Nabokov's Butterflies

Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Nabokov's recent centenary brought a spate of publications in a variety of languages. Of these, Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings appears to me to be the most, well, "offbeat" you might say, if you were loath to use words like "weird."

This nearly 800-page volume comprises a couple of articles by the editors, Brian Boyd and Robert Pyle; Nabokov's "Selected Writings. 1908-1977," including the hitherto unpublished "Father's Butterflies: Second Addendum to The Gift;" Nabokov's scholarly treatise "The Butterflies of Europe;" and other technical writings on lepidopterology. The technical side of compiling such a volume is more or less clear: A computer might go through Nabokov's oeuvre highlighting passages with words like "lepidoptera," "butterflies," "moths," "collecting," "butterflies' genitalia," etc. The purpose of such an exercise is much more elusive.

The fact is, Boyd himself starts out from the premise that "it would be perfectly possible to read a thousand pages of [Nabokov's] best fiction ... and another five hundred pages of his short stories and not even realize he was a lepidopterist." Hardly that, of course - if you've read chapter six of "Speak, Memory," or were conscientious enough not to skip various passages in "Ada," with their wealth of material on Nabokov's obsession with butterflies. But on the whole Boyd is right, which in itself rather casts doubt on the wisdom of compiling a huge volume to correct this premise.

I can accept Pyle's contention that "a working knowledge of French, Russian, Russian poets, chess or a dozen other topics can enhance the reader's picture [of Nabokov's writings]. One of the most important of these subtexts is Lepidoptera." Of course, one would be happy to have a mastery of all these "subtexts." However, having missed lepidopterology early in one's life, one is hardly likely to avail oneself of "Nabokov's technical articles, known to entomologists for half a century still playing their part in lycaenid systematics ... here made available to the general reader for the first time." That's a generous offer, and the "general reader" might avail himself of it - if he were about 6, the age Nabokov took up entomology; the rest of us might choose to take the risk of missing some butterfly innuendo.

Closer scrutiny of "Nabokov's Butterflies" shows that this risk is pretty low. Hundreds of pages of the volume are filled with material selected, one suspects, in the electronic manner described above - to no particular purpose. Much of the stuff consists of two- or three-line excerpts from letters like the following: "I have finished a book on Gogol. I am finishing a big study on the genitalia of one group of butterflies." End of entry. These two-liners reminded me of the quintessential American monostich: "You owe me $64." I read it in Poetry magazine about a quarter of a century ago and am still stumped by it. It's there on the page, but what is it in aid of?

Apart from these mysterious items, there are endless passages from Nabokov's fiction devoted to, or merely mentioning, butterflies, moths and similar subjects. For these, Boyd makes the following claim: "Removed from their old haunts, the scores of short excerpts refocus the part and refresh the whole." Sorry, folks, they don't do anything of the sort, not for this reader at least.

Consider this entry: "Van, in his blue gym suit, having worked his way up to a fork under his agile playmate (who naturally was better acquainted with the tree's intricate map) but not being able to see her face, betokened mute communication by taking her ankle between finger and thumb as she would have a closed butterfly." I challenge any nonentomologically minded reader to avow that seeing this passage torn from the novel's context "refocuses" his attention from the lady's ankle to the butterfly, or that it "refreshes" in any way his understanding of "the whole." Find this passage in "Ada" and you will see that its natural habitat does more for your understanding of "the whole" than placing it in a heap of other quotations.

The same exaggerated exegetic claim is obvious in the case of whole works transposed into this volume's extraordinary and, let's face it, chaotic and disjoint environment. I was particularly struck by the inclusion in it of my all-time favorite, the poem "How I Love You." Frankly, I hadn't been aware an insect was mentioned in its third stanza, the butterfly blending as smoothly in the poem's fabric as it does with the tree trunk in those two lines quoted above. Now that my attention has been drawn to it, I feel nothing but irritation that Nabokov saw fit to introduce, in the English version, the learned "geometrid" for the plain Russian babochka, although that feeling is nothing compared to my disappointment at seeing the magic music of Russian iambics transposed into limping English vers libre. These feelings, though, have nothing to do with Lepidoptera: Boyd's "refocusing" and "refreshing" are again totally conspicuous by their absence.

The only two items in the collection that are reviewable in the stricter sense are the articles by Boyd and Pyle. Nit-pickers might point out that the two contributions are but poorly correlated or not correlated at all, Pyle going over Nabokov's life as if it hadn't been outlined already by Boyd and often repeating the same facts, with no variation or fresh insights.

But my main quarrel with the authors is different. They set out to show the relevance of Nabokov's lepidopterological pursuits to his art, and they fail at their task - not for want of ability, but because Nabokov himself kept the two realms apart. Instead, they prove Nabokov was a serious scientist, not a dilettante, or if he was a dilettante, then one who made a contribution to science. OK, I'll take that on trust - but what does it tell me, in Boyd's words, about "the development of the writer's art, the evolution of the naturalist'sscience, and the interplay between the two"? All the "interplay" I can observe in the writers' accounts is that, when Nabokov, on arrival at Harvard, worked as a professional entomologist at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, he had to go slow on his writing, and when he was able to quit that job, he did so without hesitation to engage in literary pursuits, keeping his butterfly collecting a summer-time hobby.

Except for one or two oblique passages in Boyd, both authors miss the rather obvious link between Nabokov's fascination with butterflies and probably the most persistent theme in his writings, which was also the salient feature of his psychical makeup - the fear of Time/Death and his indefatigable efforts, ? la Goethe, to capture and freeze the "fleeting moment," either as a butterfly on a pin or a word-image on a page. It is just our good luck that, of the two modes of achieving immortality, he preferred the latter, building, out of imperishable words, rampart upon rampart to shield himself against the menace of Death and oblivion. If he hadn't, he would've gone down in history as yet another great lepidopterist.

"Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings," edited and annotated by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle. New translations from the Russian by Dmitry Nabokov. 783 pages. Allen Lane. pounds 25. Published in the United States by Beacon Press. $45.