A butterfly’s prime and imperative job is to mate. Nature even arranged for butterflies to be born without mouths, as if in reminder that their task mustn’t be confused with other appetites.
From 1940 to 1948, Vladimir Nabokov, the high-flying, migratory novelist who created “Lolita” and “Pale Fire,” conducted research into the butterfly clan known as Blues, first at New York’s American Museum of Natural History and later at Harvard. His work concentrated on comparative analyses of genitalia.
Nabokov and his wife, Vera, went butterfly hunting in summer. His forays were especially fruitful in Colorado, where he felt himself immediately, peculiarly at home. On clear-aired Rocky slopes, he collected specimens, pondered tangled ancestral lineages and, not incidentally, laid a foundation for the on-the-road, depopulated second half of “Lolita.”
Colorado seems an unlikely locale for a Russian-born aristocrat to find a spiritual home — some 10 time zones from his birthplace in St. Petersburg. But to measure by time zones feels especially apt for Nabokov, whose fiction so ceaselessly mused upon how the human soul mutates through the years, and whose entomological research sought to re-create long-lost migrations across the Bering Strait.
“Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art,” edited by Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson, seeks to bridge another, personal Bering Strait: the one uniting the inner continents of novelist and scientist. Their book is a lovely object. It reproduces 148 of Nabokov’s drawings, 62 of them in color. It includes 10 essays, by scientists and literary scholars, seeking to translate Nabokov’s adventures in microscopy into a readily visible context.
A number of intimidatingly specialized captions accompany the drawings. (“The structures are obviously far more robust than in many Old and New World Blues, with the broad and club-ended male valve at center left, enclosed by a narrow genital ring attached upward to a lobate uncus and a very narrow and curvate falx/humerulus.”) Readers may find themselves wishing that the editors had done more to accommodate the lay reader, who might instead consult the sixth chapter of Nabokov’s autobiography, “Speak, Memory,” for a precise yet raptuorous account of the joys of insect study.
Colorado has changed greatly in the two-thirds of a century since Nabokov’s expeditions, but the landscape of lepidoptery may be more altered still. His investigations predated the discovery of DNA and the acceptance of Wegener’s theory of continental drift. In other words, zoological researchers in Nabokov’s day had no sure way to trace evolutionary lineages or to explain those puzzling dispersals by which sizable animal species seemed to have magically leaped from continent to continent.
Nabokov dreamed of perfecting his research by “straddling a Wellsian time machine.” He wished to cycle back to the Cenozoic era to observe firsthand the emergence of new butterfly forms. (Not surprisingly, Nabokov loved H.G. Wells, another intellectual hybrid intermixing the scientific and the artistic.) He was keenly aware of the methodological shortcomings of his techniques, freely acknowledging that further research might well supplant him within a few decades. A sense of self-limitation in no way curbed his efforts, though; he sometimes labored 14 hours a day in ill-paid laboratory research. (With some aplomb, he wrote to his sister in Russia, “I have ruined my eyesight and wear horn-rimmed glasses.”) He later described this period of intense research, while trailblazing American fiction gestated within him, as the most rewarding of his adult life. Even for the non-specialist, it’s impossible to thumb through “Fine Lines” without catching an infectious sense of punctiliousness married to passion.
Only a few years ago, Nabokov’s scrupulous guesswork was verified by DNA analysis. The final essay in “Fine Lines,” written by Harvard researchers (five authors for an informal 10-page essay — boy, those scientists really do favor collaboration!), concludes that Nabokov was more than “just a competent taxonomist” — he was also a “remarkable systematist.” So there.
Unlike Nabokov, Wells’s unnamed Time Traveler fantasized primarily about venturing into the future. “The Time Machine” is an alarming extrapolation of human tendencies of bifurcation, in which our progeny, circa 802,701 AD, has subdivided into the feckless Eloi and the troglodytic and cannibalistic Morlocks. In the book’s concluding pages, Wells carries this notion of forked branchings to the very ends of the Earth, millions of year hence, where some of the very last creatures he sees are a “thing like a huge white butterfly” that goes “slanting and fluttering up into the sky” and a “monster crab” that intends to consume our Time Traveler, its remote ancestor.
White butterfly and dark crab offer a striking pair of images to place beside the drawings in “Fine Lines,” where synthesis, not divergence, obtains. All those subtly rendered wings, those exquisitely reproduced genitalia: Nabokov’s creatures are a blissful, winged confluence of earth and air, appetite and beauty.
Brad Leithauser’s most recent novel is “The Art Student’s War.” His most recent book of poetry is “The Oldest Word for Dawn.”
Edited by Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson
Yale University Press. 318 pp. $50