“Lolita” and Nabokov’s other butterflies

Tags: Vladimir Nabokov , Culture, butterflies, Commentary, World, Russia
Feb 22, 2011 09:43 Moscow Time

Vladimir Nabokov. © Photo:

The research of British scientists has confirmed a hypothesis that butterflies migrate from Asia to North and South Americas across the Bering Strait, which had originally been put forward by… renowned writer Vladimir Nabokov. The report of the British Royal Academy about this notes Nabokov’s big role in studying this subject. 


Few people know that besides being a writer, Vladimir Nabokov was also a specialist in butterflies. These two passions seemed to go together throughout Nabokov’s life – he caught his first butterfly at the age of 6 and wrote his first story at 9. 


The director of the Nabokov museum in St. Petersburg Tatyana Ponomaryova says:


“Studying butterflies and, in general, studying natural history was in fashion in Russia at that time. One of our exhibits is the book “British Butterflies” by Edward Newman, which Nabokov read at the age of 8. The book includes several notes by Nabokov as a child, and he also colored in some pictures there. For Nabokov, butterflies were more than a hobby – he may be called a real professional. For seven years, he worked as the curator of the butterflies’ department in a biology museum in America. He wouldn’t have been given this job if not for his vast knowledge of this subject.”


Nabokov’s family left Russia after the 1917 revolution. At first they thought that it was just for a while, but it turned out to be for ever. Nabokov used to say that he wouldn’t have survived in Soviet Russia if he was a writer there, but he probably could have worked as an entomologist.


However, in emigration – first in Europe, then in America – Nabokov at first had to earn his living as an expert in butterflies, for, as a writer, he was not widely known until the comparatively late age of 55, when he wrote “Lolita”. 


Butterflies appear in Nabokov’s every novel. Some people have counted that in total, he mentions them 570 times. 


Over 20 species of butterflies have been named after Nabokov’s characters – like “Lolita”, “Ada” or “Mashenka”. The director of the Nabokov museum Tatyana Ponomaryova says:


“This is very touching – and this is probably the only case when butterflies were called not after real people, but after literary characters. There is also a butterfly named after Vladimir Nabokov himself – a very rare American species which he discovered.”


Nabokov didn’t give up his passion for butterflies even after becoming a renowned novelist. At the end of his life, he concieved an album of images of butterflies featuring pictures by artists from various epochs. This, Nabokov thought, would have helped to learn more about the evolution of the butterflies’ species. Unfortunately, he failed to publish this album.

Once, in another “hunt” for butterflies in Switzerland, where he lived out his last years, Nabokov slipped upon a steep mountain slope. This probably hastened his death in July 1977.

Nabokov’s collections of butterflies both of the American and the Swiss periods are around to this day. Tatyana Ponomaryova says:


“Our museum has a small part of Nabokov’s American collection, which has been presented to us by the Harvard museum. As for the Swiss collection, it is much bigger. The Lausanne museum has promised to bring this collection or a part of it to St. Petersburg for a temporary exhibition.”

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