© Philippe Halsman _ Magnum Photos


Some clarifications about a well-known writer

Once someone stated that Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, didn’t turn into the well-known cockroach, but rather into a beetle. This “clarification” might not change Kafka’s work that much. Yet, if Gregor Samsa had turned into a big beetle, it would mean that he would have had wings under his shell, and this – more precisely – would mean that he could have flown. What if Samsa, fallen in disgrace for turning into an insect, could have flown away taking advantage of the window opened by the cleaning lady, rather than letting himself be observed by the disgusted glances of people? There’s a good chance that something would have been different.

Well, the ‘someone’ who dared correct Kafka, who in someway also compromised the certainty of a metaphor of human condition which still works nowadays, was Vladimir Nabokov, an expert lepidopterist, composer of chess problems and writer. 

Fortunately Kafka’s main creative aim and existential need in The Metamorphosis wasn’t that of being scientifically accurate but – more importantly – to portray a claustrophobic and intimate, picture of human condition, which he powerfully achieved. Be it a cockroach or a beetle, the insect had to be imbued with metaphorical and symbolical meaning. In this sense, accurate empirical observation and severe, meticulous, classification was up to someone else, which is what Nabokov made his life about. Chasing butterflies was to him serious and mesmerizing. Not just an occupation or an ‘hobby’, as someone would call it, on the contrary, it was what he did lifelong.
No metaphor intended here. 

Nabokov had earned his passion for butterflies from his father. At the age of 7 it was clear to him that his dream was to discover an unknown species of butterflies, technically called ‘holotype’, and name it after himself. Writing and literature came later, and always secondarily to his main passion. Nabokov himself stated in an interview that if it hadn’t been for the Russian revolution and for the upheavals it had caused to his aristocratic family, he would have spent his entire life just studying butterflies. Something came in between.
Could we name Lolita an exercise of distraction?

Vladimir Nabokov, 1968. © Philippe Halsman – Magnum Photos

In a recent radio episode about Nabokov, Tommaso Pincio enlightens the listeners: it has to be clear that until Lolita’s conventional success, Nabokov could have been defined as a professional lepidopterist and an amateur writer. Lolita, for many a reminder of Nabokov’s existence, was written in the ‘meantimes’, more precisely, in the ‘meantimes’ of a tour of America with his wife and a net for butterflies in the trunk of the car, searching for his adored creatures. The script was then saved by his wife from the garbage where her husband had thrown it. “It is reasonable to assume that because of butterflies we’re left with less Nabokovian fiction”, Pincio subtly observes. Otherwise, it is unlikely that we’re left with less lepidopterological information because of
Nabokov’s fiction. 

Given what has been said by now, probably we all are tempted to establish a connection between Nabokov’s passion for natural science and his literature, by considering the butterflies servants of metaphoric meaning and sparks of inspiration for his prose. Although this makes sense from a literary point of view, this hypothesis was denied by Nabokov himself in several circumstances. Rather, as Stephen Gould highlights in I Have Landed, his writings and scientific studies are bound together by the obsession and adoration of detail, which in his literature has the result of an often cryptic, but always brilliant and apt combination of words. So, Nabokov’s scientific methodology found an outstanding way to manifest in disguise. 

On January the 22nd 1938 on the Maritime Alps, Vladimir Nabokov captured an unknown holotype of butterfly. Thirty-seven years later, no more in perfect shape, he fell on the rocks on the Swiss Alps while chasing a butterfly with his net. That injury started his physical decline, which lasted eighteen months and that led him to death in 1977. 

Essentially, the precision of distinguishing an insect from another didn’t change Kafka’s creative work and heritage, but exactly that rare curiosity for such “slight” differences was the existential need Nabokov ran after all his life, till the end.

Noemi Althea Feldtkeller

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