The Sweet Science: The Curious Intersection of Lepidoptery and Lying in Nabokov’s Fiction

Originally published in Hair Trigger 27, a 2005 publication of Columbia College Chicago, this essay was my final project for one of my first MFA courses. 


Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime—but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of Lepidoptera in a great museum.

— Vladimir Nabokov (Strong Opinions 46)


A number of great authors have frequently crossed the line between fiction and science writing. William Carlos Williams was a skilled medical doctor as well as a brilliantly gifted poet and fairly engaging novelist. Goethe is recognized both as one of the founding fathers of European literature and one of the earliest pioneers in the field of phenomenonlogy. On the other side of the coin, researchers like Stephen Jay Gould have advanced their scientific efforts by writing in a literate and accessible style that allowed readers outside their field to understand their work (not to mention incensed their writerly, more “serious” colleagues with their popular appeal). Countless others from both walks have dabbled in the opposite field with varying degrees of success, and these crossover efforts have generally carried the stamp of the author’s primary work, whether intentionally or not.

Whereas Williams’s fiction is peopled with a variety of stoic doctors, and the same philosophies inform both sides of Goethe’s work, the butterflies the joined writing as Vladimir Nabokov’s twin passions generally flitted only through the periphery of his novels and stories. And yet Nabokov was no mere weekend lepidopterist; he took the study of butterflies extremely seriously and was well regarded by his colleagues, even identifying and lending his name to multiple new species. (With the naming of Pseudolucia humbert in 1995, every major character in Lolita had a winged namesake.) Surely two such disparate and accomplished careers could not help but intersect, but the connection between Nabokov the novelist and Nabokov the scientist is not always patently clear. Many of the most obvious conclusions, although very tempting to the lazy essayist (at least one paper has been published casting Lolita as an extended butterfly metaphor, with Humbert as the dogged collector and Dolores as the besieged rare species, a thesis firmly refuted by Nabokov) are not borne out upon closer study, and one is left to hunt for the subtler links. As Nabokov himself once told an interviewer fortunate enough to join the novelist for a butterfly hunt, “It’s not easy to take a flying butterfly—because it dodges. The best way is to wait for it to settle on a flower—or on damp earth, it’s quite easy to take,” an inadvertent metaphor for the patience necessary in finding an underlying meaning in his work.

None of which is to say that the occasional concrete manifestation of the scientist does not work its way into the fiction, and vice versa. In an otherwise scientific paper on the genus Lycaeides, for instance, Nabokov slips in a description of the upper portions of the butterfly’s uncus lobes resembling “the stolidly raised fists of two pugilists (of the old school) with the uncus hoods adding a Ku Klux Klan touch to the picture.” Brief images of butterflies and their collectors (often bearing a close resemblance to the author and/or his wife Vera) crop up frequently in his fiction. Nabokov wrote to his mother that he found the task of writing King, Queen, Knave with no characters from his own native Russia so dull that he was considering altering the story to include a lepidopterist (probably only in Nabokov’s world could that action be considered “spicing up” the story), and in fact when he translated and revised the novel in the 1960s he did just that, albeit in a very minor role. More pronounced appearances of lepidoptery include an early short story called “The Aurealian” whose protagonist is, as the title suggests, an amateur butterfly collector, and a long section eventually cut from The Gift (Johnson 41) entitled “Father’s Butterflies,” which allowed the author to indulge both his passions at once.

Probably the culmination of this literary crossbreeding can be found in the author’s revised memoir Speak, Memory. The structure of the autobiography is intentionally hazy and off-center, as part of Nabokov’s thesis involves the correlation between dreams and memory. Figures from the author’s childhood drift in and out, and themes become distorted as they lead to loosely connected riffs that bring to mind improvisational jazz. But when a scientific topic arises, particularly butterflies, the text snaps suddenly into sharp focus and no distractions are allowed. Even when the author is literally in a dream state, such as his description of being a patient etherized on a table during an appendectomy, his vision is of butterflies, and meticulously observed ones at that:

It was all there, brilliantly reproduced in my dream, while my own vitals were being exposed: the soaking, ice-cold absorbent cotton pressed to the insect’s lemurian head; the subsiding spasms of its body, the satisfying crackle produced by the pin penetrating hard crust of its thorax; the careful insertion of the point of the pin in the cork-bottomed groove of the spreading board; the symmetrical adjustments of the thick, strong-veined wings under neatly affixed strios of semi-transparent paper (Speak Memory 121)

Probably not too much should be read into Nabokov’s direct empathy with his subject of study (although it may raise interesting questions when one considers his stated disdain for readers who identify with literary characters, as will be discussed late). Suffice it to say that the information and  language contained in this selection are evidence of the man’s knowledge of and fanaticism for his area of study.

