Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004523, Tue, 26 Oct 1999 15:05:38 -0700

Cambridge MA: Zoland Books, 1999.

The Nabokov Centenary has seen a flood of new publications on the artist.
Most Nabokov admirers also are vaguely aware of his employment during the
forties at New York's American Museum of Natural History and later at
Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Nabokov's subsequent fame as a
writer so overshadowed public awareness of his scientific work that many,
including most professional lepidopterists, assumed that his butterfly
passion was little more than an eccentric aberration, a whimsical hobby,
if not merely "a photo op."

Nabokov, however, was a serious scientist who wrote nearly twenty articles
on Lepidoptera--four of them works of considerable taxonomic weight. His
specialty, "blues", are now known as the Polyommatini tribe, a part of the
lycaenid family. Among his more obscure papers was the 1945 "Notes on
Neotropical Plebejinae." Based on a small body of museum specimens, he
proposed a new scheme of genera for these poorly known South American
"blues" that differed markedly from the generally accepted scheme. The
paper gathered dust for nearly forty years before lepidopterist Kurt
Johnson uncovered it in connection with the discovery of new species in
the Domenican Republic and then throughout the Andes ofSouth America.
These new catches confirmed Nabokov's earlier proposal and the complex
became informally known as "NABOKOV'S BLUES." NABOKOV'S BLUES by Kurt
Johnson and New York Times journalist Steve Coates is the first
professional assessment of Nabokov's lepidopteral work and his role in the
history of the field--an assessment that only now is possible thanks to
the recent work by Kurt Johnson and his associates Zsolt Balint (Hungary)
and Dubi Benyamini (Israel). NABOKOV'S BLUES is a good deal more than an
"assessment." It is popular science writing at its best--a blend of
personalities, exotic places, science in the field and lab, and scientific
theory--from the nitty-gritty of metamorphosis to continental drift and
evolutionary biology. Over the last week or two NABOKV-L has been
conducting an e-mail interview with the authors.

NABOKV-L: Before getting to the book itself, it would be good to have a
bit about the two or you and some of the others who played parts in its
coming together. Kurt, I recall, for example, that you mentioned your
Hungarian colleague, Zsolt Balint, with whom you did many papers on
Nabokov's "blues," was, in addition to his scientific work, a
conservatory-trained cellist.

KURT: Yes,
Balint was an accomplished cellist, playing in some of the most
progressive string groups in Budapest before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
He also published papers in musicology. But he had always been a
butterfly enthusiast so he took up his formal training in science in
1991. He initially became an expert on Eurasian blues. Benyamini is an
engineer by trade but his avocation, lepidoptery, led him to be
President of the Israeli Lepidopterists' Society. His engineering
career included a five year residence in Chile and there he made an
important contribution to completing Nabokov's work. My own background
was quite different, although it also had a musical side; growing up in
Nebraska, I toured with professional rock groups, playing percussion,
later completing undergraduate school in Wisconsin. Then I spent 14
years in the religious life (5 of them in a monastery) but in an order
(Holy Cross) which allowed considerable academic activity. During that
time I completed two masters degrees and a PhD in biology and ended up
deciding that a more eastern view of things, along with science, probably
provided a more satisfactory world view. So, after 1980 I was at the
American Museum of Natural History for fifteen years as a Research
Associate, changing that affiliation to the Florida State Collection of
Arthropods in 1996.

STEVE: There's nothing obviously "Nabokovian"
in my background either. My academic training was in Latin, Greek and
ancient history, which I studied at several universities including
Harvard. (I have noticed at least two Latin typos in the Nabokov
literary corpus.) Since then I have worked as an editor in various
capacities at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, but I write
when a particular topic catches my fancy, mostly on literary, artistic or
historical topics.

NABOKV-L: Kurt, you mention that prior to your interest in the S.
American Blues, neither you nor Balint had read anything of N's apart from
LOLITA; not even his butterfly papers. Steve had also read PALE FIRE.
Can you recall how you came to read LO and its impact?

