NABOKV-L post 0000007, Fri, 19 Mar 1993 20:22:35 -0800

VN & Merian
To Nabokovians: The following is the full text of a letter to the
editor that I wrote to NATURAL HISTORY commenting on Sharon Vaillant
article, "Questioning the Caterpiller" (December 1992), on Maria
Sybylla Merian (1647-1717) and her stunningly illustrated natural his-
tory tomes. These volumes did much to awaken the young Nabokov's
interest in lepidoptery. NATURAL HISTORY published an abridged version
of the following letter in the March 1993 isssue.
To the Editor:
Madame Merian's art had Russian connections far beyond those mentioned
by Sharon Valiant in her fascinating essay "Questioning the Caterpil-
lar" in the December 1992 issue of Natural History. The Russian-
American writer Vladimir Nabokov owed at least some small part of his
life-long interest in butterflies to Madame Merian's work. An eight-
year-old Nabokov discovered her Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium
in the attic of his family's summer house near Saint Petersburg. This
and other eighteenth and nineteenth century tomes, many lavishly
illustrated, had been acquired by his maternal grandmother to encour-
age her daughter's interest in natural history. As Nabokov later wrote, he
"dreamed" his way through these exotic volumes. Butterflies
were to play an important role in his life. Although primarily a col-
lector, Nabokov published several scholarly articles and a monograph
on lepidodptera. More importantly, he partially supported himself and
his family during the early, lean years in America by working as a
curator of lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology
(1942-1948). It was while Nabokov was at the MCZ that the idea of
Lolita, which some critics have seen as a tale of butterfly metamor-
phosis, took shape. Lovingly described butterflies are a motif in
much of Nabokov's fiction, and are the subject of an entire chapter
(VI) in his Speak, Memory where he tells of his childhood encounter
with Madame Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Madame
Merian's sojourn in Surinam and her gorgeous illustrations have left
their traces in both Russian and American literature.

Very truly yours,

D. Barton Johnson
1498 Tunnel Road
Santa Barbara, CA 93105
(805) 682-4618