Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art by Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson 2016
I found this book at the Harvard University’s Fine Arts Library, after it was recommended by Naomi Pierce, the Hessel Professor of Biology at Harvard and the Curator of the Lepidoptery Collection in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Bi9logy at the Harvard Mueum of Comparative Zoology. I had contacted Professor Pierce when I realized that one of the great authors of the last century, Vladimir Nabokov had been the curator of Lepidoptery at the MCZ and much of his collection of butterflies and moths, his notes, and his illustrations were housed there. Before visiting the collection, I read this book, without a doubt the most esoteric and arcane book I have ever read.
Clearly intended for the ultra-specialized expert in both butterfly morphology and evolution as well as the scientific work and literary output of Nabokov, the editors bring to life Vladimir Nabokov’s accomplishments as an amateur lepidopterist while making connections and parallels with his accomplishments as a great writer.
The book comprises the dense, tiny print 28 page introduction followed by 123 pages of black and white photographs of Nabokov’s drawings and notes from his studies of butterflies, followed by 62 color plates of Nabokov’s sketches of butterfly wings and genitalia, followed by 13 colored plates referenced in ten essays which are finally followed by a detailed chronology of Nabokov’s life, an exhaustive bibliography, and a list of the contributors. It is a tour de force, and an example of the incredible details that can be identified in science, in literature, and in an individual’s life if one is determined and focused.
There are really two stories entwined in this work. There is the novel-like life of Vladimir Nabokov, born in St. Petersburg, Russia on April 10, 1899, to a wealthy Tsarist family. After a childhood of luxury and exposure to nature, especially butterfly collecting on the family’s estate 60 miles out of St. Petersburg, The Nabokov family fled to Berlin with the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution. Schooled in Cambridge, England, Vladimir married a Jewish woman, Vera Slonim in 1925, had a son Dimitri in 1934, fled the Nazis to Paris in 1937, and emigrated to the US in 1940. There, while continuing to write poems, novels, and short stories, he initially found work in the American Museum of Natural History in NYC in the butterfly collection. Within a year he had moved to an apartment in Cambridge, MA on Craigie Street scarcely five blocks from our house. During his eight years in Cambridge, he taught literature at Wellesley and worked as the de facto curator of Lepidoptery at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Moving to Ithaca, NY in 1948 for a full time teaching job at Cornell, he published his famous novel, ‘Lolita’, to great controversy in France in 1955 and in the US in 1958. Its success enabled him to leave teaching and to devote himself full time to butterfly collecting and writing. He left Cornell for Europe in 1959 and two years later settled ‘permanently’ in the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland. He died in Lausanne in 1977 after publication of ‘Pale Fire’ (1962), ‘Speak, Memory’ (1966), ‘Ada’ (1969), ‘Transparent Things’ (1972), ‘Strong Opinions’ (1973), and ‘Look at the Harlequins’ (1974).
The second story is the primary focus of this book, the accomplishments of Nabokov the amateur scientist whose scrupulous attention to detail, capacious memory, and wide ranging imagination enabled him to make major contributions to lepidoptery despite having no formal training. What one essayist refers to as “deep refraction, i.e. to skate from a moment’s attentive encounter with pure physical detail, across the broad rink of reality and time, to arrive at the critical creative moment several removes away.” What a fantastic description of Nabokov’s capacity and approach as a scientist! This capacity enabled him to correctly identify several new species of the genus Lycaenidae, a group known as the Blues which most scientists had avoided due to the difficulty of distinguishing differences in wing color and pattern. Nabokov eschewed these surface markers and through his focus on the genitalia of the male butterfly, was able to advance the understanding of the speciation of this group as well as their evolution. Well before DNA technology enabled scientists to determine relationships between distant populations, Nabokov hypothesized the migration of these butterflies from Asia across the Bering Strait 12 million years ago to where they now have resided in Chile for the last 1 million years.
Nabokov’s theories about speciation, evolution, and migration were not taken seriously during his time and had almost disappeared from view when recent advances in DNA, large data computing, and taxonomy have proven that he was correct—a startling outcome for an amateur working with a simple microscope and specimens which he himself collected in Appalachia (the home of ‘Pale Fire’), Colorado and Utah (states across which Humbert Humbert would drive Lolita one day). As Professor Pierce in her essay in this book concluded: “Nabokov deemed his years in the MCZ ‘the most delightful and thrilling in all my adult life.’ We, in turn, have been deighted and thrilled to follow in his scientific footsteps and to find evidence of true scientific greatness dwelling in the cabinets, on the bookshelves, and, occasionally, in the quiet corners of the MCZ’s Lepidoptera room.”
I was privileged to be able to visit those cabinets, bookshelves, and corners when the Curator of Entomology at the Museum kindly gave me a personal tour of the Nabokov collection, several drawers filled with butterflies and moths that he had collected and mounted, his notes, and other odd personal effects. It was a thrill to see them up close and personal.
If you don’t know Nabokov’s writings, a treat awaits you. Read the short satire on academic life, ‘Pnin’, or the controversial but much lauded ‘Lolita’, or if you’re a chess player, you could start with ‘The Defense’. But my favorite of all is the strange, stunning, and incredibly creative ‘Pale Fire’. For more on that, read #3107.