KURT: I had read Lolita as an undergraduate in the early 60's. It was one
of the "requisite" books of the "in-crowd" then at midwestern universities
(the others were Borges and Hesse and, on the psycho-spiritual side, Alan
Watts and Wallace Stevens). LOLITA did not really leave a lasting
impression, although Stevens did-a kind of "guide" though my monastic
years; oddly, although I was already publishing academic papers on
butterflies when I read LOLITA, I did not associate Nabokov with
butterflies at the time. As far as appreciating Nabokov's literature, It
was only much later, by my helping complete Nabokov's scientific studies
and then co-writing first "Nabokov as Lepidopterist" [in Nabokov Studies]
and then NABOKOV'S BLUES that I came into what I have described to Dmitri
Nabokov as Nabokov's "gravity belt". As I told Dmitri once, and its true,
when one starts delving into Nabokov there is a strange, almost
gravity-like, force that seems to take hold and just keeps pulling you in.
(Being more or less a reductionist I think that "gravity force" may come
from the breadth of impressions-- perhaps subconcious-- that Nabokov's
writings leave on ones' mind. There is something very compelling that
happens). Of course, as Nabokov's Blues notes, there were major
coincidences in my life that involved Nabokov-- first having the blues
expert Dr. John Downey as my major professor in my first MA program. As a
young man, Downey had met Nabokov in a canyon in Utah while working for
the forest service. He and Nabokov became friends and Downey continued on
to become an expertise on blues. Then, when I ended up at the American
Museum of Natural History, I ended up in the office Nabokov himself had
used and where his specimens were kept.

If I might insert one anecdote-- it may surprise literary people
how aware of literature many lepidopterists actually are. John Shuey,
whose "dancing with fire" ecological research on Nabokov's Karner Blue
has been a major contribution to that work, has read Pale Fire 14 times.
In my own case, as a by-product of my own flirtations with the humanities
I ended up the only close friend of the writer/publisher Norman Macleod
during an otherwise quite blank period in his life (Macleod was a pioneer
of the "little mags" and among the first editor/publishers of Ezra Pound
and William Carlos Williams) and our letters were later collected by
Norman Holmes Pearson for the Yale Collection of American Literature
since, for Macleod, the sixties were otherwise almost a complete blank. I
came down from Holy Cross's monastery at West Park, New York, when Macleod
received the John Crowe Ransom Award from the New School in New York City.
He showed me a congratulatory card he had received from Theodore Roethke
which said "Norman, I was so glad you hear you received this award; I
thought you were dead." So, sometimes the lines are not as rigid between
science and literature as people think.

Before meeting Kurt and writing an article on his research for the
science desk at The Times in 1997, I knew very little about Nabokov. I
had read "Lolita," of course -- to be honest, it didn't make much of an
impression on me -- and "Pale Fire," which I thought was absolutely
wonderful. I haven't read it 14 times, but I've read it quite a lot. I
suspect "Pale Fire" appeals more to people with graduate school
experience than to the broader reading public because of the commentary
form. But I knew practically nothing about Nabokov's biography beyond
the fact that he was a Russian-born professor with some kind of
interest in butterflies. I had also seen the famous Philippe Halsman
photograph. Nabokov apparently liked it, but because it seemed so posed,
I istakenly assumed that Nabokov's interest in lepidoptery must have
been something of a pose as well. As we mention in the book, that
picture irritates a lot of lepidopterists. If I may say, this
project did remind me of one aspect of my childhood that I had largely
forgotten. I grew up in rural western North Carolina, and a lot of the
boys in the neighborhood had fabulous, well-organized insect collections
and knew a great deal about entomology. As I grew older and came to
think of myself as more "sophisticated," I dismissed the whole thing as
an unhip, rustic pursuit, but this of course was exactly what Nabokov
was doing at the turn of the century. He believed that an interest in
natural science was part of a healthy character.

NABOKV-L. What was VN's major contribution to lepidoptery?

KURT. This becomes a big story after our book because
there is far more to his story in science than anyone ever imagined;
even we were surprised. If you wanted to sum it up briefly, you would
say that in his early publications on blues of the northern hemisphere
Nabokov achieved a high level of expertise, pioneering in fact, in
butterfly anatomy. This gave him an uncanny "eye" not only for new
species, but breakthrough insights in the evolutionary relationships of
blues worldwide. Thus, when he decided in 1945 to apply this expertise
to the vast, and then mostly unknown, blues of Latin America, he took a
place in entomological history. This was not only because of his
expertise, and the fact that the accuracy of his work stood the test of
time, but because the breadth of the groups he pioneered ended up being
extremely important to big scientific questions. These questions include
the age and origin of the cold-climate inhabitants of South
America-those that inhabit the vast areas of the Andes mountains and
Patagonia. The origin of the plants and animals of these regions, so
different from their tropical counterparts in the lowlands, have long
been a mystery to science. With the discovery of continental drift and
the very ancient connection of South America to Africa, Australia,
India and other southern areas of the world, the Blues of the cold
areas of South America became one of the major data sets around which
scientists could investigate and debate these questions. Since Nabokov
is the grand- or godfather to all these blues it is quite a legacy. The
story that NABOKOV'S BLUES opens up in this centennial year (and the
forthcoming NABOKOV'S BUTTERFLIES -- edited by Brian Boyd and Robert
Michael Pyle -- as well) is this whole new arena regarding Nabokov--the
importance of his scientific contribution AS SCIENCE, quite apart from
his celebrity in literature.


