Nabokov’s Scientists in The Gift

Stephen Blackwell, University of Tennessee

Long famous as a literary scientist and scientific artist, Nabokov draws admiration from both communities. Nevertheless, the scientific aspects of his art have evoked relatively little study (although there have been notable exceptions and hints of some beginnings on the NABOKV-L discussion list). This situation is beginning to change, with the recent publication of Nabokov’s Blues and Nabokov’s Butterflies, two books devoted to cataloguing and exploring the details of the writer’s lepidopterological forays in the wild and on the page. In particular, the newly published text “Father’s Butterflies,” rejected by the author from inclusion in The Gift (first as part of the text, later as an “addition”), brings into greater focus than almost any other work Nabokov’s effort to devise a new manner of conceiving art, natural science, and the link between them.

The present paper seeks to elucidate the pattern of science and scientists in The Gift and its newly uncovered offshoot. Concealed and explicit references to several prominent discoverers intertwine with the novel’s unusual narrative of self-creation and with the story of Konstantin Kirillovič’s explorations; these combined themes and structures propose radical new modes of perception and existence through the merging of science and art. Not merely an affront to Darwinism, The Gift may be viewed as Nabokov’s first comprehensive attempt to devise an entirely new way of approaching reality, a way beyond both science and art as traditionally conceived. In creating and describing the leading entomological explorer of the age, Nabokov sought to produce a vehicle for his own discoveries about the scientific artistry of the natural world, among the most enduring and thought-provoking aspects of his intellectual legacy.