Who I want to look like when I grow old (1): Vladimir Nabokov

VLADIMIR NABOKOV referred to himself as "an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name." He was mistaken, of course. When he had published Lolita, he was thrust into the limelight because the novel was disturbing, which was his intended reaction.

The narrator was a man named Humphrey Bogart Humbert Humbert. He had a sexual obsession with pubescent girls he called his "nymphets." In his eyes Lolita was superior to them all. The novel's first few lines illustrate his worship of her:

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

I became Nabokov's fan after I had read Lolita. An academic like himself channeling the thoughts of a disturbing character like Bogart would bring attention to his state of mind. Publishing that book took courage—and a lot of good faith from his wife.

What people don't realize—and I was surprised myself—is that Nabokov was fascinated with entomology. He liked catching insects, preserving, and displaying them. He could have been a scientist and excelled in it.

This morning I stumbled upon a Paris Review interview in 1967. There he gave snappy, pointed answers. It also showed his preoccupation with butterflies.


INTERVIEWER
Are you a lepidopterist, stalking your victims? If so, doesn't your laughter startle them? 
NABOKOV
On the contrary, it lulls them into the state of torpid security which an insect experiences when mimicking a dead leaf. Though by no means an avid reader of reviews dealing with my own stuff, I happen to remember the essay by a young lady who attempted to find entomological symbols in my fiction. The essay might have been amusing had she known something about Lepidoptera. Alas, she revealed complete ignorance, and the muddle of terms she employed proved to be only jarring and absurd.

In another section.

INTERVIEWER
Besides writing novels, what do you, or would you, like most to do? 
NABOKOV
Oh, hunting butterflies, of course, and studying them. The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.

As a kid I was afraid of butterflies. My friends from the neighborhood told me that if I didn't watch out, butterflies would pee on my eye and blind me. I believed them, of course. To this day I treat butterflies with caution, the way I wouldn't walk in the rain while the sun is shining, lest I go crazy.

Both photos were taken by Carl Mydans for Life.com. Check The Daily Beast's compilation of the rare photos of Vladimir Nabokov.

Comments

  1. You mean Humbert Humbert, right? :-D

    I was told about butterflies blinding me too, but it wing scales that would get into your eye that would cause blindness.

    s

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! What was I thinking? Thank you, s! :)

      Delete

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