NABOKV-L. Unless I am mistaken, your title, NABOKOV'S BLUES, is a pun.

STEVE. "NABOKOV'S BLUES" was the working title of the book from the very
beginning. At first, we used the phrase in its lepidopterological sense
without any notion of its being a pun. It's an extension of a familiar way
to call a butterfly after its discoverer or some other
person, like Reakirt's Blue or Schaus' Swallowtail. But to some degree
at least, Nabokov seems to have regretted that his formal
lepidopterological career was so completely eclipsed by literature. And
it's a pity that the importance of his work on South American blues
wasn't recognized in his own lifetime -- he probably didn't realize it
himself. So to that extent, the pun turned out to be apt. But on
the book jacket, along with the title, there's another sort of insider's
reference, if you want to call it that: I actually felt an unexpected
chill when I first saw the cover art design --- two blue butterflies
without their abdomens, which have been removed and dissected. Not many
people realize that certain specimens are dissected and mounted in that
way. Though the illustrations weren't of butterflies that Nabokov himself
had dissected, they said to me, "Nabokov was here": that is to say, a
serious scientist was here, not a "stamp collector." ("Stamp collector"
is a professional lepidopterist's dismissive term for someone who
collects butterflies merely to fill up empty spots in an album or
cabinet, as an actual stamp collector might. )

NABOKV-L. Why do you think lepidoptery held such fascination for VN. And
or you?

KURT. Of course, as many have said, the connection
came in his early youth and this typifies the background of so many
dedicated scientists. For Nabokov, as with many, fascination with the
big picture books of butterflies as a young child grew to concerted
collecting as a youngster. As with many scientists, these impressions
of youth become a driving life force. One sees this appreciation of the
"grandeur" of scientific endeavor in Nabokov's imaginings within The
GIFT's fascination with explorer naturalists and exotic places. As a
youth, Nabokov had planned an expedition to central Asia, only to have
it torpedoed by the Russian Revolution. As it turned out, although
Nabokov was a dedicated field collector in all the northern regions
where he later lived, circumstances never allowed him to venture
farther afield. Yet, the hot-houses of both of Asia and Latin America
appear in his literary works and these contain vividly imagined
tropical images intertwined not only with his substantial scientific
knowledge but a sense of the grandeur of scientific achievement. In
hindsight it is ironic that, after all this, Nabokov himself DOES end
up with a great share of scientific fame in tropical biology. He said
during his own lifetime that his writings in The GIFT perhaps
foreshadowed his own destiny. This prediction appears even truer
today-- when the importance of his pioneer works on the Latin American
blues can be seen in clearer perspective. Most important to this
perspective is that Nabokov gains a share of scientific fame not simply
as sidelight to his literary celebrity but for the science itself. This
is the important new message in NABOKOV'S BLUES.

STEVE: We suggest in the book that lepidoptery was one of the strands
that gave continuity to the different periods of his life.


NABOKV-L One of the chapters in NABOKOV'S BLUES is "The Race to Name
Nabokov's Blues." Could you tell us how your practice of naming new S.A.
Blues after VN characters and such came into being?