Still, these occasional overt manifestations do not say nearly as much about the two Nabokovs as do some less obvious references. Probably the most famous of these comes near the beginning of Lolita, when Humbert Humbert provides the reader with a detailed, nearly scientific categorization of the nymphet:

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human but nymphic (that is, demonic); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”… It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have reader see ‘nine’ and ‘fourteen’ as the boundaries… (Lolita 18).

As Humbert further lays out the necessary qualifiers for a girl to fall under his definition of prepubescent beauty, he adds a number of artistic flourishes, “other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate” (19), but the general language bears more than a passing resemblance to that of a taxonomist describing the distinctive qualities of a certain species of insect. The effect is subtle enough, however, that a reader unaware of Nabokov’s lepidopteran leanings would likely breeze through the passage as simply a rather particular man’s discussion of his sexual preferences. Only those specifically searching for evidence of the author’s scientific double life are likely to pick up on it, and therein lies Nabokov’s unique skill as a craftsman. Regardless of whether or not he or she is aware of the roots of the passage, the reader is certain to come away from it with a clear understanding of exactly what Humbert means when he speaks of a nymphet.

This is evidence of the most obvious universal linking the two bodies of work: a precision of language that communicates the author’s intention beyond a shadow of a doubt. He often claimed that “in high art and pure science detail is everything,” (Strong Opinions 168) and his work in both fields bears that out. There are many writers who thrive on ambiguity and make open ended interpretations work for them. Nabokov is decidedly not one of these. There is seldom any doubt about his characters’ physical surroundings or what they think of any given situation. Humbert Humbert’s insistent defense of himself is perhaps the most evident example of this trait—he boasts of a photographic memory and provides exact street addresses for each of his squabbles with Lolita—but such verisimilitude is a common theme throughout his work.

King, Queen, Knave, for instance is at its heart a fairly simple story: rural youth arrives in Berlin to seek employment with his prosperous uncle, uncle’s wife initiates love affair with youth, youth and aunt plot to kill uncle, aunt dies and all are left damaged. The plot itself could belong to any number of generic potboilers, but Nabokov wrests it from conventionality by making it a character-driven novel. As such, the story’s success or failure stems rests mainly on the creation of memorable characters who will engage the reader’s interest regardless of the familiarity of their activities. Many less nuanced authors would attempt to achieve this feat through sheer quirkiness, but with the exception of an insane landlord and a few eccentricities on Dreyer’s behalf, Nabokov crafts a much more memorable accomplishment through near-religious attention to detail.

Consider, for instance, this account of Franz undressing before a tryst with Martha:

Meanwhile, slowly and meticulously, Franz was draping his jacket over the broad shoulders of a special hanger (filched from the store) after having removed and placed on the table a wallet containing a five-dollar bill; seven marks and six post stamps; a little notebook; a fountain pen; two pencils; his keys; and a letter to his mother he had forgotten to mail (165).

There is no obvious readerly benefit to knowing the exact contents of Franz’s jacket pockets; the items he removes are too pedestrian even to fall under the category of insights into the character’s persona. And yet the fact that Nabokov includes this list in all its dreary detail is indicative of why King, Queen, Knave works as well as it does. It is the description of a process, seemingly unimportant, that nonetheless goes a long way toward placing the reader in that musty apartment with Franz and Martha. Item by item, we are given an almost tactile sense of everything Franz holds in his hand and places on the dresser. With each mundane object we develop a greater sense of the drab routine of a sexual relationship whose sheen has faded, so that by the time Franz tells himself, “Well, to work, old soldier,” we are amused rather than shocked by his blase attitude toward sex with the woman to whose image he once masturbated so fervently. Furthermore, this little scene gives us an idea that perhaps the murder the couple has been plotting in lieu of foreplay is as much a desperate attempt at restoring meaning to their relationship as it is an effort to achieve the freedom Martha speaks of at such length. The narrative of the emptying of Franz’s pockets, then, seemingly so purposeless at first, becomes a gateway to a potentially important shift in the direction of the entire novel. It is, of course, impossible to say whether Nabokov’s scientific background is directly responsible, but the same eye for minutia essential to any decent entomologist is certainly in evidence in this passage.

