Nabokov’s Butterflies

by wjw on July 22, 2017

IMG_4484At one point in my life, the author and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov was my primary literary god.  He’s still a major influence, for all that I don’t write anything like him.

There is a museum devoted to him in St. Petersburg, in his family’s old mansion.   (You can’t really describe it as “his” house, since he fled St. Petersburg in 1917, when he was a mere student.)

The museum is free, which is good because there’s not a lot in it.  There are editions of his books, and old family photographs, and a photo of every house he lived in during his entire life, mostly in Ithaca, N.Y.  There’s his butterfly net in a case.  There are cases of butterflies, though it’s unclear whether these were butterflies caught by Nabokov personally, and there’s his Scrabble board (with “Ardis” set up ready to play), and a chess set with one of Nabokov’s problems fixed on the board.

There is a little blue butterfly that he discovered in Albany, which is now endangered (like all such blue butterflies) by climate change.

And there are also the butterflies that he invented.  If you were a close friend, or a relative, or were his wife, he’d get out colored pencils or watercolors and inscribe a butterfly on the title page of one of his books, complete with a plausible Latin taxonomy.

These were imaginary butterflies that don’t exist in the real world, though if you’re a lepidopterist you’ll recognize the genus, if not the species.

Vladimir Nabokov, his head full of poems, fictions, chess problems, and invented butterflies.  A singular species, if not quite imaginary.

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