Friday, February 4, 2011

Monsieur Butterfly

There is an incredibly touching section in Carl Zimmer’s recent Times piece about a 1945 paper on butterflies by Nabokov (“Nonfiction: Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution is Vindicated,” NYT, 1/25/11). “When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities,” Zimmer writes, “the 8-year-old Nabokov brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift.” Such was his passion for lepidoptery that Nabokov undertook the 1945 paper about the migratory patterns and evolution of Polyommatus blues. Though largely discountenanced by the scientific community in his time, Zimmer remarks, “Last week in The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.” Most importantly, in order to pursue his research Nabokov “developed forward-thinking ways to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia.” One can’t help but take note of Nabokov’s methodology in the light of the triage he performed in Lolita. Zimmer points out that Nabokov was “the curator of Lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard,” and the still shocking pedophilia of Lolita has always been counterbalanced by the picture of the Russian émigré and exile—the gentle scholar whose real themes had nothing to do with perversion. But Nabokov was ultimately as interested in the genitals of people as he was of his beloved butterflies. Flaubert’s famous line, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi, applies to Nabokov’s most infamous character, the aging paraphiliac Humbert Humbert. Nabokov was not an eccentric who happened to write one book with an incidentally sexual theme. He was a dirty old man, in love with the pupa, the pudenda and lost youth, and his writing is all the greater for it.

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