A NY Times article by Alexander Osipovich brings to our attention Russian microbiologist Dmitry Sokolenko:

Mr. Sokolenko has organized an exhibition in the Vladimir Nabokov Museum here [in St. Petersburg] that explores the links between the author’s art and his science. Titled “The Nabokov Code,” a riff on “The Da Vinci Code,” it juxtaposes quotations from Nabokov’s books with images of butterfly parts.

The images, taken under a microscope, are the sort of thing that Nabokov would have seen every day while researching lepidoptera at Harvard. The quotations, meanwhile, are filled with allusions to insects. Mr. Sokolenko organized the show to advance his hypothesis: that Nabokov’s meticulous, masterly prose style grew out of his love of science.

“When you do what Nabokov did, when you shift your focus from entomology to literature, you hold onto all the methods and research tools that you’ve been using for years,” Mr. Sokolenko said in an interview just before the exhibition opened on July 3. “I think that his painstaking attention to detail could only have come from his profession, from what he was doing in entomology.”

He clearly goes way overboard in his thesis, but it’s interesting stuff, and I’d like to see the exhibit. (Thanks for the link, Bonnie!)


  1. From everything I’ve read by and about Nabokov, I would say that both the writing and the scientific observation come from (and feed into) a sense of infatuation with detail and observation that is basic to both. This piece caught my eye because in addition to being a Nabokov fan, I’ve been studying figure drawing and artistic anatomy lately, and I’ve found a high level of detailed and descriptive but efficient and economical writing in old books by artistic anatomy teachers, who, like lepidopterists, were keen, trained observers of a specialized segment of nature.

  2. Nabokov’s prose is hyper-detailed, for sure, but I don’t think it is an observational detail which makes it stand out, rather an imaginative detail–a famous example being the “(picnic, lightning)” joke in Lolita, or the fantasy mechanisms of Ada. Perhaps some might think this a superfluous distinction, but I find it valid.

  3. Scholars have written dozens of dissertations and monographs on this subject. I’m not sure I quite agree with the notion that Nabokov’s “attention to detail” in his art comes from his study of lepidoptera. He wrote in an interview, published in Strong Opinions, that butterfly collecting and writing were very different pleasures. But in Speak, Memory he wrote: “The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me… ‘National selection,’ in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of ‘the struggle for life’ when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator’s power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”
    Lovely, yes?

  4. John Emerson says

    Nabakov seems to have been able to do anything he tried. Besides being a virtuoso writer (in his second language) and a professional lepidopterist, he wrote chess puzzles and was apparently a pretty competitive tennis player. And I think I left something out.

  5. I understand he was also a good enough elephant to have been considered for such a role at Harvard.

  6. Hm, that wasn’t me. Is a certain person here drunk again?

  7. Matt! Stop that at once, you naughty no-sworded boy!

  8. Gah! I’m sorry, I must have absent-mindedly typed in John’s name since he was the last comment I read before writing mine. What a bizarre faux pas.

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