The object of Nabokov’s collecting is butterflies. He and his family are in Utah, staying at James Laughlin’s ski lodge in the Wastach Mountains, an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City. At an elevation of 8,600 feet, the lodge stands at the site of a former mining camp. Despite the mention of “icy winds,” the date is Aug. 6 in 1943. He is writing to Mark Aldonov who, like Nabokov, is a Russian émigré novelist. He continues:
“We are living in wild eagle country, terribly far from everything, terribly high up. There used to be miners here, 5000 miners, shooting in bars and all that a captain unknown to the Americans regaled us with in our childhoods.”
The captain is Thomas Mayne Reid, a writer of pulp thrillers immensely popular in Europe and Russia. He is largely responsible for exporting the American Wild West in the nineteenth century. The letter goes on:
“Now there is no one, a rocky remoteness, a ‘ski’ hotel on an open slope . . . the grey ripple of aspens amid black firs, bears crossing the roads, mint, Saffron crocus, lupin flowering, Uinta ground squirrels (a kind of suslik) stand upright beside their burrows, and from morning till night I collect the rarest butterflies and flies for my museum.”
That is, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he had worked, unpaid, since the previous October while teaching at Wellesley.
“I know you’re no nature lover, but all the same I tell you it’s an incomparable pleasure to clamber up a virtual cliff at 12000 feet and there observe, ‘in the neighbourhood’ of Pushkin’s ‘God,’ the life of some wild insect on this summit since the ice ages.”
Outside the window above my desk, flitting among the tubular flowers of a firebush, is a frequent visitor: a giant swallowtail, the largest butterfly in our region. Black and yellow, with a wingspan topping seven inches, this specimen has a touchingly awkward, floppy flutter. We associate beauty with grace. The giant swallowtail recalls a beautiful, clumsy woman trying to walk in high heels.
I no longer wish to collect butterflies. I’m no vegan but I’ve even become reluctant to swat mosquitoes. I’m enjoying the presence of life. My interest in collecting butterflies when I was young was aesthetic. Butterflies are the most gratuitously beautiful things in creation. Nabokov’s lifelong devotion to them was both aesthetic and scientific.
In Utah, Nabokov was in the early stages of writing Bend Sinister (1947), with its famous closing lines: “ Twang. A good night for mothing.” He had completed the manuscript of Gogol and submitted it to New Directions, whose publisher was his landlord in Utah. It would be published, after editing tussles with Laughlin (some of which are incorporated into the text), in 1944. In Gogol he writes:
“The difference between human vision and the image perceived by the faceted eye of an insect may be compared with the difference between a half-tone block made with the very finest screen and the corresponding picture as represented by the very coarse screening used in common newspaper pictorial reproduction. The same comparison holds good between the way Gogol saw things and the way average readers and average writers see things.”
[The passages quoted can be found in Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings (eds. Brian Boyd and Robert Michael Pyle, Beacon Press, 2000).]