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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

How is a Butterfly's **** Like a Novel? Nature and Art in Nabokov's Scientific Archive

Stephen BlackwellCollege of Arts and Sciences - Modern Foreign Language and Literatures

In 6 years of laboratory work, Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov made at least 1,500 scientific drawings of butterfly genitalia and wings—mostly of the former.  In an upcoming book, co-editor Kurt Johnson and I are presenting 150 of these drawings along with several essays by various specialists.  Nabokov’s approach to studying butterfly anatomy was characterized by a fascination with the temporal depth of species, and he imagined using a time machine to describe the staggered arrival of various old-world species in North and South America.  He found that butterfly organs, like novels, make allusions to one another between species. He also showed that their microscopic genitalic structures include comically self-referential forms as well as allusions to entirely unrelated, radically different species. Nabokov’s literary art displays the same kinds of time-travel, structure and referentiality that he found in these highly adapted creatures.

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