“Did I ever mention that her bare arm bore the 8 of vaccination? That I loved her hopelessly? That she was only fourteen? An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.”
— Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

article-imageThe so-called Nabokov Genitalia Cabinet in his former office in the Harvard University Comparative Zoology department. (photograph from The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History by Nancy Pick and Mark Sloan)

The fields of natural history and comparative zoology are filled with anonymous genius from obscure scientists whose names often remain forgotten or unknown. Yet one of them, arguably the most humble entomologist of his generation, also happened to be one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. 

While Vladimir Nabokov is celebrated for his prose, he actually enjoyed a parallel existence in the realm of insect study. His obsessive passion for butterflies is not well known, but shouldn’t be understated. As Nabokov expressed it in an interview in 1967: “It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology [the study of butterflies] and never written any novels at all.”

article-imageYoung Vladimir Nabokov with a butterfly book, Vyra, 1907 (photograph by Karl Bulla)

The Russian novelist was a diligent flying insect hunter since childhood: a net in his hand, Nabokov tirelessly scouted the woods of Vyra, his hometown,  to chase the ephemeral creatures, preserve them on trays, and observe their fragile anatomy.

Fleeing Russia in 1917 with his family, Nabokov kept as much of  his darling collection as he could with him. Once in the United States, he volunteered in the American Museum of Natural History’s Entomology Department, and kept traveling around the country with his wife, Vera, to catch precious specimens.

article-imageButterfly Map - Nabokov’s drawing of a heavily spotted Melissa Blue, overlaid with the scale-row classification system he developed for mapping individual markings. The original drawing is believed to be conserved in the New York Public Library (via Scientific Illustation/ Tumblr user

Between 1942 and 1948, Nabokov was a Researcher Fellow in the Harvard University Comparative Zoology department. The university allowed him to have a little shop furnished with scientific equipment to pursue his taxonomic research. Nabokov was already a practiced expert of Blue Butterflies and focused his classification theory on one specific point: the study of male butterfly genitalia. Invisible to our bare eyes, the butterflies’ privates were described by Nabokov as “minuscule sculptural hooks, teeth, spurs, etc… visible only under a microscope.” These aedeagus would be taken away from each specimen, places in littles vials or on glass plates, and labeled. By doing so, Nabokov could observe new physiognomic differences between identical-looking butterflies and reevaluate their belonging to one species or another. Each specimen was indexed and placed in a small wooden cabinet. 

This miraculous little collection still exists today, but is kept out of sight, in the Harvard Entomology Departments. In her book The Secret Museum, Molly Oldfield described her own visit to Nabokov’s former office to explore the “Genitalia Cabinet,” where hundreds of documents, cigar boxes crammed with butterfly penises, and dried out specimens were all labeled in Nabokov’s elegant handwriting. 

article-imageNabokov in Switzerland (1960/70) (photograph by Horst Tappe, via Nabokov Museum)

During his lifetime, a only a handful of researchers gave credit to Nabokov’s theories, and his Harvard fellowship was his first and last employment as a professional lepidopterologist. But our modern science recently took an interest his evolutionary theory. In 2011, a group of researcher applied DNA sequencing technology on Nabokov hypothesis on Polyommatus Blue Butterflies and his classification system and proved it right. 

After his Harvard experience, Nabokov went to Cornell University to teach Russian and European literature. His holidays were spent with Vera on the West Coast, frolicking in nature and catching butterflies for his collections. In the summer of 1948, Nabokov wrote the firsts texts of a novel, drafted on the back of his entomology index cards. This drafts were for his most famous work: Lolita.


Unlabeled butterflies by Nabokov on a copy of the first American edition of Lolita from 1958 (via Nabokov Museum)

In addition to those at Harvard, specimens from his college can also be seen in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the museum at Cornell, the Zoological Museum in Lausanne, and the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg that is housed in his childhood home.