Thursday, July 20, 2006

"Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man." -- Vladimir Nabokov.

For the next month, Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison will be hosting thousands of Vladimir Nabokov's favorite creatures at their Blooming Butterflies event.
Discover rare tropical treasures hidden in the heart of Madison! Experience the wonder of strolling through a tropical rain forest on a search for fleeting butterflies. Live butterflies are emerging from chrysalises daily in the Bolz Conservatory. The Bolz Conservatory, which will house the live butterflies, is a two-story glass pyramid filled with exotic plants from around the world, a rushing waterfall, fragrant orchids, and free-flying birds, and for one month out of the year, thousands of colorful butterflies. The dainty painted lady, the exquisite swallowtail, the tropical zebra butterflies, and many others will all float through the lush greenery feeding on the nectar of bright flowers. Up to two dozen species of butterflies, native to both Wisconsin and tropical areas of the southern United States, can be seen at various times during the exhibit.
The event runs daily, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., through August 13. Bring your camera. When I took this photo several years ago, butterflies were almost flying into my camera, there were so many of them.

At the same time, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nabokov and his love of butterflies and what it meant to his writing are being commemorated by a photo exhibit at the Nabokov Museum. The International Herald Tribune reports:
Scholars of Nabokov's writing have never quite known what to make of his work as an entomologist. Some have regarded it as a sideshow, part of a carefully crafted effort to shape his public image. Andrew Field, his first biographer, once called it "an elaborate literary pose."

But those who play down the seriousness of Nabokov's interest in butterflies tend to overlook the fact that he worked as an obscure curator of lepidoptera for seven years. From 1941 to 1948, he was a part-time research fellow at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, reorganizing its butterfly collection and publishing several well-received scientific papers.

Now, Dmitry Sokolenko is trying to reconcile the two Nabokovs once and for all. Sokolenko, 29, of St. Petersburg, has organized an exhibition in the city's Vladimir Nabokov Museum that probes the links between the writer's art and his science. Titled "The Nabokov Code," a riff on "The Da Vinci Code," it juxtaposes quotes from Nabokov's books with full-color images of butterfly parts.
The photos were taken by microbiologist and photographer Sokolenko under a microscope of the kinds of details Nabokov would have observed closely when he was working on the butterfly catalog at Harvard. The photos are accompanied by quotations from Nabokov's writing. Sokolenko's thesis is that Nabokov was really a scientist first and a writer second, and that the scientist's habits of observation influenced his development as a writer.
"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," Sokolenko said in an interview before the exhibition opened in early July. "I think that his painstaking attention to detail could only have come from his profession, from what he was doing in entomology."
While the exhibit showed under the gimmicky name of "The Nabokov Code" to piggyback on you-know-what's PR blitz, it previewed with the more poetic title of "Les Papillons de Nabokov" in France back in June. There are plans for the exhibit to come to the U.S., though times and venues have not been confirmed yet. Find out more about the show at the museum's website, which shows reproductions of some of the closeup photographs.

Want to know more about Nabokov and his love for butterflies? A good place to start is the fragment of unpublished lecture notes entitled "Invitation to a Transformation" from the famous classes Nabokov taught at Wellesley and Cornell in the 1940's and 50's. The New York Times published the passage a few years ago on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Read the piece HERE and see how Nabokov uses the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly to start talking about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

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