It was actually a desire to honor the fact that Latin American Blues were
really Nabokov's entomological "territory" and because his writing could
also be such a rich source of names. However, Warren Whitaker's
volunteering to suggest appropriate names was a key since Balint,
Benjamini, Lamas, and I were so busy with the scientific work we doubted
if we had to time to properly research the "etymologies" (that is, the
explanations of the names) that the nomenclatorial Code required.
Whitaker's willlingness to do this, and later various scholars of
Nabokov's literature as well, was key to this actually happening. And,
its an ongoing thing. The name "fyodor", suggested by Zoran Kuzmanovich,
is in the works right now for a new Tibetan blue, from the same areas
that Nabokov described in The GIFT. There are numerous examples in
NABOKOV'S BLUES where coincidences of coloration, geographic location,
or circumstances of discovery, led to eventual decisions about
Nabokovian names. Lolita's Blue (Madeleinea lolita) was named from one
of the most enigmatic of the newly discovered blues, not only a blue of
unsure status (that is, to what genus it actually belonged) but the
fact that it looked somewhat mysteriously like a hairstreak and,
because of this uniqueness, had been moved back and forth between
the London's British Museum and the rural Tring Castle as biologists
hustled material about to protect it from the German blitz. This
enigmatic blue got the nod as "Lolita." Humbert (Pseudolucia humbert)
came later in our studies, a rather brusque-looking butterfly from far
enough "out" in Patagonia as to be considered quite a rogue I guess.
But, as the book says, we took the odd precaution, mostly as matter of
humor, to place the species "humbert" in a different genus as well as
nearly a thousand miles from where M. lolita might ever be found
roaming. It was our humorous insurance that, for them, no "mating"
would ever occur! But there are other, quite tender, names-- in fact,
the one proposed by you, tamara (Pseudolucia tamara), and written with
such a moving etymological comment (which we quote in the book itself).
By the way, it is Pseudolucia zina that is on the front cover
of NABOKOV'S BLUES (suggested by Stephen Jan Parker) and, on the back
cover, in order from left, P. aureliana (after "The Aurelian"), P.
hazeorum (after Charlotte and Delores [Lolita] Haze), and P. vera
(named for Nabokov's wife, and perhaps the smallest butterfly in the

NABOKV-L Chapter XII, "Literature and Lepidoptery" will be of greatest
interest to most Nabokovian as it contains a survey of the use of
butterflies in VN's fiction with insightful comments on the ways VN used
them. Could you comment on VN's warning to Appel and Proffer to stay away
from his fictional butterflies?

STEVE. One of the
biggest dangers of "interpreting" Nabokov's literature through his
butterflies is simply getting the lepidopterological facts wrong, which
leaves the interpreter looking silly. In "The GIFT," Fyodor the
lepidopterist-narrator tells how he and his father used to laugh at
absurd errors in descriptions of nature in the works of "great"
writers. Nabokov warned Alfred Appel Jr. ("The Annotated Lolita") to be
cautious in speaking of lepidoptery, "a tricky subject," for just that
reason. Beyond that, there is the line between interpretation and
overinterpretation, which is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. In a
famous case, Nabokov hated Diana Butler's article "Lolita Lepidoptera,"
which identified Lolita with a butterfly and equated Nabokov's passion for
butterflies with Humbert Humbert's passion for nymphets. For one thing,
she overestimated the importance of one specific butterfly, Lycaeides
sublivens, in Nabokov's career. But we suspect the reason for Nabokov's
ire wasn't "overinterpretation" as such but what he took to be the
patronizing Freudian underpinnings of the article and its presumption of
trying to peer, somewhat unflatteringly, into his psyche. This
unfortunately common approach to butterflies is one reason we think
Nabokov was sometimes reluctant to talk about Lepidoptera with

NABOKV-L. Coming to the NABOKOV BLUES project as a journalist and, in that
sense, coming into it quite "cold" (except for the 1997 Times article)
what would sum up as the most important things you learned, or
perspectives you gained from having gone from "outsider" to "insider" re
knowledge of Nabokov.

STEVE. This was a three-part learning experience for me. There is
the literature of course. It would be a pity not to have read SPEAK,
MEMORY and THE GIFT in particular. Also, Nabokov's was a wonderful
20th-century life, lived in some unexpected, marvelous places.
Prerevolutionary Russia, the Russian diaspora: exotic locales indeed.
Aside from SPEAK, MEMORY, it would be wrong to call Nabokov an
"autobiographical" writer, but his creative work reflects his life in very
satisfying ways. In broad terms, too, those aspects of Nabokov's life
that we suggest recall the classic fairy-tale motif (the violent death
of a father, great wealth lost and then won again after years of
struggle) touch deep chords. One of the pleasures of writing the book
was the opportunity to outline Nabokov's history (we emphasize the
lepidoptery, of course) in a chapter-size format, something I don't
recall seeing elsewhere; the usual magazine thumbnail sketches can't do
him justice. This probably goes without saying, but anyone interested
in Nabokov owes a huge debt to Brian Boyd --as we say in our
introduction, significant parts of "NABOKOV'S BLUES" couldn't have
been written without his work.
Equally gratifying, though, was
what I learned about butterflies and the world of lepidoptery. It is an
absolutely fascinating subject. ("Nabokov's Blues" strives to be as
much about lepidoptery as about Nabokov, something I believe Nabokov
would have appreciated.) There are good reasons it enthralled Nabokov.
And not just the science per se; he had deep respect for the history of
lepidoptery and all its lore, as is clear from Part 2 of THE GIFT. This
is why the inclination of most people to see Nabokov's interest in
lepidoptery as a mere hobby or eccentricity, something to be explained
only by some psychological connection to literature, is so wrongheaded.
It's a misconception we hope NABOKOV'S BLUES will help to dispel.

