cover image Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius

Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius

Kurt Johnson. Zoland Books, $27 (368pp) ISBN 978-1-58195-009-0

Vladimir Nabokov gained world fame with Lolita and captivated sophisticated readers with a score of other fictions, but he took equal pride in his studies of butterflies, publishing several technical papers describing and classifying members of the subfamily Polyommatini, or Blues. Nabokovians have long known of his lepidopterous labors; insect experts, however, often and wrongly neglected the novelist's research, which turns out (despite his amateur status) to include a serious contribution to knowledge of New World tropical Blues. During the late 1980s, lepidopterist Johnson and his colleague Zsolt B lint discovered, in remote parts of Central America, specimens that strengthened or proved the arguments Nabokov had made. The new Blues, the story of their discovery and the meaning and relevance of Nabokov's scientific studies give Johnson and New York Times writer Coates some of the subjects for their hard-to-classify book, a rarely attempted sort of hybrid that crosses informed science writing with literary biography. On the science side, Johnson and Coates cover the place of butterfly studies in Nabokov's life; the contentious history of butterfly and moth taxonomy and the development of its basic rules; and the use of butterfly studies in larger debates on ecology and evolution. Literarily, they discuss the meaning of butterflies and moths in Nabokov's writings and show that specialist knowledge of lepidopterology enriches the ironies and punch lines readers can find in Nabokov's The Gift. Curiously, Nabokov's Blues yield startling insights into biological mimicry--an appropriate turn, given the novelist's own penchants for masks and doubles. Readers with a taste for science and literature will love this book, which is both entertaining and polymathically informative--rather like the English/Russian, naturalist/novelist, scholar/artist Nabokov himself. Eight b&w illus. (Oct.)