Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004594, Sun, 21 Nov 1999 20:38:16 -0800

Review of reviews of NABOKOV's BLUES by Kurt Johnson & Steve
EDITOR's NOTE. This book is fascinating from the the viewpoints both
of the natural history buff or Nabokov reader. Oddly it has taken longer
for Nabokov's virtues as a scientist to be properly appreciated than as a
writer of fiction. The same intuition about patterning that characterizes
his fiction enabled him to describe the categories and relations among
the "South Blues."

Nabokov's Blues-Its Own Odyssey to Date in the World of Reviews

There has been considerable interest in how Nabokov's Blues has fared it the
unpredictable world of reviews. Since it is virtually impossible for the
average reader to track this ongoing "where and when" NABOKV-L asked Kurt
Johnson for some samples. Kurt included in the following samples mostly
selected "soundbites" from the "pithier" sections of reviews (which usually
followed general description of the book). Kurt also quotes certain
descriptive sections when they illlustrate different "tacks" reviewers have
taken in describing the book and he brackets some quotations which may be of
controversial interest to readers on NABOKV-L. The entries begin with
November and move backward [some indication of the size and placement of the
original review is also provided].


The New Yorker- [2nd review in a column under "Briefly Noted"]. [After
description of book] "This insidiously charming book teaches readers about
the place of lepidoptery in the life sciences and the kinds of questions
that natural scientists seek to answer. Whether it belongs to the
literature of science or simply to literature is uncertain, but, like
Nabokov himself, this volume exemplifies some of the virtures shared by art
and science: wit, intelligence, and, above all, meticulousness."
[November 15]

Amazon.com, by Rob Lightner-- [at the book's entry site] "Nabokov brought
the same gentle sensibility to his scientific work that he used in his
writing and teaching careers, and the authors have found great new depths to
the man that an army of biographers had failed to excavate. Entomology buffs
will find much to love in Nabokov's Blues, with collecting trips into the
field and anatomical detective work taking the forefront. Literati seeking
new insights into the man's life will also be pleased to find his story told
from a new perspective, focusing more on his exacting research than his
tumultuous personal life. Nabokov's life reflects 20th-century biology as
well as literature; he involved himself in many of the great debates of his
time from his vantage points at Cornell and Harvard (where he held a post at
the Museum of Comparative Zoology). His contributions to our thinking about
speciation, some of which have only come to light recently, are clear-headed
and invaluable. The authors know Nabokov's life well and are eager to share
this side of it with us; while he will always be better known for his
literary work, Nabokov's Blues throws light into the shadows cast by his
great stature." [November 8]

Cleveland Plain Dealer, by Jean DuBail- [top of book page]. "This book
contains everything a true Nabokovian would want to know about his
scientific life, and possibly a good deal more.. Not until the 1980's and
'90's , when the blues became the focus of intense scientific interest was
the value of [Nabokov's scientific] writings fully appreciated.. Johnson
and co-author Coates, an editor at The New York Times, have done ample
justice to Nabokov in recounting this posthumous scientific rehabilitiation.
[NABOKOV-L readers may find these two comments by DuBail also of
controversial interest: "Nabokov himself was not one for accumulating
excessive detail; it is unfortunate that Johnson and Coates did not profit
from his example"]. [November 18]


The Boston Globe by Chet Raymo- [cover story for book section] "In Nabokov
's Blues, lepidopterist Kurt Johnson and journalist Steve Coates make the
case for the importance of Nabokov's science, not by merely reviewing the
history and subsequent fate of Nabokov's entomological studies, but also by
recounting the completion of a project begun by Nabokov in a 1945 paper
called "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae". .Nabokov's Blues is more than the
"lepping" adventurs of Johnson and his colleagues.it is also a tour of
Nabokov's life and literature, a treatise on the doing of natural science,
and a compendium of wonderful personalities both human and lepidopteran.
The playful spirit of Vladimir Nabokov haunts every page, even when the
topic of discussion is something as esoteric as taxonomy, codes of
nomenclature, paleogeography, or allopatric speciation.. This is a grand
book: erudite, generous, and wise. It is written with a grace and
intelligence worthy of its eponymous subject." [October 24]

