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the Complete Review
the complete review - various

  

Nabokov's Butterflies

by
Vladimir Nabokov


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Nabokov's Butterflies



Title: Nabokov's Butterflies
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Genre: Various
Written: (2000)
Length: 721 pages
Original in: Russian, English, and French
Availability: Nabokov's Butterflies
Nabokov's Butterflies - UK
  • Unpublished and Uncollected Writings 1908-1977
  • Edited and annotated by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle
  • Translated by Brian Boyd, and with "new translations from the Russian by Dmitri Nabokov"
  • Includes two introductions:
    • Nabokov, Literature, Lepidoptera by Brian Boyd
    • Between Climb and Cloud: Nabokov among the Lepidopterists by Robert Michael Pyle
  • Includes 53 illustrations and 31 colour plates
  • Includes a list of Butterflies and Moths named by and for Vladimir Nabokov, compiled by Robert Michael Pyle

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a stunning and occasionally daunting collection

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 19/6/2000 Simon Caterson
The Guardian . 25/3/2000 Jay Parini
The Independent . 30/3/2000 Steve Connor
Nature . 24/8/2000 James Mallet
The New Criterion . 9/2000 Guy Davenport
The New Statesman A 10/4/2000 Robert Winder
The NY Rev. of Books C+ 21/6/2001 Michael Wood
The NY Times Book Rev. C 7/5/2000 Laurie Adlerstein
The Observer . 19/3/2000 Adam Mars-Jones
Scientific American . 1/2000 Leigh Van Valen
The Spectator A+ 15/4/2000 John Fowles
TLS . 4/8/2000 Mark Ridley


  Review Consensus:

  Mainly descriptive reviews, concentrating on Nabokov's fascination with butterflies, with many reviewers foregoing criticism entirely. Many also express wary awe, daunted by the heft, detail, and terminology found in the book.

  Note: Jay Parini writes in The Guardian: "All translations are, as usual, by Nabokov's son Dmitri, who has lavished time and unusual talent on his father's work over several decades." John Fowles also suggests that all the translations are by Dmitri Nabokov. However, in the introductory A Note on the Texts it clearly states that: "Translations are by Brian Boyd unless otherwise noted." (A number are noted as being by Nabokov fils, but certainly not all.)


  From the Reviews:
  • "Some selectivity could have made for a more accessible volume, though the care with which it has been assembled is an impressive testament to the deep devotion that Nabokov continues to inspire almost 25 years after his death. Apart from entomologists and Nabokov fans, it is difficult to imagine that many readers will last the enormous distance." - Simon Caterson, The Age

  • "While few readers will want to study the scientific articles reprinted here, their presence in this striking miscellany operates in subtle ways to remind us that Nabokov (who referred to himself as VN), was also a student "of that other VN, Visible Nature"." - Jay Parini, The Guardian

  • "Nabokovian humour shines through these writings, illustrated by a note he penned to Hugh Hefner pointing out how the carefully positioned wings and eyespot of a butterfly can be made to look like the Playboy bunny motif." - Steve Connor, The Independent

  • "This book glistens like a rainforest: swarming with sap and colour, with love and death." - Robert Winder, New Statesman

  • "Nabokov's Butterflies is a book trying to be many books (.....) The thematic anthology has its charms, but they are rather modest ones. (...) And it's hard to see what we gain from the frequent short flashes of administrative communciation from the letters." - Michael Wood, The New York Review of Books

  • "Even Nabokov, however, might tire of a collection noting every time a moth flits by a lamp in Nabokov's writings. (...) Presumably, the prosaic poems bear the bruises of translation from the Russian by Nabokov's son, Dmitri. With few exceptions, the excerpts from longer fiction falter out of context; Nabokov's butterflies were meant to flutter by fully conceived fictional worlds. Nabokov's Butterflies juxtaposes science and art, but cannot integrate them." - Laurie Adlerstein, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The editors find a harmony in Nabokov between artist and scientist -- and it would be nice if there were traces of that virtue in their collaboration. There is overlap and contradiction in their opening remarks. (...) What is striking in Nabokov's Butterflies is the consistency of his opposition to scientific orthodoxy." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "The book that Boyd and Pyle have put together gives a good picture of Nabokov's lepidoptery and reproduces many of his drawings." - Leigh Van Valen, Scientific American

  • "(A)n outstanding triumph for Anglo-American publishing (.....) It is expertly edited and annotated by Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle. (...) It is a miracle of brilliant and revealing scholarship. Even when it loses one, it quivers with life like a recently caught butterfly itself, breathtakingly alive to all forms of beauty (.....) Nobody who has not read this book can call himself a true natural historian." - John Fowles, The Spectator

