To an army of admirers, Vladimir Nabokov, a balding Russian �migr� of 60, is known as the author of that spectacular bestseller, Lolita. To a comparative handful, however, he is revered as V. Nabokov, lepidopterist. Respectful colleagues have named four species after him. He is the discoverer of at least two subspecies of butterflies, one of which, it should be noted, is called (accidentally, but prophetically) Nabokov's wood nymph.
Nabokov has described his findings in a number of scientific periodicals ranging from Psyche—"A Third Species of Echinargus Nabokov (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera)"—to the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College—"The Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides H�bner (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera)." Rarely can the reader deduce that V. Nabokov, the naturalist, is Vladimir Nabokov, the novelist. Only when writing for the Lepidopterists' News, a rather chatty journal, is V. likely to peep through as Vladimir: "Every morning the sky would be an impeccable blue at 6 a.m. when I set out. The first innocent cloudlet would scud across at 7:30 a.m. Bigger fellows with darker bellies would start tampering with the sun around 9 a.m., just as I emerged from the shadow of the cliffs and onto good hunting grounds." (Conversely, Vladimir sometimes artfully assumes V.'s vocabulary, as in describing Humbert Humbert's first wife in Lolita: "The bleached curl revealed its melanic root." Melanic is a butterfly word meaning dark.)
Nabokov has had a passionate interest in butterflies since he was a boy of 6 in Russia. By the time he was 10, he had made such a nuisance of himself with the net that solemn Muromtsev, the president of the first Russian Duma, intoned, "Come with us by all means, but do not chase butterflies, child. It mars the rhythm of the promenade." In 1919 in the Crimea, a bowlegged Bolshevik sentry, patrolling "among shrubs in waxy bloom," attempted to arrest him for allegedly signaling with the net to a British warship in the Black Sea. Later in France a fat policeman wriggled on his belly through parting grass, suspicious that Nabokov was netting birds. Shortly after Nabokov arrived in the United States in 1940, he became a Research Fellow in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, one place, presumably, where his passion was better appreciated. Since 1948 he has been a member of the Department of Literature at Cornell, but he has kept his summers free for his beloved butterflies. Net in hand, he roams the West, unmindful of hooting motorists, chiding cowpokes or snarling dogs.
"This, to me," Nabokov explains, "is most pleasurable—to collect on mountain tops or bogs. It is nostalgic perhaps, but there is also the pleasant feeling of being familiar with a place and surprised when you get more than you expect. You can get as close as possible to these living creatures and see reflected in them a higher law. Mimicry and evolution are for me more and more fascinating.... I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is."
Last month Nabokov and his charming snow-haired wife, V�ra, were staying in a cabin at Forest Houses in Oak Creek Canyon, a sort of watch-pocket Grand Canyon, 18 serpentine miles south of Flagstaff, Arizona. There, tucked away in the woods, Nabokov devoted himself to literature (working over translations of the Song of Igor's Campaign, a 12th-century Russian epic, and Invitation to a Beheading, a novel he wrote in Paris during the '30s) and lepidoptera. Lepidoptera, for several days at least, won out.
On a Monday morning, for instance, Nabokov, bundled up in dungarees, sport shirt and sweater, emerged from his pine cabin to sniff the air and see the morning sun. "It is now 9 o'clock," he said, lying. It was really only 8:30 or thereabouts, but Nabokov keeps moving all clocks and watches within his reach ahead to make Mrs. Nabokov move faster so he can get to his butterflies all the sooner. "The butterflies won't be up for another hour," he admitted however. "This is a deep canyon, and the sun has to go some way up the rim of the mountain to cast its light. The grass is damp, and the butterflies generally come out when it's dry. They are late risers."
He moved inside, sat down on a sofa and picked up a thick brown volume entitled
Colorado Butterflies. He opened to Nabokov's wood nymph on page 11. "This butterfly which I discovered has nothing to do with nymphets," he said, smiling. "I discovered it in the Grand Canyon in 1941. I know it occurs here, but it is difficult to find. I hope to find it today. I'll be looking for it. It flies in the speckled shade early in June, though there's another brood at the end of the summer, so you came at the right time." He picked up another book, Alexander Klots' A Field Guide to the Butterflies, and opened to the page on the orange-margined blues. Proudly he pointed to a sentence which read, "The recent work of Nabokov has entirely re-arranged the classification of this genus." A look of bliss spread across his face. "The thrill of gaining information about certain structural mysteries in these butterflies is perhaps more pleasurable than any literary achievement."
Mrs. Nabokov called him to breakfast. "The Southwest is a wonderful place to collect," he said over soft-boiled eggs. "There's a mixture of arctic and subtropical fauna. A wonderful place to collect."
At 9:35, Nabokov standard time, he got up to get his net and a blue cloth cap. The thrill of the chase was upon him as he left the cabin and headed south down a foot trail paralleling Oak Creek. "This Nabokov's wood nymph is represented by several subspecies, and there's one here," he said, his eyes sweeping the brush on either side. "It is in this kind of country that my nymph occurs."
He stopped and pointed, with the handle of his net, to a butterfly clinging to the underside of a leaf. "Disruptive coloration," he said, noting white spots-on the wings. "A bird comes and wonders for a second. Is it two bugs? Where is the head? Which side is which? In that split second the butterfly is gone. That second saves that individual and that species. You may call it a large skipper."