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In pursuit of Nabokov’s butterflies

Today, with the exception of Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, Nabokov is among top European writers to have had a pioneering influence in shaping the 20th century novel, Jairaj Singh writes.

india Updated: Jan 14, 2013 12:05 IST
Jairaj Singh

About two years ago, I stumbled across an article in The New York Times which said that Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov had a theory on the evolution of butterfly that, after being ridiculed scientifically for many decades, had finally been vindicated. Turns out the author of modern classic Lolita, a controversial novel about a middle-aged man seducing a 12-year-old girl, had a “parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies”.

The memory fluttered to me after I read The Aurelian tucked in a collection of 13 short stories called Nabokov’s Dozen, which I chanced upon in my father’s hallowed library, and was arrested by its understated dream-like simplicity. The aurelian (an archaic word for lepidopterist, one who is interested in butterflies) is an elusive dreamer and butterfly shopkeeper Paul Pilgram with plans of travelling outside of his native Berlin to chase and collect butterflies.

Pilgram leads a dreary life devoid of love and joy. Pressed for money, he suffers all the while hoping to pursue his passion of netting the rarest of rarest of other countries. One day, he attempts to twist the neck of fate and cheat a customer to make money and leave home and wife for good.

As a line from the story goes: "Pilgram decided that the dream of his life was about to break at last from its old crinky cocoon."

The story goes that Nabokov inherited his love for butterflies from his parents. When his father a well-known liberal statesman was imprisoned by Russian authorities (and subsequently assassinated by the monarchist) for his political views and activities, Vladimir, then 8, brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift.

As a young man, he would go on hunting expeditions to collect and pin butterflies and would study them and make notes copying science journals after he and his family fled to Western Europe, where he spent a large part of his time in Berlin. According to the NYT article, had it not been for the Russian Revolution, which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov would have become a full-time lepidopterist.

After being forced to run again, this time from the clutches of the advancing Nazis and losing his brother in a concentration camp, he and his family moved to America in the early 1940s.

Here, he began to teach at Wellesley College, while holding a Harvard Research Fellowship in lepidoptera. Later, he became professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University for 11 years. It was also in the US he would receive worldwide fame for Lolita, while he developed a study to classify butterflies based on differences in their genitalia.

It was in 1945 that he made a bold and detailed hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as “The Common Blue” (Polyommatus icarus), a small butterfly in the Lycaenidae family. According to the NYT, “He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of (five) waves (each giving rise to a separate group).” He came up with this theory just by looking through a microscope and the wisdom of years of devotion and passion in collecting butterflies as an amateur.

During Nabokov’s lifetime, his views on insects and creatures were not held in high esteem in scientific quarters. He was even mocked for being able to ‘describe them well’, but lacking the scientific know-how. Much later, a group of scientists applying ‘gene-sequencing technology’ to his hypothesis discovered Nabokov was, in fact, “absolutely right”.

They say there is an edition of Lolita, worth an exorbitant fortune, with an inscription from Nabokov to Graham Greene (who played a pivotal role in the publication of the book), which is followed by a drawing of a large green butterfly. Under this drawing, there’s a one-line message that reads: “green swallowtail dancing waist-high”.

Today, with the exception of Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, Nabokov is among top European writers to have had a pioneering influence in shaping the 20th century novel. English, just as it had been for author of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, was not second but third language for him. Yet, Nabokov’s seemingly clever, overly descriptive and stylised prose came to be prized.

He is also hailed as “one of the great tragic ironists of modern fiction”. But the more one reads his stories about elusive and obsessive heroes one is confronted with a set of paradoxes; the shadowy presence of a nimble insect flapping past is hard to miss.