Speak, Butterfly

Butterflies tied together Vladimir Nabokov’s home, science, and writing.


The life and work of the novelist Vladimir Nabokov referenced many symbols, none so much as the butterfly. Butterflies prompted Nabokov’s travels across the United States, exposing him to the culture and physical environment that he would transform into his best-known novel, Lolita. Butterflies motivated his parallel career in science, culminating in a then-ignored evolutionary hypothesis, which would be vindicated 34 years after his death using the tools of modern genetic analysis. And it was the butterfly around which some of Nabokov’s fondest childhood memories revolved.

Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia to an aristocratic family, and spent much of his childhood at the family’s country estate in Vyra, 40 miles outside of the city. The Nabokovs were forced to flee Russia in 1919 in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. After moving between England, Germany, and France, Nabokov came to the U.S., returning for the final years of his life to Switzerland, where he died in 1977. Nabokov rued the loss of Vyra, and called it a “break with my destiny.” In his student days at Cambridge University in England, he lamented the loss in a 1920 letter to his mother: “Will I really never return, is it really all finished, wiped out, destroyed…? I would like to describe every little bush, every stalk in our divine park at Vyra…”

Lepidoptera and his childhood home were inseparable to Nabokov, an idea he explored in his letters and his science. Especially in his autobiography, Speak, Memory (1951), he identifies Vyra as the place where his love for the butterfly began. It was at Vyra that his father, a liberal-minded nobleman, taught him the correct flick of the wrist required to decisively push the net over a fluttering insect. It was also here that his mother, the granddaughter of the first president of the Russian Imperial Academy of Medicine, taught him to spread a butterfly out and pin it to be preserved under glass. 

Even in his scientific writing, hints of the playful wordsmith emerge, as when he calls himself ‘a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine.’

In the autobiography Nabokov recalls the “original event” of his “collecting life” when he made his first butterfly capture at age 7 at Vyra.  His governess had tried to kill the insect by locking it up in a wardrobe overnight. In the morning, the persistent butterfly flew out and through the window. Nabokov, recalling this event five decades later, projects himself back into his 7-year-old self, and imagines the butterfly soaring far away—eventually to America. 

Though not in the mountains, Vyra was surrounded by aspen groves, in a climate of harsh winters and short summers, and was home to alpine butterfly species. Nabokov pursued similar alpine butterflies throughout his life, taking trips across Europe and the U.S. with his wife Vera, and later their son Dmitri. As his biographer Brian Boyd writes, “the particular kinds of butterflies he concentrated on as a scientist were influenced by his nostalgia.”

Nabokov eventually published 18 science papers in the field of lepidoptery, which he pursued alongside his full-time careers as a novelist and professor of Russian literature. The year before he began teaching at Wellesley College, Nabokov became de facto curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). His most significant work there focused on the Polyomattus, part of a butterfly group colloquially known as the blues found in higher altitudes such as the South American Andes and also in the western U.S. A classical taxonomist, Nabokov synthesized observations based on roughly 120 specimens from MCZ’s collection, and others borrowed from various museums.

In sorting and ordering the Polyomattus, Nabokov identified seven new species, and rearranged the group’s taxonomy. He argued that the entire group originated in Asia, dispersing to the New World across the Bering Strait and eventually colonizing South America. He then proposed an evolutionary history for the Polyomattus blues, suggesting that an earlier species had settled in North America but then vanished, followed by multiple additional waves along the same route. He proposed this sweeping hypothesis in “Notes on Neotropical Plebijinae,” (the old name for Polyomattus), published in 1945 in the entomological journal Psyche.

Even in his scientific writing, hints of the playful wordsmith emerge, as when he calls himself “a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine with the purpose of exploring the Cenozoic era.” Spending as much as 14 hours a day at the museum hunched over the microscope with brushes and tweezers in hand, he reported in a 1945 letter to his sister Elena that the “miniature sculpturesque hooks, teeth, spurs” of the American “blues” have “ruined [my] eyesight.” His paper on the Polyomattus blues was not given serious attention during his lifetime. A longtime curator at MCZ, Frank M. Carpenter, remarked that Nabokov’s work was at a level “which we find in majority of amateurs,” and many saw his science as a distraction from his literature. But starting with the celebrations that accompanied the centenary of his birth in 1999, modern lepidopterists began to reappraise his work, including Steven Coates and Kurt Johnson in their book Nabokov’s Blues, which portrays him as a serious scientist.