The Seattle Times by Clarence Brown-- [already run in full on NABOKV-L]

Booklist (American Library Association) [starred review], by Brian Kenny--
Many of us have tucked away in our memories an image of an older Vladimir
Nabokov, net in hand, face locked in concentration, stalking an insect. Yes,
we seem to recall, Nabokov, that mysterious and most elusive of writers, did
indeed collect butterflies. But what really was this all about? Johnson, an
established scientist, and Coates, an editor at the New York Times, have
investigated both the role that lepidopterology played in Nabokov's life as
well as Nabokov's contributions to science. . Literature and
lepidopterology are presented as competing loves for Nabokov; and according
to the authors, there "are scientists who genuinely view him as someone who
was distracted from a promising career in entomology by his penchant for
telling stories." .it wasn't until an eight-year study in the 1990s that
Nabokov's work could be corroborated and his reputation as a scientist
firmly established. Although all this may seem highly specialized, it is an
insightful and lively look at science in a life and an extraordinary life,
in part, in science". [October 1]

Library Journal by Ronald Ratliff-- "[This new book] will only enhance
interest in Nabokov for some time to come. .one need not read any of
Nabokov's work to prepare for Johnson and Coates' Nabokov's Blues..[then
description of book]. They succeed in presenting both a biographical and
scientific study that brings new understanding to both Nabokov's writingf
and his place in science. [This book and Boyd's Nabokov's Pale Fire] should
keep the most ardent Nabokov reader busy for some time. Recommended".
[October 14]

San Francisco Chronicle by Jonathon Keats-- [book section]. "Nabokov
would have appreciated the treatment he's given by Johnson and
oates. .only now that Johnson has put Nabokov's scientific work in lay
terms, an accomplishment in its own right, can we see how the writer
approached his science with a distinctively novelistic mind." [NABOKV-L
readers may find some controversial interest in these comments, however]:
"If only Johnson and Coates didn't make the same mistake Nabokov did,
separating his science from his literature..Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae
was a work of genius. Literary genius." [October 17].


Publishers' Weekly [starred review]--- ."The new Blues, the story of their
discovery and the meaning and relevance of Nabokov's scientific studies give
Johnson and New York Times writer Coates some of the subject for the
hard-to-classify book, a rarely attempted sort of hybrid that crosses
informed science writing with literary biography. .On the science side,
Johnson and Coates cover the place of butterfly studies in Nabokov's life,
the contentious history of butterfly and moth taxonomy.and the use of
butterflies in larger debates on ecology and evolution. Literarily, they
discuss the meaning of butterflies and morths in Nabokov's writings and show
that specialist knowledge of lepidopterology enriches the irones and punch
lines [in Nabokov's writings]. Readers with a taste for science and
literature will love this book, which is both entertaining and
polymathically informative-rather like the English/Russian,
naturalist/novelist, scholar/artist Nabokov himself. [Sepember 6]

Stephen Jay Gould [on book jacket]-- "If Vladimir Nabokov has never written
a line fiction, he would have an honored reputation as a naturalist, and an
expert on a large group of butterflies known as Blues. He loved his
butterflies as passionately as his literature and both pursuits built the
fullness of his life. Johnson and Coates's biological expertise and keen
understanding of Nabokov's work allow us to integrate and understand one of
the great figures of twentieth-century art-- can science." [July 1999]
[This jacket note took on even more interest in light of the November issue
of Natural History magazine being a "commemoration" of Dr. Gould. In one of
the tributes therein, Dr. Niles Eldredge, co-author with Gould of the Theory
of Punctuated Equilibria (and, incidentally, also Kurt Johnson's PhD
professor for evolution) stated that, by Eldredge's assessment, Gould can
smell an important story faster than any one else in his field).

UPCOMING- [listed below are some "known" upcoming; there will undoubtedly
be others, particularly the other New York area reviews which are

Book Forum. (Dec.-March issue). Cover story featuring the famous Halsman
portrait, feature entitled: Gordon Grice on Nabokov's Butterflies
Washington Post (Nov. 28).
Scientific American (December)