You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Vladimir Nabokov, Scientific Genius

He made thousands of obsessive drawings of butterflies—but do they help us read his novels?

Marc Riboud / Magnum

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.”

FINE LINES: VLADIMIR NABOKOV’S SCIENTIFIC ART, edited by Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson
Yale University Press, 336 pp., $50

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.

It was during this period of seven or eight years that Nabokov did the bulk of his work, classifying a group of butterflies called blues, which meant that he had to work out how different species were related to one another and how they should be named to show this relation. His taxonomies were intended to show the evolutionary lineage of species, not just superficial resemblances between them. This project was made more difficult because many species of blues could interbreed, could look alike, and could live in the same habitats—it wasn’t clear how to define a species at all. Whereas earlier lepidopterists had focused on wing patterns, one of Nabokov’s innovations was to compare the genital apparatus of butterflies, allowing him to differentiate between blues that were, as Fine Lines’s editors put it, “otherwise confusingly alike externally.”

Under his new system of sorting and naming, Nabokov found blues were a more diverse group than had previously been known. This led him to what several writers in Fine Lines and elsewhere now agree was his greatest achievement as a lepidopterist: He was able to put forward an explanation of how blues colonized the Americas and subsequently evolved. He proposed that blues came from Asia, and crossed the Bering Strait, moving down through the Americas, but that not all blues were descended from these first Asian ancestors. There had been, he believed, not one but five waves of colonization, each producing different groups of species.

He wrote this paper in 1945; by the mid-1950s, he found himself with little time for lepidopterological studies, although he continued to collect butterflies as a hobby. He was now too busy with the “writing of new novels and the translating of old ones,” which took precedence (despite his musings on the immortality of the “red label”) over all else. As he told a German magazine, “the miniature hooks of a male butterfly are nothing in comparison to the eagle claws of literature which tear at me day and night.” After this retirement, his findings were mostly ignored.

All this began to change in the 1990s, when a group of researchers—including Kurt Johnson, one of the editors of Fine Lines—verified Nabokov’s classification of blues, an event described in greater detail in the 2001 book Nabokov’s Blues. Then in 2011, DNA studies also confirmed Nabokov’s explanation of the evolution of the New World blues. There has since then been much debate about the importance of this work. The editors of Fine Lines claim that Nabokov was the victim of “malign neglect” in the entomological community, arguing that scientists didn’t take him seriously because of his literary fame, and they set out to correct this by making big—sometimes implausible—claims for him. They write of Nabokov as a “visionary” who was able to grasp evolutionary patterns through his “apparent ability to create a virtual zoetrope in his head to see ten million years” of change. Another essay calls Nabokov “a genius not only of the artistic but of the scientific kind.” The editors even claim that Nabokov would have achieved still greater importance had he continued: “He would have mastered, and welcomed, all the new advances of the modern synthesis,” they write. “Any other assessment seems unrealistic.”

This profession of faith doesn’t sit well with the book’s scientific claims. Moreover, some of the arguments of Nabokov’s detractors are convincing. In her review of Nabokov’s Blues for Science in 2000, entomologist May Berenbaum pointed out that just because Nabokov’s findings had been proven correct didn’t mean those findings were particularly important. “The fact remains,” she wrote, “that his research was of modest extent and of interest to only a small segment of the scientific community.” Rather than an “unappreciated scientific genius,” Berenbaum suggested, Nabokov was in his literary work simply “the best writer about insects … possibly ever.” 

If you place his novels and memoirs side by side with his lepidopterological studies, one thing is clear: Nabokov was interested in telling very different stories about butterflies in each. As a lepidopterist, he was interested in stories that spanned vast, geological time periods, informed by fine-grained empirical observations. But in his novels and stories, butterflies flit in and out of the narrative, either to adorn a moment of impossible desire or as flickering omens of doom—as in the case of the red admiral that lands on John Shade’s arm before he is assassinated in Pale Fire. They are creatures of the ever-disappearing present, hardly existing for any concrete purpose at all; their wings bear the heavy load of subjectivity. In their elusiveness, their intricacy, they embodied the Nabokovian aesthetic; they were, as he wrote in Speak, Memory, an emblem of the “non-utilitarian delights” he sought in art.

Fine Lines does not accept quite so stark a distinction between Nabokov’s two butterfly-related endeavors. One of the most revealing essays in the volume is Victoria N. Alexander’s examination of the way Nabokov’s views on butterfly evolution enlivened his imagination. Among Nabokov’s more heretical scientific opinions, for instance, was that Darwinian evolution couldn’t explain why some butterflies are able to mimic their surroundings so effectively. When a butterfly looks like a leaf, he wrote, “not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered, but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously thrown in.” The disguise is more realistic, he notes, than necessary to fool a predator, and so it must have come about by chance rather than by natural selection. While, before, scholars of his work, such as his biographer Brian Boyd, have seen these remarks as unscientific, “dearly held metaphysical speculations,” Alexander shows that it was in fact Nabokov’s study of wing patterns that led him to this critique, and that his views were “very like those of other reputable scientists of his day who argued against gradualism.” The reasoning is scientific and the conclusion is aesthetically gratifying. These superfluous imitations, Alexander explains, were to Nabokov “art for art’s sake”—nature’s own trompe l’oeil. They appealed to his appetite for practical jokes and coincidences that seemed to yield unexpected meaning.

Other essays in the collection scour Nabokov’s works for signs of particular butterfly species, where there is scarcely a trail. Robert Dirig’s essay tracks appearances of the Toothwort White, or Pieris virginiensis, and related “lepidopteral, ornithological, and botanical motifs” in Pale Fire with mixed results. Most impressive is the detective work Dirig carries out, using information about the butterfly’s habitat, to figure out the “real” location of New Wye, the fictional college town where the novel is set. Less persuasive is his thesis that Nabokov based the character Hazel Shade, an adolescent girl, on the Toothwort White in its larval stages. The girl and the pupa share, he submits, “a long ‘nose’, awkwardly humped profile, and wall-flower obscurity.” Another essay in the collection makes much of butterfly-related puns in Lolita without making it clear what these word games reveal.

There’s a special sense in which all of this activity, however unenlightening, is essentially Nabokovian. His works, ripe with multiple meanings and laced with esoteric clues, invite the kind of obsessive close reading that Charles Kinbote himself performs in Pale Fire, adding copious footnotes to John Shade’s 999-line poem. To build extravagant theories on the most minute details and to strike out into one’s own Alpine meadows with net in hand, seeking purely personal epiphanies, is only to follow the lead of Nabokov’s characters.

Nabokov himself, meanwhile, seemed to take pride in discouraging indulgent readings of his butterfly work. When he died in 1977, he was working on a new book with a scientific focus, an illustrated history of Butterflies in Art, ranging from ancient Egypt to the Renaissance. It was to include works by Hieronymus Bosch, Jan Brueghel, Albrecht Dürer, and many others, though he complained their depictions were imprecise and ignorant. He traveled across small towns in Italy, France, and the Netherlands, asking curators to call up more accurate but little-known still lifes from their stacks. “That in some cases the butterfly symbolizes something,” he insisted, “lies utterly outside my area of interest.”