Courtesy Rongem BoyoOne of my favorite 20th century writers is the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). Many people were (and many probably still are) shocked by the subject of his best-known novel, Lolita, which he wrote in English in the early 1950s. But Nabokov’s use of the language in that book - and others - is at times so exquisite and so finely-crafted, that it’s equally shocking to realize that English wasn’t his native tongue but rather his second language taught to him by his governess while he was growing up in St. Petersburg. He was also well versed in French, so language played an important role in his life, as his many novels, poems, and essays attest. But growing up to become one of the 20th century’s greatest writers was not something he planned, because at age seven he had discovered another passion: collecting butterflies.
Nabokov said in later interviews that had it not been for the 1917 Russian Revolution, he would have probably been a lepidopterist at some obscure museum in St. Petersburg. But fate brought him eventually to the United States where (before publication of Lolita made him independently wealthy) he made his living mainly by teaching literature at Wellesley College and Cornell University. He also volunteered at the American Museum of Natural History - where he learned to dissect butterflies - and at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.
During the summer months he liked to mix his passions as he explained in the afterword to later editions of Lolita:
Every summer my wife and I go butterfly hunting. The specimens are deposited at scientific institution, such as the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard or the Cornell University collections. The locality labels pinned under these butterflies will be a boon to some twenty-first-century scholar with a taste for recondite biography. It was at such of our headquarters as Telluride, Colorado; Afton, Wyoming,; Portal, Arizona, and Ashland, Oregon that Lolita was energetically resumed or on cloudy days.
Around 1945 he came up with a new theory of migration for the Polyommatus blue butterflies. Without the use of genetics and by studying anatomical features (mostly genitalia), Nabokov speculated that Polyommatus blues found in South America evolved by migrating in five waves from Asia across the Bering Strait. At the time the prevailing migration theories involved land bridges across the Pacific, so no one gave Nabokov’s hypothesis much weight.
Professional lepidopterists weren’t that impressed with Nabokov. They admitted he was decent enough researcher and at describing specimens (his published descriptions numbered in the hundreds) but they didn’t think he offered much in the way new ideas.
But now it seems Nabokov has been vindicated. A new report in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London has determined - through DNA analysis – that Polyommatus blues have indeed evolved through five separate migrations from Asia over the Bering Strait.
“It’s really quite a marvel,” said co-author Naomi Pierce of Harvard. Pierce was part of a team of lepidopterists from England and the United States that made several expeditions to Chile to study and collect specimens of Polyommatus blues, then returned to the lab for gene sequencing and computer analysis of the data. The results showed that the Polyommatus blues did indeed originate in Asia, and were more closely related to that 10 million year-old ancestor than they were to their South American neighbors. But they also revealed that the first wave arrived when the temperature along the Bering Strait was warmer. But that temperature was in decline, and subsequent migrations brought in hardier species of Polyommatus, better suited to colder temperatures that correlated with the temperature range existing around the Bering Strait at the time of each wave. The conclusions matched Nabokov’s hypothesis to a “t”.
“By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.”
Paleontologist Stephen J. Gould included an essay in one of his many books about Nabokov’s split loyalties between art and science (he termed it “intellectual promiscuity”) proposing if the writer had kept focused on just writing he might have created another Lolita. On the other hand, Gould mused, if Nabokov had only studied butterflies, he could have become a well-known (at least in some obscure circles) lepidopterist. If it sounds like the old adage “you can’t serve two masters”, Nabokov seems to have pulled it off equally well in both arenas. I think had it not been for his writing and the lifestyle it afforded him, he wouldn’t have had the luxury of pursuing lepidoptery as fervently and successfully as he did; and without his butterfly collecting, he never would have written his masterpiece. If you asked the seven year-old Vladimir what he wanted most to be remembered for, his answer wouldn’t have been “writing a great novel”. He had another aspiration in mind, which he fulfilled several years later during one of his summer breaks from teaching. While visiting the Grand Canyon with his wife, Nabokov discovered a new species of butterfly which he named Neonympha dorothea in honor of a family friend who was traveling with them. His satisfaction poured out a couple years later in a poem:
I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer – and I want no other fame.
- On Discovering a Butterfly (1943) by Vladimir Nabokov.