Of Nabokov And Butterflies
Sometimes we forget that authors are normal people just like us. They have likes and dislikes that extend well beyond their writing in the same way we do.
Richard Wright was into Haiku. Jonathan Franzen is an avid bird watcher. Stephen King is a Boston Red Sox fanatic.
But this side interest/hobby might be the most unusual: Vladimir Nabokov was an amateur lepidopterist.
A what? A lepidopterist is someone who is interested in butterflies, and Nabokov had a heavy interest in butterflies.
This story in the Hindustan Times last week describes how Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When Nabokov was 8, he even took a butterfly to his father’s jail cell after he was imprisoned for his political views in Russia.
According to an article in The New York Times, Nabokov would have become a full-time lepidopterist if his family had not gone into exile during the Russian Revolution in 1919.
Nabokov’s expertise on butterflies eventually led to a theory that became widely accepted in the lepidopterist community (yes, there is such a thing). Here’s how the article explains it:
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”.
Also, interestingly, the article says there’s an edition of Lolita floating around somewhere with an inscription from Nabokov to Graham Green (The Power and the Glory author). Under the inscription is a drawing of a green butterfly with the notation “green swallowtail dancing waist high.”
So there you go. Vladimir Nabokov was an expert in butterflies–so much so that he created a theory that changed the way lepidopterists view butterflies.
Famous author. Famous lepidopterist. What are we doing with our lives?