Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Butterflies, Memories, and Poetry
Nabokov’s interest in butterflies is legendary. It seems unlikely that his interest is coincidental to his literary genius. What does it say about an author when he takes a detour in a novel to describe butterfly collecting using the following words: antennae, insect, thorax, appendages, corneal, wings, specimens, breeding, caterpillars, genitals, larvae, species, colors, chrysalis, tympanum, sounds, smells, mimetic disguises, evolution, predators, prey, abdomen, pierids, hibernates, hatched, et cetera and so on? Are the butterflies, trapped in their cases—for more than a century in the case of Linnaeus’ specimens—a metaphor for memory itself? Do they represent beauty? Is the open-ended, all encompassing, endless search for butterflies indicative of the purposefulness of life or its random meaninglessness? Is the specificity of Lepidoptera a mirror to the specificity of life as a whole, where god is in the details? This seems in general to be the point of almost all of Nabokov’s books, particularly The Gift.
In The Gift the protagonist’s father was a Lepidopterist in life, but as a dead man, he was also a series of memories. To know his father, was to remember him. To remember him, was an effort akin to the difficult search for new species of butterflies. Sometimes one needed to go to remote, unmapped terrain to have any success.
Blending these two themes together, Nabokov’s narrator recalls the time his father thought he had discovered a rare species of butterfly in St. Petersburg, only to find out that he had been beaten to the punch on the discovery by a matter of weeks. His father had cried, probably much like the narrator (or Nabokov the author) cried when summoning up this very specific, allusive memory.
If you’re not a butterfly collector, it’s hard to see why anyone would devote his life to the study of these strange insects. And if you’re not an exile from Russia—or at least somebody who has lost a parent (Nabokov’s died at the hands of a political assassin)—you probably can’t get the full sense of why people chase memories, sometimes to the ends of the earth. The Gift shows one more strange kind of collecting--that of Nabokov as a collector or preserver of Russia’s short but distinguished literary tradition. Nabokov’s attempt to summon up the spirit of Pushkin seems redolent of his fictional father’s search for butterflies, and or protagonist’s quest for memories.