Last year a beautiful book became available that was apparently missed by many. Maybe it was because of length, numbering some eight hundred pages; maybe it was the unknown author, Vladimir Nabokov, whose name was unable to stir emotions in readers, prompting them to out and acquire this book; or maybe it was the title, Nabokov’s Butterflies, and this accusation (not to mention the picture of butterflies on the cover) that led the reader to steer clear of this book.
Some thought the collection entailed poems and excerpts, but mostly boring and pointless stories about butterflies and their scientific aspect. People who fall into any of the above categories made a big mistake, and for the ones who never heard about the book: read further and then make a serious decision about acquiring this piece of unique literature.
Vladimir Nabokov was born in Russia and from an early age fell in love with butterflies. “If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender,” writes Nabokov in an excerpt from his autobiography. Also, at this age, Nabokov began writing poems and stories, and then he turned to novels about butterflies. He is also the creator of stories where butterflies are incorporated into the general fiction as a metaphor or some decide to enhance an aspect about the character or point about the plot, this making the story poignant in a never before seen way.
In the story “Pale Fire,” the first of one of the stanzas in a poem is: “Another winter was scrape-scooped away.” The writing is just so fresh, aching with beautiful language that stirs up emotions and renders one simply in awe with this awesome prose. Another line of wisdom from Nabokov: “Whichever subject you have chosen, you must realize that knowledge of it is limitless,” from one of his lectures on writing. So this is isn’t just an anthology of poems and stories about butterflies, but a collection containing the jewels of information that will benefit everyone.
In this anthology you will find a piece of everything that Nabokov did: excerpts from novels (including Lolita, his most famous piece of work), novellas, poems, notes, letters, lecture notes, diary entries, reviews, interviews, articles, even minutes from the Cambridge Entomological Club. Amongst this plethora of material, there are also pieces that have never been published before, such as excerpts from the Lolita screenplay (Stanley Kubrick’s version), the second addendum to his story “The Gift,” and draft notes from an unfinished novel, The Butterflies of Europe. Finally, there are many sketches and drawings of butterflies by the author, some in color, others in an array of colors, all overflowing in stark detail and beauty, revealing another unknown talent of the author.
In Brian Boyd’s introduction, “Nabokov, Literature, Lepidoptera,” he compares Nabokov to Beckett, calling their visions polar opposites – Beckett is polar while Nabokov is tropical – “Nabokov saw life as a ‘great surprise’ amid great surprises.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, who plays a vital part in this anthology, translating Russian pieces to English that have never been translated before, writes in his diary on July 21, 1977, shortly before Nabokov died: “A few days before he died there was a moment I remember with special clarity. During the penultimate farewell, after I had kissed his still-warm forehead – as I had for years when saying goodbye – tears suddenly welled in Father’s eyes. I asked him why. He replied that certain butterfly was already on the wing; and his eyes told me he no longer hoped that he would live to pursue it again.”
So go out and get a hold of a copy of Nabokov’s Butterflies and you will be taken to a world you did not know existed, where butterflies are your guides, poems are your walking sticks, novel excerpts your pathways, and the rest completes this rich tapestry of magnificence. You will go away as a wiser and more enlightened person with a great feeling to be owning this admirable and useful piece of literature.
Originally published on February 5th 2001 ©Alex C. Telander.
Originally published in the Long Beach Union.