Mary Ellen Hannibal, author of The Spine of the Continent, and winner of Stanford’s Knight-Risser Prize in Western Environmental Literature, sheds light on the importance of butterflies to one of the previous century’s great writers:
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.
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