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At the end of Vladimir Nabokov’s poem “Pale Fire,” he describes how “White butterflies turn lavender as they / Pass through its shade where gently seems to sway / The phantom of my little daughter’s swing.” It’s far from the only appearance of a fluttering insect at a pivotal moment in the Russian author’s writing. In his most famous novel, Lolita, the protagonist Humbert Humbert asks, “Did I ever mention that her bare arm bore the 8 of vaccination? That I loved her hopelessly? That she was only fourteen?” And, just then, an “inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.”
Nabokov’s obsession with butterflies extended from fiction into his career in science, including a stint as the lepidoptery curator at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in the 1940s. While this aspect of his life is well-known, his scientific work has mostly been treated as a curious fact rather than something of a significance on par with his writing. Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art, edited by Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson and released earlier this year by Yale University Press, is one of the first works to thoroughly investigate his butterfly studies and scientific illustrations. It includes 154 of his butterfly drawings, many previously unpublished.
The editors write:
This book’s hybridity springs from two impulses: an intangible sense, on the one hand, that everyone should have the opportunity to see these strange, often beautiful drawings; and a recognition, on the other, that Nabokov ended up making a highly significant contribution to the sciences of evolutionary biology and biogeography — one that these fields were slow to recognize and appreciate.
They go on to cite a quote Nabokov gave in 1959 to Sports Illustrated, of all places: “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” He approached these two areas of focus similarly, parsing his research on four-by-six index cards — the same kind of cards on which he wrote his novels.
Along with the illustrations, Fine Lines includes essays by Nabokov experts and, notably, scientists. In his lifetime, Nabokov’s research was mostly overlooked by his contemporaries; for instance, it was only in 2011 that his 1945 theory on the evolution of the Polyommatus Blues was affirmed through new gene sequencing techniques. A Fine Lines essay, penned by a group of five scientists, concludes:
That Nabokov showed such insight despite working with such apparently limited tools at his disposal argues that he was more than just a competent taxonomist. His work in the Neotropical Polyommatus Blues stands out as a bold and brilliant scientific advance.
The illustrations are mostly depictions of insectile fragments, with wings severed from bodies, their patterns carefully portrayed, and butterfly genitalia, which Nabokov spent much time examining for his evolutionary theories, enlarged into unrecognizable abstract forms. The illustrations are sometimes taped together, and many appear unfinished, creating the feeling that you’ve just picked them up from his busy desk.
Captions in the book are steeply scientific, although there are scraps of biographical details. One especially vibrant butterfly clinging to a stalk has text noting that rainbows were “a personal motif for Vladimir and Véra,” his wife. When they first met she was “wearing a mask,” the eye shape on the butterfly wing suggesting a lady’s gaze.
Does a deeper understanding of Nabokov’s butterfly research better illuminate the role of the creatures as mysterious apparitions in his writing? Maybe not, but it does emphasizes his work as more than just an eccentricity. Like one of those rare gynandromorphic butterflies that’s male on one side and female on the other, Fine Lines argues for more balance between science and art in considering Nabokov’s legacy.