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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.