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Monday, April 23, 2012

Vlad the Regaler

APRIL 23 IS THE birthdate of several artists whose work I admire: William Shakespeare, Sergei Prokofiev, J. P. Donleavy, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Besides being the author of such superb novels as Pale Fire, Lolita, Ada, and Pnin, Nabokov was a lepidopterist of such repute that he worked on Harvard’s butterfly collection. His trips crisscrossing the U.S. in search of specimens provided the roadmap for Humbert Humbert’s travels, and Timofei Pnin has this experience:
A score of small butterflies, all of one kind, were settled on a damp patch of sand, their wings erect and closed, showing their pale undersides with dark dots and tiny orange-rimmed peacock spots along the hindwing margins; one of Pnin's shed rubbers disturbed some of them and, revealing the celestial hue of their upper surface, they fluttered around like blue snowflakes before settling again. (Nabokov, Pnin.)
Those were Karner Blues, which Nabokov discovered and named while exploring Albany’s Pine Bush area in 1950, when he traveled between Ithaca, where he taught at Cornell, and Boston. As Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd wrote,
On his way back to Ithaca, Nabokov had to investigate a patch of pine-scrub waste by the railroad tracks near Karner, a once a whistle-stop on the New York Central Railroad between Albany and Schenectady. In that location Lycaeides samuelis, a butterfly he had been the first to classify correctly, had been recorded ninety years ago. He had still not caught the thing himself, despite holidaying in New Hampshire four years before for that very purpose. Now at Karner, near patches of lupine in bloom, he took his first live specimens of the species. A faithful pilgrim, he would make the same stop at the same season every year for several years to come as he traveled to or from Boston. (Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years)
Nabokov himself wrote of the experience in a letter dated June 3, 1950, to his friend, the writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson:
Yesterday morning on our way back, we drove to a certain place between Albany and Schenectady where, on as pine-scrub waste, near absolutely marvelous patches of lupines in bloom, I took a few specimens of my little samuelis. (Simon Karlinsky, ed., Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971)
The well-known entomologist Kurt Johnson wrote an entire book about the topic, Nabokov’s Blues (2000), and was invited at that time to address the group Save the Pine Bush, which has been fighting for 35 years to keep the area from turning into the mess of over-development that it has threatened to become. Here’s a piece Johnson wrote about the experience, and here’s an excerpt:
In speaking of Karner, in a New York Times review of Alexander Klots’s famous butterfly fieldguide of the 1950s, Nabokov wrote “I visit the place every time I happen to drive (as I do yearly in early June) from Ithaca to Boston and can report that, despite local picnickers and the hideous garbage they leave, the lupines and Lycaeides samuelis Nab. are still doing as fine under those old gnarled pines along the railroad as they did ninety years ago.”
If you haven’t read any Nabokov – and you should – start with the gentle Pnin. This lets you meet the author’s amazing style and use of language. Then go on to Lolita, and follow that with Pale Fire, which you may find to be one of the most hilarious novels ever penned – once you get the hang of it.

And look for those Karner Blues at the beginning of June. They make a silent, eloquent case for preserving that property.

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