NABOKOV The Entomologist

Text by Jazmina Barrera

“If I could write, I would describe with way too many words, how much passion, how much incandescence, how much incest –c’est le mot – art and science can be found in an insect.” Says Demon, the father of the protagonist, Van, in Ada, or ardor, Nabokov’s last novel. The image has numerous implications in the novel due to the constant presence of incest. Ada is a brilliant botanist and entomologist who collects caterpillars and butterflies in an improvised butterfly farm, but she is also and actress; and Van, Ada’s cousin and secret lover is a writer but also a psychiatrist. Science and art merge in them both, a union incestuous in itself since these disciplines are sisters in search for knowledge, and their blend, the boundary that unites them, seems strange, difficult for society to comprehend and accept it.


Nabokov himself was an entomologist before becoming a novelist, specialized in Lepidoptera: butterflies. He inherited this passion from his parents and his aristocratic childhood in Russia, where capturing, collecting and classifying butterflies was a sport favored by the upper class. It is said that when his father was put in jail, young Nabokov brought him a butterfly. Before fleeing Russia the first time, he was determined to dedicate his life to the study of Lepidoptera. The first article he wrote in English, a language he adopted later in life for many of his novels, was A few Notes on Crimean Lepidoptera. When he moved to the United States, he would go on expeditions every summer with his wife to capture butterflies.


Despite being disregarded by many scientists, primarily for being self-taught, Nabokov had a reputation for being very good at describing species, with the same talent and observation skills he used for his narrative. Nabokov described hundreds of species and became the curator of Lepidoptera of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. There are various butterflies named by him or in his honor, like the Madeleinea lolita or the Nabokovia Cuzquenha. In his story Butterflies published in The New Yorker, Nabokov said that as one ages, the more ridiculous one looks carrying a net to catch butterflies, especially in the United States, where he was frequently told that fishing was prohibited in that lake, or they would ask him if he hunted insects to eat them, and children would make fun of him. There is a very moving image where we see a sixty-year-old Nabokov with a net, hunting butterflies. He looks like an old kid. Nabokov’s greatest scientific achievement was when he came up with the theory that the butterfly group known as Polyommatus blues had arrived in five waves through the Bering Strait from Asia in the glacial period. His theory was confirmed by a group of scientists in the year 2011.


Despite his scientific progress, Nabokov was reluctant to accept certain Darwinian theories. It was still a great mystery to him how certain butterflies achieved such level of harmony and perfection in their camouflage, which was difficult to explain – in his point of view – only through the Theory of the Survival of the Fittest. He explains in Butterflies: “I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” In Ada’s character, Nabokov mixes the grotesque perversion of the caterpillar, the wild instincts of nature, with the ethereal beauty of the butterfly. Ada herself is this conjunction of his two greatest passions: language and insects. Nabokov’s son says that when he was near death, he saw him cry and when he asked him why, he replied that some butterfly was already in flight. His son knew that Nabokov did not expect to survive to capture it once more.


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