Chance Meeting with Nobakov: A lifetime influence

Nobakov as photographed in Life Magazine

Sometimes the people one meets in life turn out to be ever more interesting as time passes. Their words and ideas follow you like a thin and ghostly mist that clings to your brain. At the time you have no idea how important they will be to you.


Forty years ago I traveled to HuemozSwitzerlandto study for a few months under Dr. Francis Schaeffer. He was a Christian guru of my generation who gathered youth from all over the world at his retreat center. It was more like a Christian commune where 80% of the participants were Marxist and eastern European youth. The discussions were lively.


After a few weeks I followed a couple of French speaking girls down the mountain to help collect mushrooms. In an open meadow I saw an old man chasing butterflies. He was walking along a hedge with net in hand. Somehow we ended up in conversation. He said his name was Vladimir Nabokov. He lived in nearby Montreau down byLake Geneva. He explained that he specialized in a certain type of butterfly and wrote scientific articles. His speech was heavily accented but he spoke clear and beautiful English. I asked him if he fromRussia. “Yes. I was born inRussiabut I have lived for many years inAmerica. When he learned that I was from a town that is just north ofOregonhe said he spent one summer isAshland.,Oregon.


I am sure we talked about more because I ended up walking along the road side with him for about a half an hour. The French girls were far out in the field and soon they came to retrieve me and walk back to the chalet where about 20 of us lived. I had completely failed to help the girls pick mushrooms but they did not seem to mind. Later that day they presented a mushroom soup in a thick flour soup that is one of the most delicious meals I have ever experienced.

Like that soup, the conversation withVladimirlingered in my memory. When I returned to theUnited StatesI looked up information about Mr. Nabokov. It turned out that he had published several important books, not about butterflies, but about pedophilia, the love of an older man for a very young girl. The novel’s name was Lolita, published in 1958 and it caused a sensation in American literary circles. It had been reprinted many times. I found a copy of it a Powells Book Store inPortland.

I had a difficult time comprehending the book but I could see that it was an important piece of literature. It captured the spirit of exploration of forbidden sex in American culture. It was only years later that I discovered that Mr. Nabonov was in fact a butterfly expert.

Recently I read an online article in the New York Times by Carl Zimmer. He wrote

Vladimir Nabokov may be known to most people as the author of classic novels like “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” But even as he was writing those books, Nabokov had a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies.

He was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and he collected the insects across the United States.”

Mr. Nabokov developed a theory about the evolution of a family of butterflies called  Lycaeninae. Nabokov came from a family of butterfly experts. His mother and father inRussiabuilt a worldclass collection. When the Russian revolution forced his father to briefly go to prision, his son Vladimir brought him a butterfly as a gift. The family later escaped toGermanyand then toEnglandwhereVladimirgot an education atCambridge. He eventually moved toAmericawhere he taught Russian Literature atWelsleyCollege.

His passion for butterflies landed him a job as curator for butterflies at Harvard. He  collected, identified, and even named new species. He wrote in a poem in 1943 called “Discovering a Butterfly.”:

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.

It is through a passion for butterflies that I met Nabokov again. Although he died in 1977 in Switzerland, his ideas and work lived on. I wrote a book a few years ago called An Incomplete Guide to Lepidoptera while living in theDominican Republic. While there I had teams of students and educators fromHarvardUniversity work with orphans and street children. I learned about beetles and butterflies. The work of Dr. Naomi Piece who is the present curator of butterflies at Harvard influenced me as well as other insect experts with whom I came into contact such as E.O. Wilson, and Brian Ferrell. This love for insects and the butterfly drew me to Nabokov. Apparently in 1945 he came up with a theory about the migration of his family of butterflies. He also suggested that this family of butterflies should be classified by their genitalia. Nabokov was ahead of his time.

Nabokov’s reputation as a scientist languished until the 1990s. Kurt Johnson, an entomologist then at the American Museum of Natural History, examined the genitals of the blues and was surprised at their diversity. Searching the literature for help, he came across Nabokov’s work. As he later described in the 2000 book “Nabokov’s Blues,” written with Steve Coates, Dr. Johnson set about reviving Nabokov’s classification. Working with Zsolt Balint of the Hungarian Museum of Natural History and Dubi Benyamini, an Israeli collector, he collected new blues and carefully examined them. In the end, they decided Nabokov was right in his classification. Along the way, they even named some new species in his honor, like Nabokovia cuzquenha.

For the last year I have been inChinacollecting and photographing butterflies for perhaps another book on butterflies. I have become particularly interested in the “blues” a tiny butterfly that is indigenous toAsia. It is also the butterfly that led me back to Nabokov.

I was reading about the work of Naomi Pierce at Harvard and it turns out that she began looking closely at Nabokov’s work while preparing an exhibit to celebrate his 100th birthday in 1999. Reading “Nabokov’s Blues,” she was captivated by his idea of butterflies coming fromAsia. “It was an amazing, bold hypothesis,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we could test this.’ ”

According to the New York Times article:

“Dr. Pierce and her colleagues concluded that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to the New World — just as Nabokov had speculated.

“By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.””

This was the man I met in a meadow inSwitzerland40 years ago. At the time I did not fully comprehend his importance and how our lives would intersect through the convergences of ideas and interests over the years.


He too marveled at the strange turns of life:

Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime — but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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