Needless to say, I pounced on the Pale Fire s first. Not one, but several editions inscribed with the cryptic annotations of the Master himself. There was, in fact, a veritable treasure of other never-before-seen-in-public, personally inscribed Nabokov editions piled up before me in the East 76th Street premises of Glenn Horowitz Bookseller. But as faithful readers know, Pale Fire , that stunning novel in the form of annotations on a thousand-line poem in heroic couplets, is a singular obsession of mine, one of my great loves in all of literature. One that I feel is a kind of test , in the sense that I’m just not sure I can trust the literary sensibility of those who resist-or don’t get-the rapture of its unique pleasures.
This is not an elitist sentiment: I swear I got into an argument about the Pale Fire narrator question (was it V. Botkin, as certain clues in the unreliable index suggest, or is the question meant to be infinitely reflexive, ultimately undecidable?) at a high-stakes poker game last month. O.K., the poker player happened to be a Harvard comp lit major who’d been unduly influenced by fashionable aporist postmodern theory in his argument for undecidability; but we conducted the argument between hectic rounds of seven-card stud, so don’t call us effete esthetes. It’s an important issue!
Important because it bears upon the powers and limitation of the creative imagination as embodied in the mind of Vladimir Nabokov, who authored a parallel world that rivals, in its unique beauty and complexity and sadness, the Creation brought into being by that other Supreme Esthete, God. Was the man who was perhaps the supreme esthetic intelligence of this century a believer in ultimate coherence, or incoherence? In a God who played poker and rolled dice, or one who performed exquisitely beautiful card tricks?
In any case, the Pale Fire s I pounced on were part of an extremely unusual collection of books culled from the personal library of the Nabokov family. Unusual, because these were, in effect, the Nabokovs’ lares and penates, the family’s household gods. After VN died, his beloved wife Véra kept them with her wherever she traveled, which is understandable, since so many of them radiate his living presence. There are, in particular, his personal copies of his own books, ones that over the years he inscribed with sometimes surprising, sometimes cryptic, sometimes revealing annotations and emendations. Reading through them was for me, a lifelong VN devotee, something akin to being at play in the fields of the Lord. In addition, there are presentation copies of books he gave to Véra, many of them inscribed with beautiful hand-drawn figures of butterflies, the expression of his lifelong obsessive love of lepidopterology.
In fact, for me perhaps the single most thrilling object in the collection, one of the single most thrilling graven images I’ve encountered, the one book in the collection that most seemed to speak from beyond the grave and the graven realms, was a unique Nabokov book, one he created himself by hand, one never before seen by the world, and one that I believe discloses an important secret about his esoteric passion.
In the rare book trade, this sort of one-of-a-kind volume is known as a “nonce,” a near-archaic term for a book that has not been published in multiples but was created in lonely splendor, once and once alone. This particular nonce, bound in tan cloth covers, was a gift of love VN gave to Véra, a kind of distillation of the other great passion of his life. It is, this nonce, a carefully stitched-together collection of 10 of his favorite lepidopteral studies. Some were never reprinted after their initial appearance in such arcane publications as Harvard University’s Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (which devoted an entire issue to VN’s “The Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides …”), The Lepidopterists’ News , and the wonderfully named quarterly of butterfly studies, Psyche .
Some have seen VN’s lepidopteral obsession as a kind of eccentricity, if not an affectation. (He devoted 70 years to collecting and classifying specimens, becoming a highly regarded figure in the field, in particular for his extremely fine-tuned sensitivity to intraspecies variations-distinctions based on exquisitely calibrated descriptions of wing markings and the subtle morphological variations in male genitalia.) But as one astute bibliographic note on his lepidopteral publications points out, VN once declared that “My passion for lepidopterological research … is even more pleasurable than the study and practice of literature, which is saying a good deal.”
Saying a good deal indeed, but in some way not saying quite enough. I found myself mesmerized by the butterfly nonce, mesmerized by it as a numinous object, spellbound, as well, by the fearsomely dense thickets of VN’s lepidopteral prose. When he tells us that “clues provided by aberrational individual [butterflies] and certain ontogenetic data suggest that the maculation [colored spotting on the wings] of a given interspace develops phylogentically in result of a series of recurrent waves or rays of pigment”-what is he really talking about? What mystery are the “clues provided by aberrational individual[s]” really clues to, beyond patterns of pigment on a butterfly wing?
After hours of immersing myself in this dense prose, only occasionally illuminated by flashes of Nabokovian wit, I felt it begin to disclose to me a kind of clue, a glimmer of the nature of the luminous bond between VN’s literary and lepidopteral passions. I’ll get to the butterfly secret, as I’ve come to think of it, but I want to at least touch on a few of the treasures to be found in the rest of the VN archives, some of which I suspect I’ll return to in the future.
