Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000424, Thu, 12 Jan 1995 17:18:40 -0800

EDITOR'S NOTE: NABOKV-L continues its series of abstracts (or
"Nabstracts" as Seth Roberts has named them) from the Dec. MLA and
AATSEEL meetings. The E-mail address of the author is given where possible.
"That Butterfly in Nabokov's EYE" by D. Barton Johnson
<chtodel@humanitas.ucsbvm.ucsb.edu> (MLA95)

The pseudo-ghost narrator of 1930 novella, THE EYE, attempts to
determine the real identity of his alter-ego Smurov by eliciting and
assessing the diverse impressions of the man formed by the other
characters in the novella. Which one of these is the "real" Smurov?
The narrator likens his task to that of a problem is butterfly
systematics, citing a particular case: a common (but unnamed) species
of butterfly captured nearly two hundred years before by Linnaeus in a
Westermannia meadow. Subsequently many local races of the species were
named and the question of "the type, the model, the original" arose.
After long debate, "a grave entomologist" surveys the complex question
and affirms the original Linnaeus specimen as the holotype. My paper
argues that the butterfly debate was a real one; that Nabokov became
aware of the debate as a result of a butterfly collecting expedition
to the SW of France in 1929; and that, very possibly, the genesis of
the novella lies in this sequence of events.
The first task was to identify the 200-year-old butterfly and "the
grave entomologist" who sets things right. These mysteries were
resolved by Dieter Zimmer, editor of the Rowohlt Nabokov edition and
author of a book on VN's butterflies. A second task had to do with how
VN might have encountered the article(s) in question. Brian Boyd
recounts how Nabokov, who had done no butterfly work for a decade,
spent two months in late 1929 classifying his catches in two Berlin
museums in the course of preparing an article for the London pub-
lication, THE ENTOMOLOGIST. As it happened, that same journal had
recently published the above-mentioned article by "the grave
entomologist." Nabokov began work on THE EYE at or very shortly after
his museum research and classification. It seems plausible that his
butterfly hunt and ensuing lepidopteral research provided the
chrysalis that was to produce that small butterfly in THE EYE and THE
EYE itself.