In a similar vein, one of Nabokov’s professed joys as a writer in both fields was the unveiling of secrets recognizable only to the trained observer. This joy of discovery will be familiar to any research scientist who revels in finding a specimen whose mouthparts are formed slightly differently than an otherwise identical animal. Attempting to explain the thrill to a layman would likely be fruitless, but for the discoverer it is ecstasy. Nabokov was able to enjoy the feeling both as scientist and as writer (specifically, as one who took such pride in his knowledge of the obscure). He once wrote a thank-you letter to a colleague who sent him a newspaper clipping on one of Nabokov’s winged discoveries and noted that “what must tickle some of my best readers an iridescent pink is that it is precisely the butterfly which settles on damp sand at the feet of Pnin and Chateau [in Pnin].” His works are sprinkled with such gems and in-jokes for only the most diligent readers. For instance, he occasionally mentioned in passing butterflies whose common or scientific names worked as a pun or metaphor in the larger context of a story but left the tidbit unexplained, a curious blending of wit and snobbery.

For all of his attention to detail and lepidopteran references, however, there is nothing to suggest that Nabokov in any way regarded his characters with a so0called cold, scientific eye (itself a misnomer, as demonstrated by the warmth of much of the man’s butterfly writings), as is the conclusion too often leapt oto by those perplexed by the conundrum of a scientist/novelist. If the characters in his novels are not exactly lovingly drawn (an arguable point), they are created with a profound knowledge of human nature. If an arrogant, lecherous, irritable pederast like Humbert Humbert were presented exclusively in detached zoological terms, one suspects it would be very difficult to muster much sympathy for his pedophiliac and eventually murderous behavior. That Nabokov successfully humanizes this man who could be made into a monster with very little effort, even going so far as to allow him to present his own defense rather than dumping the task on some unsuspecting third person, effectively negates any myth of Nabokov as the unfeeling scientist.

Still, it is true that a successful biologist must possess the capability to regard his or her subjects with a certain detachment. After all, if a lepidopterist allowed himself too much empathy with the insects writhing in his net, he would hardly be able to callously pin them to a board in the name of further research. Perhaps this idea of scientific neutrality informs one of Nabokov’s more noteworthy statements about his literary philosophy. In his famous address to a college class “Good Readers and Good Writers,” he describes identifying with a character in a book as “the worst thing a reader can do.” This condemnation likely comes as something of a surprise to many readers who believe themselves to have benefited by identifying with many literary characters in their reading careers. The finer point, however (characteristically unelaborated upon by Nabokov, who surely would have considered anyone who needed an explanation unworthy of one), is that there is a distinction between identifying with a character and sympathizing with or recognizing traits in the same. If, for example, an alienated college student reads Catcher in the Rye and recognizes many of the situations and emotions of Holden Caulfield’s life, all the better for his understanding of the novel. If, however, he begins ti identify with Holden, ascribing his own ideas and feelings to the people on the page, he effectively strips the novel of its context and perverts Salinger’s intentions. To most readers it is a subtle but obviously important difference, but to a scientifically trained mind like Nabokov’s it is both obvious and imperative to preserving the integrity of literature.

This relatively brief speech is a treasure trove of illumination on the connection between the two worlds of Nabokov. Commenting on the tenuous nature of truth in fiction, he says,

Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead (5).

This philosophy of justified deception was obviously near to Nabokov’s heart, and he often passed it on to his characters. In the opening passage of Laughter in the Dark, for instance, he describes the protagonist appropriating an idea from something he has read: “True, it was not his own [but] he made it his own by liking it, playing with it, letting it grow upon him, and that goes to make lawful property in the free city of the mind” (7). And what is Lolita but Humbert Humbert’s deliberate manipulation of facts to support his own selfish cause?