In particular-in light of the multiplicity of butterflies, hand-drawn, intensively studied and lavishly described by VN in these volumes-I’d like to dwell upon the one caterpillar rendered here. It can seem, if you think about it, that VN’s lepidopteral obsession, the profusion of butterflies on his pages, does seem to slight the lowly caterpillar from which they all are engendered: the mundane crawling creature whose spinning of a translucent cocoon and transformation into a delicate winged being seems an implicit metaphor for the trance-spun spell of art, the metamorphosis of earthbound reality into winged beauty.
But, in fact, there was a caterpillar, one caterpillar (that’s all I found at any rate), a graceful, hand-drawn, one-horned caterpillar that crawls across the top of a page in one of the extraordinary series of heavily hand-revised sections of VN’s autobiography, Speak, Memory .
Glenn Horowitz, and his senior cataloger, Sarah Funke, who are preparing-with the blessing of VN’s son and translator, Dmitri-a sale catalogue of the collection, recalled for me that Speak, Memory went through a remarkable number of stages of creation and re-creation, as VN created and re-created his past. Appearing first as Conclusive Evidence in 1951, it was republished in England as Speak, Memory , then that work was translated into Russian by VN, and subsequently heavily revised and re-created, even renamed as Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited . He was continually spinning a cocoon of silken lines around his past, and the VN archives contain each successive version in the staged metamorphosis. Curiously (or not so curiously, as it turns out), the lone caterpillar drawing makes its appearance on a heavily marked-up copy of Conclusive Evidence ‘s reincarnation as Speak, Memory before the “revisitation.” It’s a particularly fascinating volume because pages and pages of Nabokovian memory, of stunning, stirring, evocative prose about his past, are apparently being expunged before our eyes, much of it never to be seen by the world again.
The caterpillar drawing crests a page which is entirely crossed out with a big bold VN “X,” a page in which VN is in the midst of describing a dreamy childhood memory. It’s a childhood, you’ll recall, that began as a beautiful Russian idyll of art, love and beauty, only to be shattered by ugly politics, by the assassination of his father-a liberalizing aristocrat under the Czar-by proto-fascist, anti-Semitic fanatics, an assassination that is echoed in transfigured form in the murder plot embedded in the annotations of Pale Fire .
In any case, the excised page surmounted by the caterpillar contains a particularly plangent account of the child VN, cocooned in the heavy blankets of a sleigh on a snowy St. Petersburg night, entering into a kind of dream realm, “the almost hallucinatory state that our snow-muffled ride engendered.” He dreams of the dueling deaths of his beloved Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, but beneath the dreams of poets dying is a nightmarish foreshadowing. “Behind it all there was yet a very special emotional abyss that I was desperately trying to skirt, lest I burst into a tempest of tears.”
And yet when he describes the “abyss,” it scarcely sounds nightmarish on the face of it. It was, he writes, “the tender friendship underlying my respect for my father; the charm of our perfect accord.” He goes on in the original text to note some embodiments of that perfect accord: “the butterflies we discussed, the chess problems we solved, the Pushkin iambics that rolled off his tongue.…” But curiously (although he later reinstated much of the dreamy sleigh ride he had excised), he heavily crossed out one clause from that list: “the butterflies we discussed.” And then he crossed out the final term that sums up the list of father-son accords, one that reads in the original, “the habitual exchange of homespun nonsense and private jokes which is the secret code of happy families.”
The secret code of happy families: crossed out, but why? Because he thought the echo of Leo Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina (“All happy families are alike …”) too hubristic a literary allusion? Or was the memory of that lost idyll of family happiness too unbearable to recapitulate in light of its foreshadowed end, the “abyss” to come, the metamorphosis from happy to unhappy family? It’s a metamorphosis reimagined, re-embodied in the caterpillar crawling across the crossed-out page toward its unimaginable destiny-crawling above the expunged lines about butterflies and the deleted reference to the secret code, the lost language of happiness. It’s his own metamorphosis from cocooned child to melancholy artist.
And speaking of secret codes, the VN archives contain several instances of the magician disclosing some of his card tricks, decoding certain of his most recherché anagrammatic encodings, his literary sleight of hand. These can be found most frequently in the margins of his copy of Ada. One of the delights of that amazing work, one almost biblical in its radiant genesis of an alternate Creation, is VN’s confection of an alternate literary canon composed of hybrids of writers and book titles from this world. Some of them are not hard to decode (T.S. Eliot is given the Jewish name Beckstein, a karmic payback, perhaps, for his most singularly anti-Semitic poem, “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar.” And some might discern in the name of a patent medicine in Ada-“Mr. Henry’s oil of Atlantic prose”-a reference to Henry James, although VN makes it explicit here with a penciled “Henry James” in the margins. But what about a novel described in Ada as ” The Puffer by Mr. Duke”? We might still be in the dark, if not for VN’s penciled marginal note which identifies this as “Saul Bellow’s Herzog ” (Get it? Bellows equals puffer; Herzog, in German, equals Duke).
Why decode these minor, if not trivial, allusions (Martin Amis calls Nabokov and Bellow the two great Russian novelists of our era) and not others? Did VN decode it because he felt that after his death, it would be too obscure for posterity ever to get? For his own benefit, in case he forgot it in its obscurity? Or just for the eyes of Véra and Dmitri?