“American literature thus owes some of its best-observed pictures of the 1950s landscape of roadside motels, motor lodges, and ranch accommodations to those same butterflies.”

It was only in 2011, however, that the core of his evolutionary hypothesis was vindicated. The head of entomology at Harvard University, Naomi E. Pierce, and a team of lepidopterists organized a ten-year research study which “scour[ed] the Andes for butterflies and sequenc[ed] their DNA to test his hypothesis,” as she puts it. The study confirms the Asian origins of Polyomattus. In testing the range of temperature tolerances of the various species, it supports the hypothesis that the blues dispersed over time periods characterized by varying climate conditions, and would have been able to survive the cold temperatures of the Bering Strait.

Today, Nabokov is seen as a substantial scientist, affording a new window onto his literary work. His lepidoptery is seen as one motivation for his writing, rather than as a distraction. Yet Nabokov did not say much about the connection. He commented obliquely in an interview that there “is a sort of merging between the two things.” But it is a fusion of art and science—in particular his search for alpine butterflies of the sort that reminded him of Vyra—that characterize his travels to the American Rockies in the 1940s and 1950s.

As Brian Boyd writes in his introduction to Nabokov’s Butterflies, it was during his time in the U.S. that Nabokov “intensified his desire to explore entomology within his art.” With a livelihood coming from teaching Russian literature first at Wellesley and then at Cornell, the Nabokovs were locked into the academic calendar. Their butterfly collecting trips became an annual summer routine. At the end of the school year, with Nabokov’s wife Vera at the wheel, they left the Boston area and later Ithaca, N.Y., and headed west. Boyd notes that Nabokov “repeatedly chose the Rockies, partly because altitude increases the variety of butterfly species one is likely to encounter and [partly] because the alpine vegetation reminded him of old Russia.” Where they went and how long they stayed at a location depended on the quality of the catch. They stayed at places that allowed easy access to meadows or aspen groves with butterflies, and persisted there while the collecting was good.

Asked that question once, he expressed puzzlement: “There can be no science without fancy,” he replied “no art without facts.”

On these trips Nabokov visited parts of the U.S. that would provide him with the knowledge of 1950s American consumer culture necessary to write Lolita, which he began in 1950. Driving full days and staying at places with names like the Lazy U Motel exposed him to the kind of middle America that he didn’t get in New England or upstate New York. As Johnson and Coates write in Nabokov’s Blues, “American literature thus owes some of its best-observed pictures of the 1950s landscape of roadside motels, motor lodges, and ranch accommodations to those same butterflies.” Butterflies were so entwined with the novel that Nabokov celebrated an especially important find—discovering the first known female of Lycaeides sublivens above Telluride, Colo. in the summer of 1951—by making the town the site of the novel’s final scene. Nabokov wrote himself into the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Lolita as a whimsical collector to whom Humbert and Lolita turn for driving directions, the radiator grill of their car plastered with dead butterflies. The part was never filmed.

Butterflies bookend Nabokov’s life. Even when Lolita made him wealthy, Nabokov never bought a house, and lived his final years in a hotel in Switzerland, where he moved in 1961. He explained in an interview:  “…nothing short of a replica of my childhood surroundings would have satisfied me…so why trouble with hopeless approximations?” Ensconced in the Swiss Alps, Nabokov’s life wound down while he pursued his great passion. Out hunting for butterflies one day, he fell twice trying to retrieve his dropped net. A cable car operator observed a man lying down but didn’t stop, saying later that he saw him laughing and didn’t think he needed help. Nabokov remained unable to get up and was still there when the tour bus drove by 2.5 hours later. Greatly weakened by the fall, he never recovered, confiding to his son that a “certain butterfly was already on the wing,” and that he would not be able to pursue it.

Today we can trace the legacy of the writer and scientist in the motion and migration of the butterflies he studied. Nabokov once wrote that, had he not left Russia, he might have spent his life entirely on lepidoptery, and not fiction. So, at heart, was Nabokov a scientist or an artist? Asked that question once, he expressed puzzlement: “There can be no science without fancy,” he replied “no art without facts.”

Mary Ellen Hannibal is most recently the author of The Spine of the Continent, and winner of Stanford’s Knight-Risser Prize in Western Environmental Literature.