Flights of fancy

Nabokov's Butterflies

Vladimir Nabokov <em>Penguin, 752pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0807085405

Anyone who knows anything about Nabokov knows that he loved butterflies: all the books about him feature photographs of the great writer wielding a net. It has usually been seen as an eccentric pastime, a whimsical aside to the serious literary business of Nabokov's life. Indeed, it is often held to be ironic that so hot a writer - this celebrated luster after underage Lolitas - should have persisted with such an innocuous, childlike hobby. The butterfly net, meanwhile, has been used as a handy meta- phor for Nabokov's literary approach, which in dim light does resemble that of a beady-eyed hunter in pursuit of gorgeous prey.

Nabokov's Butterflies, however, gives these idle notions a judicious kick in the shins. There was nothing remotely whimsical about Nabokov's lepidoptery. His was a dedicated and scholarly passion, sustained and explored for more than 50 years. Inspired by his father, he started collecting insects when he was seven, and amassed and abandoned two substantial collections ("one to the Bolsheviks, one to the Germans") before migrating to America. For six years, he was a Research Fellow in entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Harvard, where he reclassified whole groups of insects and devised "ingenious" taxonomies of wing scales and genitalia. He wrote long papers and monographs as well as brief letters and poems. He discovered several new species and had many more named in his honour: Itylos luzhin, Pseudolucia vera, Nabokovia ada, Madaleinia lolita.

Most of his summers were spent enjoying trips to lush habitats in America or Europe. His taste for epic landscapes - for example, the Rockies and the Alps - was inspired not by their craggy grandeur but by something more precise: their "floral versatility".

He repeatedly insisted that the rhapsodic thrills of butterfly hunting meant more to him than literary success ("I want no other fame"), and he might not have been kidding. Certainly, a good proportion of this stunning new collection of his butterfly writings is couched in a style not calculated to waylay the casual fan of Lolita. "The high development of the auroral element in the ground of chilensis ," he writes, "is approached among the Pleb ejinae only by the upperside of the Sonoran plebulina emigdionis and by the intense coloration of the forewing underside in certain individuals of the Spanish Aricia idas rambur." But he was, as several scientists here testify, a "lepidopterist of consequence", and the evidence of this (even though, to a duffer like this reviewer, it is barely comprehensible) is in itself awe-inspiring. Has any other writer of equivalent status enjoyed so distinguished an amateur career? Nabokov's microscopic attentiveness to his darling butterflies makes Ernest Hemingway's occasional urge to shoot a lion seem like idle country-club machismo. In a nice twist of fate, he has - through fame as a writer, admittedly - become by far the most famous lepidopterist of all time (try naming another one).

This rare collection sets out to examine the links between the science and the art. The link was the man: Nabokov wrote as both. It is telling, though, that the field to which he was especially drawn was mimicry - the evolution of unnecessary luxuries or witticisms in butterfly decor, disguises not explained by the struggle for existence. "It seemed", he writes of one delicious dab, "to have been invented by some waggish artist precisely for the intelligent eyes of man." His war years were spent at a microscope in Harvard, and this gave him a detached, aristocratic view of human wriggles. "Wars pass," he wrote to Edmund Wilson. "Bugs stay."

The editors point out that we could read thousands of pages by Nabokov without realising the extent of this passion, and they have bagged a glittering anthology of wing-beating moments from the novels. Lepidoptery gave Nabokov metaphors inaccessible to other writers, such as when he refers to his "orange-tipped and green-marbled childhood", or quips of an ordinary day that it was "bread-and-butterflies". One character in Bend Sinister wears a bow tie with "a crippled left hindwing". But more significantly, it nourished and confirmed his hatred of queasy generalities. In lepidoptery, he was a "splitter" - concerned more with distinguishing characteristics than with similarities or categories; the hallmark of his literature is an uncanny relish for physical shivers, for the twang of life. He displays words much as he mounted his butterflies: like trophies, brilliantly lit.

He never wrote his planned book about butterflies in art. A shame: it would have vibrated with his radiance in both fields. "I once determined the country of origin of a painting", he boasts, "by identifying the local form of a butterfly depicted on it." And he has serious fun with the nameless butterfly in one of Hieronymus Bosch's infernos, identifying it as Nabiola Jurtina, "which Linnaeus described 250 years after good Bosch knocked it down with his cap in a Flemish meadow, to place it in his hell".

In an unpublished autobiographical sketch, he quotes from his father's butterfly journals: "During the blaze of noon, between two sumptuous thunderstorms . . ." And it is hard not to gasp. Sumptuous thunderstorms - could that grand style have been inherited? Nabokov himself spots the resemblance. "I suddenly recognise in my father's words the wellsprings of my own prose: squeamishness toward fudging and smudging, the reciprocal dovetailing of thought and word, the inchworm progress of a sentence . . ."

It is in these moments that the book transcends both science and biography. There are majestic flashes of his distinctive haughty humour - this was a man who, when asked for his view of contemporary literature, replied: "Looks pretty good from up here." One lucky interviewer went butterfly-hunting with Nabokov, watched him catch a couple of average specimens, then swipe at a third and miss. "Thirty-fifteen," muttered the small-game hunter. Naturally, it delighted Nabokov to learn, just before the publication of Lolita, that one of his discoveries had become known as Nabokov's Wood Nymph. Lolita itself has been compared to a butterfly hunt - oh, the thrill of the chase! He was well aware of the resonance himself: the original manuscript has drawings of butterflies on the title page; one of them, not accidentally, is an Appalachian Satyr. Nor is it a coincidence that, when Humbert Humbert drives Lolita off in his car, the hungry mouth of his radiator grill is soon "plastered with butterflies".

This book glistens like a rainforest: swarming with sap and colour, with love and death. Nabokov swallowed his butterflies whole, not just as iridescent poetic flashes on a summer's day, but as complete life cycles. He once ate a couple ("I held one in one hot little hand, one in the other"). They simultaneously held and withheld all the mysteries of life: its painful metamorphoses, its throbs of misery as acute as its pangs of joy. "It is astounding", he wrote, "how little the ordinary person notices butterflies."

Robert Winder's reviews appear monthly in the NS

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.