  • "The anthology is more of a source-book than one to read cover-to-cover, but, if it is read as a whole, it provides a picture not only of Nabokov's scientific contributions but also of the relation between his science, his writing and his life." - Mark Ridley, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Nabokov's Butterflies is a remarkable book. Vladimir Nabokov was, famously, fascinated by butterflies and besides being one of the greatest writers of the 20th century he was also a lepidopterist of some note. His dabbling in the field certainly went far beyond an amateur's efforts, and he appears to have made some noteworthy contributions to the field. He certainly took butterflies seriously (in a scientific sense), and he also saw them as a bridge between the real (natural and scientific) world and the world of art. Not surprisingly, butterflies figure extensively in his writing -- much as they did in his life.
       This unusual volume collects what seems to be every scrap Nabokov wrote that has to do with butterflies. More, in fact, as some of the scraps are what others wrote -- on his behalf (wife Véra's notes, for example) or to him, etc. In fact, putting aside the autobiographical piece from Conclusive Evidence/Speak Memory that introduces his writings, the book is framed by excerpts from a letter from his father, V.D., written in 1908 and reminiscences from his son, Dmitri, from 1977.
       Brian Boyd -- Nabokov biographer and commentator -- and Robert Michael Pyle -- writer and lepidopterist -- edited this volume, and each provides an introduction to Nabokov's fascination with butterflies. Boyd connects it to the literary works, where butterflies flitter all about, and Pyle emphasizes Nabokov's scientific achievements. Both pieces are quite strong, and certainly are useful introductions to the book.
       Nabokov's Butterflies then proceeds chronologically (save the first autobiographical excerpt) with "selected writings" by Nabokov, from the time of his youth to his dying days. The subtitle of the collection -- Unpublished and Uncollected Writings -- is a bit misleading: much that is included here was previously unpublished, and the rest has certainly never been collected in this manner. Nevertheless, much of the writing is familiar. There are excerpts from the novels -- each butterfly-related scene (16 from Lolita, for example) --, excerpts from interviews, letters, and poems and book reviews that have been published, in other form, previously.
       There is also a great deal of lepidopteral writing that most Nabokov-readers will be unfamiliar with, most notably quite extensive notes for a planned book, The Butterflies of Europe. There are also a few essentially technical papers, such as Some new or little known Neartic Neonympha (Lepidoptera: Satyridae). Most of these are dry reading (or perhaps simply unreadable) for the layman. Even the aforementioned piece, with tempting terms like "Neo-nympha" and "Satyr-idae" (and published in the promisingly named Psyche !) will hold the interest of only the die-hard Nabokov fan.
       The book also includes an appendix on Butterflies and Moths named by and for Vladimir Nabokov and an extensive bibliography

       Nabokov's Butterflies is a beautiful book, from the feel of the paper to the careful design. It is richly illustrated. Besides photographs of Nabokov there are also the master's drawings of butterflies, ranging from marginal doodles to carefully coloured drawings -- a stunning collection even without the accompanying text.
       The suspicion of course arises that this is all a bit much of a good but somewhat peculiar thing -- butterfly overkill, as it were. Perhaps. In some senses the book is practically unreadable, scientific gobbledygook that is impenetrable to the layman. The book is difficult to read straight through. There is no narrative thread. Indeed the only thread -- the butterflies -- flutter everywhere. It is, however, a wonderful book to dip into, with discoveries to be made on almost every page.
       Certainly one gets a feel throughout for Nabokov's love of the study of butterflies, and how he is torn between that and his art:

(A)lthough I am doing in this line something of far-reaching scientific importance I sometimes feel like a drunkard who in his moments of lucidity realizes that he is missing all sorts of wonderful opportunities.
       Proceeding chronologically the book provides another gloss on Nabokov's life, and can be followed like a biography -- granted an unusual and one-sided one. Biographical detail, butterfly-focussed, can be found throughout -- such as his acknowledgement in a 1951 letter: "I have a footballer's legs but my breasts bounce when I run."
       Other typical Nabokov-judgements also slip in, such as his always welcome opinion on translation. Though familiar from the Selected Letters the joy of the ever-optimistic Nabokov at reading "Singleton's splendid translation" of Dante always bears repeating :
What triumphant joy it is to see the honest light of literality take over again, after ages of meretricious paraphrase !
       It is, in fact, a surprising variety that is collected here. All butterflies, all the time -- and yet Nabokov (and his editors) show how much can be made of that.
       There are, however, also some entries that baffle, providing only the tiniest bit of biographical detail:
From letter to Véra Nabokov, c. May 20, 1930
From Prague. In Russian. Unpublished.
I went to see Obenberger at the entomological museum again.
       (This particular entry is among the most baffling -- there is no footnote indicating who on earth Obenberger might be (the notes are otherwise fairly solid), and Obenberger is not listed at all in the index.)

       The piecemeal presentation of the book, particularly the novels that are ripped apart and of which only the few butterfly-shreds are offered, is occasionally problematic. The relentless fill and progression of such morsels can also overwhelm. Early on the charming short story The Aurelian is presented in full, and one misses a similarly soothing extended piece later in the collection.

       Nabokov's Butterflies does what it sets out to do. It is the ultimate Nabokov-butterfly compendium and companion. It is not a book to read through in one go, but then not all books have to be. It is a book to linger over and return to. It is a book one can enjoy over extended periods of time, with new discoveries to be made each time one dives in, perhaps on occasion becoming more adventurous and making one's way through the more technical pieces, discovering there too small Nabokov gems.
       Butterfly lovers should be thrilled with this book (though having no expertise in the area we don't know whether Nabokov's systematist approach doesn't bother some). Nabokov lovers should also be thrilled -- although surprisingly much of the material will, in fact, be familiar. Others might be harder to convince of the worth of the book -- but they are missing something (well, people who don't consider themselves Nabokov lovers are already missing a great deal).
       A beautiful, fascinating, sometimes frustrating and daunting book. Recommended -- though readers should be aware of what they are getting themselves into.

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Links:

Nabokov's Butterflies: Reviews: Brian Boyd: Robert Michael Pyle: Vladimir Nabokov:
  • The fine Zembla site, devoted to Nabokov.
  • Nabokov A-Z (includes concordance to Lolita)
Other books by Vladimir Nabokov under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was among the leading authors of the 20th century, writing significant works in both Russian and English. He is the author of novels such as Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada.

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