NABOKV-L: NABOKov's BLUES is a beautifully conceptualized work. How did
the two of you work out its organization and development?

STEVE: Thank you for your kind assessment. The main challenge was to
integrate all the many strands -- biography, science, literature,
exploration. It would be easy to get lost in any of these to the detriment
of the others. But one of our goals was to try to convey how many
associations are involved in Nabokov's lepidoptery, how it was anchored in
a rich past and has repercussions in the present. And in addition to
Nabokov himself, there were several purely human elements involved, like
the unexpected competition to name Nabokov's blues and the dedication of
Kurt and his colleagues, many of whom make a living outside of
lepidoptery. In 1956, Nabokov was discussing the possibility of writing a
butterfly book for Doubleday, and he wrote that he thought he could
"achieve a perfect blend of science, art and entertainment." The book was
never written, and Nabokov would obviously have done a far more impressive
job than we did, but that phrase stuck in our minds as an ideal to strive
for -- the charm is inherent in the material if one is inclined to find
it. On a more practical level, some of the sections we conceived as
chapters from the beginning -- Nabokov's biography, lepidoptera in
literature, and certain of the journeys of exploration involved in
completing the Latin American project -- while others fell into place as
we worked on them. Our editor at Zoland, Steve Hull, had the idea of
dividing the book into three larger sections, which sounds rudimentary
but turned out to be a big help for getting all the material to

What have journalists historically brought to the telling of Nabokov's
legacy to the public (postive and negative) and what does their kind of
perspective and training allow them to bring to bear in a book like
NABOKOV's BLUES -- is there a unique perspective a journalist has, etc.?

STEVE. In NABOKOV'S BLUES we suggest that journalists missed
opportunities to explore Nabokov's ideas about the connection between
lepidoptery and literature, or lepidoptery and life. In interviews, many
seem to have prepared a somewhat de rigueur question about the
butterflies, but were seldom able to follow them up in any informed
way. But it's hard to blame them much for this: few of the journalists
who were drawn to Nabokov because of his literature, or even just his
celebrity, could have been expected to know anything about lepidoptery.
It was by and large simply something that puzzled most people,
journalists among them. Also, remember that subsequent journalists
who have touched on Nabokov's lepidopterological career -- on Nabokov's
competence, for example -- have been for the most part dependent on the
evaluations of others. And until Kurt Johnson and his co-workers
substantially completed Nabokov's most important project, no one, not
even other lepidopterists, were really in a position to evaluate
Nabokov's legacy. And some of the most widely disseminated comments on
Nabokov's scientific career were made by people who weren't even
lepidopterists themselves, let alone experts on Blue butterflies.
On the other hand, most journalists have an instinct for the human
elements of a story that make it worthwhile for many readers -- and we
really did write NABOKOV"S BLUES for general readers, not specifically for
scientists or literary scholars.

NABOKV-L. I might add here that
your remarks apply equally well to scholars.
NABOKV-L. What lessons, if any, do you see for Nabokov scholars as a
result of your investigation of VN as a scientist? Readers of NABOKOV'S
BLUES will notice immediately that a great deal of the information in the
book is new-- simply because the story of Nabokov's science is being told
in great detail for the first time.

