Butterfly privates, Nabokov-style

Nabokov, in an out-of-the way corner of Harvard's Natural History Museum

Last week I lucked into a private tour of Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly collection, housed at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. The acclaimed Russian novelist was a curator of the collection from 1941 to 1945, during the time he was writing “Lolita.”

I went out of curiosity and also to see if I could get a juicy nugget or two for my friend Andrea Pitzer, who’s doing some pretty cool, groundbreaking research on the author. But when the eight of us arrived, it was obvious that we weren’t going to be privy to many details of the writer’s favorite pastime. The Zoologist-in-charge, an amiable Australian, explained that he’d love to say more about Nabokov but that higher-ups frowned on it.

Humbert Humbert was nowhere to be found amid the boxes of straight-pinned butterflies, but we did get to see gorgeous butterflies collected from all over the world for the past century-and-a-half, including some anomalies that were half-male and half-female. He explained how some varieties of butterflies and moths mimicked the colors and patterns of poisonous varieties to confuse birds so they wouldn’t be eaten in the wild, a phenomenon known as “protective resemblance.”

Paradise Birdwing

There were other great non-Nabokov nuggets, like the story of one particular Paradise Birdwing, a butterfly collected 140 years ago in the wilds of Papua New Guinea. In the tiny handwritten note underneath the specimen, it was noted  that the collector was eaten by the Papuans shortly after he nabbed the insect. This detail was mentioned parenthetically at the end of the label — talking about burying the lede! How it came to be in Harvard’s hands after that, I have no idea — but if this isn’t evidence that the university’s connections truly run deep, I don’t know what is.

After most of the undergrads left, a few of us stayed behind, and I tried to gently nudge the zoologist for a few more details. In the bowels of the fifth-floor storage facility, sandwiched amid several rows of cabinets, he finally unlocked cabinet No. 13, labeled “Nabokovia,” for the blue butterfly Nabokov discovered in upstate New York. As I turned my camera back on, he cut me off with a curt, “No pictures.” Then he pulled out exactly one drawer so we could glimpse a few of the butterflies Nabokov personally sorted and labeled as well his penciled signature: “V. Nabokov.”

Past curators had organized the cabinet according the novels in which the butterflies were mentioned, so drawers were organized not by variety but by categories such as “Speak, Memory” and “Lolita.” We saw the iconic Lycaenidae butterfly he drew under his signature but weren’t, alas, privy to the writer’s storied butterfly genitalia collection. Apparently, Nabokov spent many eye-draining hours of his time in this out-of-the-way corner of Harvard, hand-slicing the genitalia of butterflies and placing them in small vials where he would draw pictures from them, study them and let his imagination roam.

The view from Nabokov's dissecting desk

Really? Butterfly genitalia as a metaphor for one of literature’s finest observers? Believe it.

Only at Harvard. . . .

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