The Two Sweetest Passions

“Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.”

Vladimir Nabokov

 
 

Photo portrait of Vladimir Nabokov by Phillippe Halsman, circa 1968

 
 

Vladimir Nabokov, 1972

 
 

Nabokov’s career as an entomologist was as distinguished as his novels. His interest in this field had been inspired by books of Maria Sibylla Merian he had found in the attic of his family’s country home in Vyra. Throughout an extensive career of collecting he never learned to drive a car, and he depended on his wife Véra to take him to collecting sites. During the 1940s, as a research fellow in zoology, he was responsible for organizing the butterfly collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. His writings in this area were highly technical. This, combined with his specialty in the relatively unspectacular tribe Polyommatini of the family Lycaenidae, has left this facet of his life little explored by most admirers of his literary works. He described the Karner Blue. The genus Nabokovia was named after him in honor of this work, as were a number of butterfly and moth species (e.g. many species in the genera Madeleinea and Pseudolucia bear epithets alluding to Nabokov or names from his novels). In 1967, Nabokov commented: “The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.”

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The Highest Enjoyment

“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness―in a landscape selected at random―is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern―to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

Vladimir Nabokov

 
 

Nabokov hunting butterflies. Photo by Carl Mydans, 1958