I’ll mention only one further decoding here among the many, because it yields a beautiful, melancholy reward. Next to a passage in Ada in which there’s a reference to a work called “The Weed Exiles the Flower,” published by “Melville and Marvell,” he’s added a penciled marginal note referring us to line 6 of a poem by Herman Melville, “The Ravaged Villa,” a poem I raced to look up. “The Ravaged Villa,” previously unknown to me, turns out to be a kind of meditation on a shattered Keatsian Grecian urn, on the broken fragments of a painted pastoral idyll scattered across the floor of the “ravaged villa.” A chilling vision of de-creation, one that might have struck a chord in VN-particularly the line about the weed exiling the flower-as an emblem of the shattered aristocratic idyll of his childhood and the melancholy exile to come.
I’m going to limit my comments here on the cryptic underlinings in VN’s Pale Fire to permit me further study. But I can’t resist pointing out one intensely suggestive correction to an apparent misprint in an annotation about misprints in the epic footnotes of Pale Fire . Because it bears upon the question of ultimate coherence or incoherence Pale Fire raises. Does art create order out of disorder or merely mirror, at best transfigure, a fundamental disorder in creation?
At the close of one of the funniest and most touching passages in Pale Fire , a misconceived passage about misprints by the mad annotator Charles Kinbote, there is a parenthetical cross-reference that reads, in the published version: “for other vivid misprints, see line 802.” In his personal copy of Pale Fire , VN has crossed out the 2 in 802 with a penciled slash and substituted below it the numeral 3, making it read 803.
Is this some private joke, or could there actually have been a galling publisher’s misprint in the footnoted cross-references to a further footnote about misprints? Is this the place where the cosmic comic incoherence of creation shows its seam, the flaw even, in the shimmering fabric of Pale Fire ? Is it a flaw that discloses a higher transfigured coherence, or is it a token of the triumph of incoherence? Is God playing dice with the universe, or is VN loading the dice? I think I need time to think about this, but, meanwhile, let me return to the butterfly secret and to what I believe may be a not widely recognized coherence between VN’s love of literature and his love of lepidopterology.
What they have in common, I came to realize, is that they are both, the literary and the butterfly work, about language . What VN was doing in his lovingly obsessive study of wing-marking patterns and genital morphology was an act of reading ; he was reading and translating the language, the esoteric genetic poetics of butterfly markings. It’s something I began to get an amorphous feeling for from close reading of the lepidopteral monographs when I came upon an explicit clue at the close of VN’s major work on the butterfly genus Lycaeides, one he’d devoted much of his life to limning. Summing up his incredibly painstaking, dizzyingly detailed attempt to describe and categorize the variety of wing patterns of Lycaeides, to find meaning in the subtle shifts in the pigmentation of the tiny “maculations,” he adds, “In conclusion, a few words may be said concerning the specific repetition, rhythm, scope and expression of the genetic characters supplied by the eight categories discussed.”
Repetition, rhythm, scope and expression: These are the terms of prosody, the study of poetic metrics (one of the volumes in the VN archives is his Notes on Prosody ), and I’d suggest VN devotes the same reverent attention to resonant minutiae in the rhythmic configurations of butterfly “characters” as he does to the configuration of characters-letters, sounds and syntax-in the language of poetry. VN is famous for his synesthesia, of course, in which letters were colors to him; in butterflies, colors were letters.
I have little other experience of lepidopteral literature (although I loved an exchange VN includes in the nonce with a censorious Mr. Brown, whom VN accuses of failing to understand his poetic, “qualitative”-as opposed to quantitative-lepidopteral methods) but it seems to me the continuing preoccupation, the quest in VN’s lepidopteral prose, is to distinguish meaningful genetic utterances from transient aberrations. To distinguish signal from noise and decide which new patterns of characters deserve to be incarnated as a subspecies, given a name . And I could be projecting here, but I sense beneath VN’s fascination with the pure language of lepidopterology an enchantment with a particular kind of poetry being inscribed upon the butterfly wings: an erotic drama about beauty and desire, about the way certain patterns of color, the poetry of genetic utterances in pigment, become eroticized in the vision of the butterflies. The way the beauty of these markings might inspire butterfly lust, mating and then new hybridized languages. The way the grim, brutal Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest is sublimated into an erotic, esthetic struggle-the survival of the most beautiful in the drama of mating and morphology.
But there is another kind of drama being played out in his butterfly prose: a drama about the limits of language, limits which VN is constantly testing in his effort to read and translate into human language the expressive hieroglyphics inscribed on butterflies. One senses that when he is translating the esoteric language of butterflies, he is paying tribute not to blind chance and genetic mathematics, but to a beloved rival creator of beauty. It’s a kind of duel between poets, VN’s tribute to the lepidopteral prosody of God the Esthete, who discloses His secrets coherences in the signs and scintillations inscribed on butterfly wings.