Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025878, Mon, 8 Dec 2014 00:22:43 -0200

RES: [NABOKV-L] Fomozov: The Return of Feb
Victor Fet sent his “old friend’s Nikolai Formozov’s nice paper on VN.” I checked it online (ref: Russian Studies in Literature, vol. 51, no. 1, Winter 2014–15, pp. 42–58. © 2015 Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved. ISSN 1061–1975 (print)/ISSN 1944–7167 (online) DOI: 10.2753/RSL1061-1975510103) “‘The Return of Feb - Nabokov’s Lepidoptera.” The author observes that the “appearance of butterflies in Nabokov’s works is mysteriously linked with death. Sleptsov’s inner monologue (in the story “Christmas” [Rozhdestvo]) breaks off on the word “death,” where he is interrupted by a great attacus moth emerging from its cocoon. Cincinnatus, in invitation to a Beheading [Priglashenie na kazn, having begun a clean sheet of paper with the one word “death,” which he crossed out as soon as it was written, is distracted from his writing by a Giant Peacock Moth (Saturnia pyri) that later, after the protagonist’s execution, would be able to escape to freedom through the cell’s broken window. In the final chapter of King, Queen, Knave [Korol, Dama, Valet], a “white butterfly” (a banal Cabbage White, maybe?) flits above the beach. A swarm of white moths (Geometridae?) and vivid exotic butterflies circles over the dead Pilgram in the story that bears his name [ ] In this story [Wingstroke], the protagonist hides the stunned angel in a wardrobe from which the celestial being escapes unharmed, like the young Nabokov’s first butterfly, a Swallowtail, once did [ ] Comparable examples could be cited one after another . . . The winged denizens of heaven and lepidoptera, the unattainable paradise of childhood, Russia and studies in entomology—these themes are interwoven time and again in Nabokov’s oeuvre. It may be concluded that butterflies have an important part to play in Nabokov’s metaphysical system, in that they help to trace a visible pattern on the membrane separating the mundane from a higher reality, which speaks to the initiated of the primordial dispensation.” Later on he adds: “since Nabokov always avoided publicly discussing the theme of faith lost (or gained), I will steer clear of it too.”

Scientific, biographic and literary information were fluidly blended in Formozov’s article and, despite his caveat, I felt encouraged to explore more fully the “miracle” associations in the “Christmas” short story. To my dismay, I realized that my hurried and incomplete quote of Brian Boyd’s comments about the Atlas moth “miracle” was incorrect and misleading.* In “The Magic of Artistic Discovery”,140) Brian not only compares VN’s early writing to his later works but he recognizes both the “miracle” and its literary dimension. This dimension came out clearly in another quote by Brian Boyd which I accessed through “Hindsight, Intertextuality, and Interpretation: A Symbol in Nabokov's ‘Christmas’," by José Angel García Landa,” when he writes: “The same sure command of nature enables him to describe the winter’s day in radiant, specific details that answer Sleptsov’s misery even before the moth emerges: for all its pain, the world overflows with joys.” ** <https://www.academia.edu/244103/Hindsight_Intertextuality_and_Interpretation_A_Symbol_in_Nabokovs_Christmas_> https://www.academia.edu/244103/Hindsight_Intertextuality_and_Interpretation_A_Symbol_in_Nabokovs_Christmas_ .

J.A.G Landa notes that “In his nonfiction Nabokov uses the image to refer to his own afterlife (perhaps suggesting too a literary afterlife) when he speaks of the butterfly hunts he wants to carry out “before I pupate” ( and here he quotes BB in “Nabokov, Literature, Lepidoptera”, 2000, 29). In other paragraphs he considers Brian Boyd’s biographical information presented in RY,1990 (134-35/ 549) to reach VN’s “more personal symbolic associations” to butterflies in his early and later works.

However, I still wonder if the more mature V.Nabokov did really steer away from “miracles” and the transcendent realm. There’s a lot of ground to cover.


* - “Nearly forty years earlier Nabokov had chosen the largest of all Lepidoptera, the Atlas moth, with its wingspan of almost a foot, in a similar combination: sharp natural observation, the ascription of all but-human feelings to the insect, the implication of the supernatural. But the differences between early and late are as striking as the similarities. If he is not as blind as his name in Russian suggests, Sleptsov himself may witness the “miracle,” may be changed from his decision to take his own life by seeing the majesty of the unfurling moth, by having his hopes awakened that his son might also, as it were, be growing huge wings himself. Shade sees and admires the Vanessa, but so long as he remains alive – even in a near-death experience- he can have no access to any unequivocal sign of the beyond. In “Christmas” we as readers also see at once the irony of the “miracle” that refutes Sleptsov’s conclusion that the world is “devoid of miracles.” But in Pale Fire all we can see at first is Shade’s own death, refuting his confidence, mere hours after he expresses it, even in waking the next day, let alone the likelihood that “my darling somewhere is alive.” That life gives no direct signs of anything beyond life the mature Nabokov accepts as a condition of his exploration of the hereafter. But that does not rule out that there may be even more astonishing discoveries to be made than any he could imagine when, at twenty-five, he wrote “Christmas.” (“The Magic of Artistic Discovery”, 2001 p.140)

** - “A father decides to commit suicide after his son’s death, rather than face a life ‘humiliatingly pointless, sterile, devoid of miracles’ – when at that very moment an Attacus moth his son had cherished, now warmed up the wall, its wings swelling and breathing. Introducing the English translation, Nabokov commented: ‘It oddly resembles the type of chess problem called ‘selfmate.’ “ Sleptsov checkmates his own despair: the things he brings back from his son’s room to nourish his grief include the cocoon in the biscuit tin that refutes his gloomy conclusion. Characteristically it is Nabokov’s exact scientific knowledge that has allowed him to prepare the story’s ‘miracle.’ The same sure command of nature enables him to describe the winter’s day in radiant, specific details that answer Sleptsov’s misery even before the moth emerges: for all its pain, the world overflows with joys.” (RY,1990 p.236.)

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