an affiliate in entomology at the American Museum of Natural History. The following year, he began working at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, devoting as much as fourteen hours a day to drawing the wings and genitalia of butterflies. “Fine Lines,” a new book out this week from Yale University Press, reproduces a hundred and fifty-four of his illustrations, some for the first time.
For a Nabokov fan, paging through “Fine Lines,” which includes a critical introduction and several essayistic evaluations of Nabokov’s scientific oeuvre, can feel a bit like reading the second half of “Pale Fire”: one is confronted by a content-rich, almost dementedly tangential commentary on an increasingly inscrutable work. And yet, as with “Pale Fire,” the commentary is so fully intertwined with the work that, by the end, it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. The writer and the lepidopterist really do turn out to be the same person, engaged in a single, if multifaceted, project of knowledge and description. As Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson, the editors of the volume, note, the famous four-by-six-inch notecards on which Nabokov wrote his novels were originally the medium he used for his entomological studies.
When Nabokov started studying butterflies, his dream was to identify a new species. As a child, in 1909, he proposed a Latin name for a subspecies of poplar admiral that he had spotted near his family’s estate, only to be told by a famous entomologist that the subspecies had already been identified, in Bucovina, in 1897. As an adult, Nabokov had more luck. He named multiple species, most famously the Karner blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), which he came across in upstate New York, in 1944.