KURT. One thing we noticed in doing this book is that in
the future with these two arenas science and literature, Nabokov's
prowess in science means there will need to be a lot more care about
"context", that is, the context in which he makes this or that comment
about science. For instance, as we noted, people have taken comments
Nabokov made about biological mimicry in a literary context and held them
up as representing his opinions in science, when study of his science
shows that, in that context, he did not take the same liberties in his
comments and was much more careful (and scientificly studied) about his
response. Another important example is Nabokov's tendency in his
literature to paint grand portraits which, in turn, allude to a designer
or Creator. This led many scientists, who knew nothing in depth about his
science OR literature, to dismiss him as a "vitalist" (or one who believes
in "creation by design"), with no appreciation of the mechanistic
methodologies required by scientific endeavor. Again, we warn, one
cannot take these literary motifs as statements about Nabokov's science.
We have shown, and I think for the first time, that in his scientific
works Nabokov takes a very different stance from vitalism, one that is
purely scientific. Indeed, we reach into the discussion and commentary
sections of his scientific papers and find compelling examples of
theoretical thinking that is purely scientific and at a high level at
that. The publication of many of Nabokov's previously unpublished works
and notes on science in 2000 will reinforce this view. Thus, we stress
is that Nabokov's intended audience must always be considered when one is
picking out soundbites or short quotes and one must temper and discipline
temptations to hold any such examples up as generalizing this or that
about Nabokov's overall worldview. A good example of the confusion that
reigns regarding this kind of this is the rather odd review of Nabokov's
Blues by Jonathon Keats in the San Francisco Chronicle, a reviewer who
seems to say that we could have made it all simpler by just concluding
that Nabokov was a scientific genius because he was a literary genius.
First of all, that thesis would hardly have "flown" as a book concept; its
rather akin to saying that Michael Jordan should have been a first team
baseball player because he was a great basketball star. Also, although Mr.
Keats may be right that there are inter-relationships between Nabokov's
literary and scientific "genius", it somewhat hard to know how one would
approach that topic objectively.

However, regarding this whole matter, because there is a shortage of
Nabokov's scientific writing, and so much allusion to science in his
literature, we also see a problem. A good example is the forthcoming
publication of DAR II (the additional chapter to The GIFT) which is,
really, a literary piece. The problem of context is going to make the
treatment of DAR II very difficult. In DAR II, Nabokov says some
extremely, almost uncannily insightful things about science-- things that
sound that this or that theory that others in science made famous decades
later. Thus, there is a paradox. One has to be careful about banging the
drum on the positive instances, saying, "here's an example of his
scientific genius" but, at the same time claiming Nabokov should be left
off the hook for "snafus" with the excuse "Oh, but that was just said in a
literary context". Regarding future claims concerning Nabokov's science,
this problem is going to make for some thorny thickets.

NABOKV-L. Do you think the in depth researching of Nabokov's science has
opened up any new doors regarding Nabokov scholarship overall? KURT. The
volume of new information in the book may well open many new doors. There
are really two arenas that I see coming into play, and one of them has
been barely touched to date except in our book and in the forthcoming one
edited by Brian Boyd and Robert Pyle. The one arena concerns Nabokov's
prowess within science itself. Let me talk about this one first. There
are aspects of sophistication in Nabokov's science, reviewed in our final
chapter "Darwin's Finches-- NABOKOV'S BLUES" which come strictly from our
thorough review of the discussion and other commentary-like sections of
his published scientific papers. Interestingly, however, the conclusions
we draw from this in-depth review are heightened by the additional
materials that will appear with the publication of DAR II, the notes
Nabokov prepared for his speeches to the Harvard's Entomological Club, and
so on, in the Boyd/Pyle book. Reading the new DAR II I have wondered
myself who will come into this discussion. The level and implications of
many things Nabokov was thinking about are sometimes beyond me, a capable
systematist [the biological field involving classification and its overall
relationships with evolution and biogeography], and may well require the
input of people like Stephen Jay Gould and others who are extremely
well-read in theoretical and historical aspects of science. I think, given
the contacts leading up to Stephen Jay Gould's endorsement on our book
jacket, there is a good chance Gould might enter this discussion.
Certainly people at that level need to. There are areas here that are
just beyond even the most capable systematist.

The second arena, of course, is the traditional one with which literary
scholars are more familiar, that is, matters of the more direct
relationship of scientific information to Nabokov's literature-- butterfly
images, metaphors, questions of symbolism etc. This arena has, up until
now, been pretty much the "whole enchilada" but that may change now and
add this other one. Many people didn't expect a new arena like this to
open up, because they didn't expect such a breadth to Nabokov's science.
So, it should be extremely interesting.

NABOKV-L. Tell us a little more about the demands this might place on
Nabokov scholarship.

KURT. A case in point is my observation of Brian Boyd's learning curve as
he developed text for the forthcoming Nabokov's Butterflies. We spent many
hours talking and many hours over the email. It was clear that a kind of
scholarship was developing where someone had to have a foot in both
worlds-- the literary scholar might well have to become quite informed
about science. That appears much more realistic I think (that is, informed
literary scholars inculcating the science needed for probing many of these
new questions) than the other way around. The most capable scientist
couldn't hope to catch up from the other end. I think Steve Coates and I
did a satisfactory job of discussing (in sometimes an original way as
scientist and journalist) what we thought were interesting and priority
points regarding Nabokov's literature and butterflies (for our chapter
"Literature and Lepidoptera") but this was really a survey of sorts. We
were asking ourselves what the public really needed to hear to appreciate
the broad spectrum of this relationship. There wasn't necessarily anything
new to our presentation, except perhaps slants or emphases.