In this context, it is hardly surprising that butterflies and moths are Nabokov’s insects of choice. As he notes in the speech, there are numerous examples of both that disguise themselves with markings resembling large eyes or colorations that blend in with tree trunks as a method of survival. Surely his prevaricator’s mind must have appreciated trickery so complex in service of so basic an impulse. He was also reportedly rather impressed with the vagueness surrounding the etymology of the word “butterfly,” noting that some claimed the first specimen noticed was a buttery yellow color while “another version has it that the name was derived from flutter by—making it all a Spoonerism!” (Nabokov’s Butterflies 39) A confessed deceiver such as himself had to appreciate that shadowy background.

Perhaps Nabokov’s finest insight on the topic of science and literature occurs near the end of “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Speaking about who is and is not qualified to read books (again, it is a characteristically Nabokovian idea that some people are not), he posits that

The best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgment will temper the intuitive heat (4).

That line of thinking can be applied to writing with more or less equal validity. A writer who is by Nabokovian definition overly “artistic” runs the risk of investing too much personally in his story and characters and thereby losing sight of the elements that might make an audience care about his creation. As discussed previously, the overly scientific writer will arrive at the same result, but his fault is not investing enough of himself into his work. Nabokov goes on to state, “It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science” (6). He himself is a prime example of a writer who strikes an ideal balance between the two, and this collision is the forefront of some of his most wickedly humorous passages: Humbert’s sarcastic but spot-on observation of “the curious roadside species, Hitchhiking Man, Homo pollex of science, with all its many subspecies and forms” (Lolita 104), for instance.

Another collegiate speech provides a final piece of evidence of the joint effort between scientist and novelist. Nabokov gave his class the example of a schoolboy who begins collecting butterflies. He may observe obvious similarities and differences in the species he captures, such as markings on the wings or the number of feet, but there is no way he can appreciate

The fascinating variety of inner organs, the varying shapes of which allow the scientist not only unerringly to classify them… but also to torace the origin and development and relationship of the genera and species, the history of the migration of their ancestors, the varying influence of the environments on the developments of the species and forms, etc. etc. etc. … This example applies to every field of knowledge, and is very apt in the case of literature (Boyd 10).

This wonderful metaphor ties in well with Nabokov’s “Good Readers and Good Writers” statement that “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it” (3). His books are written with a scientist’s attention to detail and an artist’s devotion to craftsmanship. They are designed to be perhaps enjoyed upon an initial reading, but like the boy and his butterflies, the reader cannot hope to develop a full understanding of his subject until he has thoroughly versed himself in the greater field of study. It is Nabokov’s belief that a lay person may enjoy watching a butterfly, but only a well-educated lepidopterist with a knowledge of the particular insect and its fellows can truly appreciate its intricacies. It stands to reason, then, that only after one has already read a book and acquainted himself with the characters and plot can he re-read it with a full appreciation of its nuances. A reader tackling King, Queen, KNave for a second time may chuckle with recognition as Franz recoils in horror from the noseless man on the train and think, “How very like Franz!” A revisitation of Lolita reveals the faux foreword by John Ray, Jr., PhD” to be filled with sly wit and subtle hints as to the action to follow (“The caretakers of the various cemeteries involved report that no ghosts walk.”), whereas the casual, one-time reader is, by the end of the book, likely to forget that the passage even existed. Much as dogged scientific research (hopefully) eventually rewards its perpetrators, Nabokov hopes to reward those with the dedication to return to his work and give it the attention he believes it so richly deserves.

There are, then, multiple indications that Nabokov the novelist and Nabokov the scientist are closely related, if not inextricable, and it would be difficult to imagine anothe writer who has accomplished that tricky combination so seamlessly. Taken alone, each of his bodies of work would be enough to ensure him lasting significance in his field, but it can only be conjectured whether his stature in either would be nearly so imposing without the other. Regardless, the already inestimable value of the Nabokovian catalogue of fiction is enhanced that much more by the interdisciplinary lessons it holds for readers. Perhaps the more we engage this issue, the further we move from that curious schoolboy puzzling over the incandescent wings fluttering in his palm.


Works Cited

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991

Johnson, Kurt and Coates, Steve. Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 1999.

Levy, Alan. Vladimir Nabokov: The Velvet Butterfly. New York: The Permanent Press, 1984.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1955.
Speak, Memory. New York: Random House, 1967.
King, Queen, Knave. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
Laughter in the Dark. New York: Penguin, 1969.
“Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers. New York: Harcourt, 1980.
Strong Opinions (collection of interviews). New York: Vintage, 1990.
Nabokov’s Butterflies. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

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