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