STEVE: I think that's fair to say. There's much more to be said about
Lepidoptera in Nabokov's literature than we have; we tried to present a
manageable small-scale overall picture rather than exploring specific
examples in great depth; our literature chapter is a good old-fashioned
essay, really. But as far as I know, nothing so basic had ever been done
before. And of course we tried to give an idea of what that aspect of
Nabokov's work looks like from the point of view of a lepidopterist. We
should also say that our treatment of lepidoptery in Nabokov's literature
doesn't have an interpretational ax to grind. We try to give a clear
picture of how intentionally varied in extent, purpose and tone Nabokov's
use of lepidoptery was. (In this, he is consciously fighting the grizzled
literary convention that an interest in lepidoptery has overwhelmingly
sinister undertones -- "The Collector," "The Silence of the Lambs," etc.)
In taking this path of the concrete, we've mostly left literary criticism
to others. For example, our favorite Nabokovian use of lepidoptery is
Part 2 of "The GIFT." That is far less a vehicle for "interpretation" than
it is a stirring tale of adventure and filial devotion told in amazingly
brilliant and powerful prose. It is clearly a reflection of Nabokov's
admiration for the larger-than-life adventurer-explorers who laid the
groundwork for modern lepidoptery.

This is also a good place to add that the whole exercise would have been
much harder without Dieter Zimmer's compilation of lepidopterological
references in Nabokov. And later, Brian Boyd generously allowed us to see
an early version of the book he is editing with Dmitri Nabokov and Robert
Pyle, "Nabokov's Butterflies," which includes a compilation of Nabokov's
butterfly references across the entire spectrum of his writing.

NABOKV-L. Returning to the areas of scholarship opened up by these recent
inquiries into Nabokov's science, are there any changes you see for even
the traditional type of inquiry scholars have pursued concerning the
relationship of Nabokov's literature and his science?

KURT. I think we showed there was almost a new oneccropping up toward the
end of our chapter "Literature and Lepidoptera" (and there were other
examples like those we used that we did not include in the book). What I
refer to is our deciphering of origins of localities in The GIFT. It had
not been appreciated previously that localities like Tatsienlu came
directly from labels that are quite famous among the old specimens in 19th
Century European collections. Our pointing out that some of those
localities have odd histories themselves, even ones that caused Nabokov to
misplace them geographically, was a surprise even to us. The fact the we
came across this information accidentally-- simply because I was familiar
with the histories behind many of these localities from my own work on
those old collections-- suggests there must be many more hidden meanings
or stories behind these and other details in Nabokov's works. In summary,
the new appreciation of Nabokov's science greatly broadens the traditional
line of research scholars have done on butterflies in Nabokov's literature
while opening up another, more purely scientific one, at the same time. I
must admit that, if I, simply as an experienced lepidopterists deeply
familiar with Nabokov's work on blues saw a lot of these new "connections"
the same would have to be true for other specialists-- those in moths and
other groups of butterflies (not just blues) where Nabokov was also well
versed and to which he also made voluminous reference in his works. It may
well be that entomologists from a number of persuasions, who all happen to
be somewhat Nabokov literate (if that's possible), need to sit down and
have discussions opening up some of these doors. As Steve Coates noted to
me in our discussions while doing the book, really all the work previously
connecting butterflies within Nabokov's literature was done by
non-lepidopterists. So, they were all handicapped to some degree.

NABOKV-L. You've mentioned things in NABOKOV'S BLUES that you think are
new to the world of literature. Are there also any for science?

KURT. Surprisingly there are many. I think, and I've seen it
already from the scientific readers of the book who have gotten advance
copies, that scientists too did not realize how big a story there was
behind Nabokov's science. The evolutionary and biogeographic implications
of the groups he pioneered are huge-- what we called in the book "big
science". I see many systematists reading this book now who are saying
"Wow, I didn't realize there was such a depth to this story". To be
truthful, I was aware of some of this before, but some of it also became
new to me as we flushed out material for the book. Neither Zsolt Balint
nor I had really looked at all this material in the depth that was
required for doing the book itself, so there were lots of surprises.
Nabokov now becomes a bigger figure for science, and also a bigger
ambassador for Lepidoptery than scientists themselves ever imagined.
NABOKV-L. Can you elaborate just a little more about these new aspects of
the science itself?

