Passing through the Museum of Natural Sciences in Milan recently, I came across an old cabinet containing a collec­tion of blue butterflies, together with what for me was an unexpected name in a context such as this: Vladimir Nabokov.

The same Nabokov, that is, who was the author of such dazzlingly written novels as Lolita:

Lo­-Lee­-Ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

He is perhaps one of the greatest novelists of the twenti­eth century. As an article in the literary supplement of The New York Times recently reminded us, ‘in academic circles Nabokov is increasingly mentioned alongside names such as Proust and Joyce’.

And yet Nabokov sought, by his own account, a very dif­ferent kind of renown. One of his poems, ‘On Discovering a Butterfly’, begins like this: ‘I found it and named it, being versed/ in taxonomic Latin; thus became/ godfather to an insect and its first/ describer – and I want no other fame.’ Butterflies were his passion. Lolita was written during one of the trips he made west every year in the United States, avidly searching for butterflies.

In that serene pantheon where the souls of great writers dwell, I can imagine Nabokov smiling: a few years ago in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, one of the most authori­tative scientific journals, an article was published announcing that his most audacious scientific theory had been con­ firmed. His name will remain for ever in the annals of science: he was the first to understand the migration of the Blue Icarus (Polyommatus Icarus), the enchanting blue butter­ fly that can be admired in the museum in Milan. This was the kind of fame he was looking for: to be ‘the godfather of an insect’.

Nabokov’s theory was about the mode of migration of these butterflies on the continent of America. In 1945 he published the hypothesis that they had evolved in Asia and had arrived in the United States by crossing the Bering Strait in five successive waves, during the course of 10 million years. No one took him seriously. It was difficult to imagine that butterflies living in warm climates could push so far north. And yet Nabokov was right: modern DNA sequencing techniques have made it possible to reconstruct the genealogy of the species and to confirm his hypothesis exactly. In addition, the reconstruction of changes in climate over time has shown that the Bering Strait underwent phases of sufficiently warm climate to make it possible for the pas­sage of such waves of butterflies, precisely in the periods that Nabokov had suggested.

Nabokov was the curator of the lepidoptera section in the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology. He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. He used to collect butterflies in his childhood, the happy des­cendant of an extremely wealthy family of the Russian aristocracy. When he was eight years old, his father was imprisoned for political reasons: the young Vladimir carried a butterfly to his cell. With his father murdered and the fam­ily fortune lost in the Revolution, he escaped to Europe, where he eventually used the earnings from his second novel to pay for a butterfly­-hunting expedition in the Pyrenees.

He was forced to flee from Europe too, after the Nazis came to power, and continued to cultivate his passion for entomology in the United States. He was regarded as a skil­ful amateur, capable of describing the different species of butterfly, being himself one of the last specimens of a type nearing extinction: nineteenth­-century aristocrats who col­lected lepidoptera as a pastime. But a decade after his death in 1977, various entomologists began to take his scientific work seriously. His classifications turn out to be astute. One of the butterflies he described is named Nabokovia cuzquenha in his honour. A book published in 1999, Nabokov’s Blues, tells the story of the rediscovery of Nabokov’s classifications. But another ten years elapsed before the spectacular proof arrived of his hypothesis about butterflies crossing the Bering Strait, and with it the recognition of his status as a scientist of real worth.

Is there a connection between Nabokov’s science and his literary work? It is hard to resist the temptation of associating Lolita with butterflies, especially the Lolita seen through the lens of Humbert Humbert’s desperate love. But this is prob­ ably too facile. The issue is discussed in an essay by Stephen Jay Gould with the suggestive title ‘There is No Science without Imagination, and No Art without Facts: The Butter­ flies of Vladimir Nabokov’, in which he argues that Nabokov’s acute focus, his almost obsessive concern for observation and detail, is at the root of both his success as a butterfly collector and his technique as a novelist. Which is probably true. Nabokov himself has written: ‘A writer must have the pre­cision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.’

To me this doesn’t seem enough. In 1948, in a passage inserted into Speak, Memory, one of the most celebrated liter­ary biographies of the twentieth century, Nabokov writes in his luxuriant, exacting prose:

The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me. Its phenomena showed an artistic perfection usually associated with man-­wrought things. Consider the imitation of oozing poison by bubblelike macules on a wing (complete with pseudo­-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis (‘Don’t eat me – I have already been squashed, sampled and rejected’). Consider the tricks of an acrobatic caterpillar (of the Lobster Moth) which in infancy looks like bird dung, but after molting develops scrabbly hymenopteroid append­ages and baroque characteristics, allowing the extraordinary fellow to play two parts at once (like the actor in Oriental shows who becomes a pair of intertwined wrestlers): that of a writhing larva and that of a big ant seemingly harrowing it. When a certain moth resembles a certain wasp in shape and color, it also walks and moves its antennae in a waspish, unmothlike manner.

When a butterfly has to look like a leaf, not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub­bored holes are generously thrown in. ‘Natural selection’, in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behaviour, nor could one appeal to the theory of ‘the struggle for life’ when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchant­ment and deception.

There’s a lot more here than the capacity to notice details with obsessive attention. There is also, not least, the capacity to see beauty.

Even when our attention alights on something moment­arily and then slides away. On the wings of a butterfly. Or the sound – ‘Lo­li­ta’ – of an unforgettable name.

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