On the Road with Lolita

Corinne Scheiner, Colorado College

[Véra and I] shall probably spend July near Telluride in southwestern Colorado where I want to study in the field a butterfly I described from preserved specimens.
– Vladimir Nabokov, letter to Edmund Wilson (13 June 1951)

In the spring of 2003, a biologist and I team-taught a course entitled “Nabokov’s Butterflies,” in which we examined the intersections between Vladimir Nabokov’s work as a lepidopterist and his work as a writer; in particular, we focused on his concern with detail in nature and literature, observation, and patterning. We began by reading excerpts from Nabokov’s multiple autobiographies to discover how these two interests pervaded Nabokov’s life and his thoughts about the multiple “hats” he wore. We moved on to a study of the field of Lepidoptera and the central questions contained therein, focusing particularly on systematics, mimicry, and behavioral and ecological evolution. Throughout the course, we read several of Nabokov’s literary works—novels, short stories, and poems— in conjunction with his scientific writings and explored how Nabokov’s knowledge of these Lepidopteral concepts and others drawn from the study of the natural world play out in his work as a writer. Our goal was to demonstrate that, as Stephen J. Gould suggests, “the major linkage of science and literature lies in some distinctive, underlying approach that Nabokov applied equally to both domains—a procedure that conferred the same special features upon all his efforts.”

Thus, the course culminated in a week-long field trip in which we re-enacted one of Nabokov’s butterfly-hunting expeditions here in the Southwest and caught butterflies ourselves; given that Nabokov wrote Lolita during such an expedition, we read Lolita as we did so. Rather than read Lolita as a “preserved specimen,” that is, divorced from both the landscape of the novel and the landscape in which Nabokov wrote it, the trip afforded us the opportunity to examine the novel “in the field,” set against these backdrops.  In this paper, I argue that the experience of studying Lolita on the road—the activity of catching butterflies in the morning, traveling around the Southwest by car, observing the landscapes (both natural and man-made), and staying in roadside motels—directly affected students’ readings and discussions of the novel in the afternoon. Moreover, the numerous ways in which the field experience influenced students’ readings of Lolita serves as but one example of how the course’s over-arching theme—the intersections between art and science—impacted their understandings of Nabokov and his work.