KURT. Again, there are two major areanas. The first is the implications of
Nabokov's groups to major questions of evolution and biogeography. The
second is the implication of his groups to the biodiversity crisis and the
ecological threats to parts of the world where he did pioneer work. They
are two stories, the latter one quite poignant, which draw in very
different groups of scientists and laypersons. The latter one brings in
the environmental community. Our demonstrating that the complexity of the
ecological lessons facing Nabokov's Karner Blue (a blue on the U.S.
Endangered Species List) are mirrored in a large number of his South
American blues opens up many new doors. In fact, to develop this point, I
have just written a separate piece for the Lepidoptera News entitled
"Vladimir Nabokov's Tropical Lepidoptery-- A Window on the Past, a Warning
About the Future". Its message is that as much as Nabokov's career is an
icon of the passing of science from one "age" (that of the traditional
aristocrat naturalist) to another (that of modern specialized science),
his blues are an icon of the biodiversity crisis in that they are just
becoming known at the same time they are being documented as widely
endangered. This is typical of many organisms just becoming know,
especially in the tropical areas of the world, which are deteriorating so
NABOKV-L. I can't resist offering up for your inspection one of my own
butterfly notes based on a passage you quote about VN's "first butterfly":
"On the honeysuckle, overhanging the carved back of a bench..., my guiding
angel (whose wings, except for the absence of a Florentine limbus,
resemble those of Fra Angelico's Gabriel) pointed out to me a rare
visitor, a splendid, pale- yellow creature...and my desire for it was one
of the most intense I have ever experienced." VN describes the scene by
reference to Fra Angelico's "The Annunciation" (ca. 1400). Notice the
implicit equation here. Gabriel:Mary::Swallowtail:VN. The "Annunciation"

KURT: To be honest, you're a step ahead of us on this one. We chose it
because of what was obviously described but missed completely the extra
depths your comments now bring up. They are quite obvious, now that you
mention it. This was an "annuciation" event for Nabokov--the announcing to
him of what would become a lifelong passion. AND, it is wrapped in
metamorphic garb as well! You have, in the metamorphosis-- that kind of
birth-- first egg, larvae, pupae and then the high flying butterfly. I
guess the latter can be quite imagined as what Lepidoptery became for
Nabokov himself. As Dmitri Nabokov often says --"Bravo!".

STEVE: I think the reference to the Annunciation, or at least AN
annunciation, is clearly there, as well as many of its associations:
divine mystery, revelation, new beginnings. I suspect that Nabokov, as so
often, meant this completely seriously on one level, but on another had
tongue firmly in cheek, almost poking fun at himself and inviting the
reader to do the same. The tension between the two points of view is
typical of much of Nabokov's attitude toward butterflies in his
literature, particularly SPEAK, MEMORY

NABOKV-L: In sum, what would you say is the chief aim of your book?

In retrospect what we were trying to accomplish with NABOKOV'S BLUES was
make people aware that understanding Nabokov's science is one of the
fundmamentals for comprehending his total persona. The science is not just
a backwater or a sidelight. We were aware that this story had not been
fully told and we were also surprised by how much there was to tell. In
the end, two aspects concerning science in Nabokov's life are fundamental.
First, it is important that there be a comprehension of his scientific
activities and their significance. Secondly, it must be realized that the
stories surrounding his activities in science constitute a major part of
his biography. Much has been written Nabokov's associations and
relationships within the literary community. In contrast, hardly anything
had been recorded about his associations within the scientific community.
Informed literary readers of NABOKOV'S BLUES will discover a long new list
of Nabokov contemporaries-- Mssrs. Brown, Clench, Comstock, dos Passos
[Cyril, a cousin of literatures' John], Downey, Forster, Mayr, Remington,
Riley, Stempffer, Tite and many more...all names extremely familiar to the
history of lepidoptery but virtually unknown to the literary community."

If indeed this brings us to the end of the interview, we would like to
deeply thank D. Barton Johnson for suggesting the importance of this
"chat", especially in the midst of a tremendously busy fall schedule.
We hope it has been of interest to subscribers to NABOKV-L.
NABOKV-L: Kurt, Steve...I thank you.

EDITOR's NOTE. Should you have questions, please send them to NABOKV-L for
relay to Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates.