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On Discovering a Butterfly by Vladimir Nabokov

I still haven’t read Lolita. I only know Nabokov because of the butterflies. I thought it was most curious. So imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon at the library and saw an abandoned notebook with this excerpt:

Listen: I am ideally happy. My happiness is a kind of challenge. As I wander along the streets and the squares and the paths by the canal, absently sensing the lips of dampness through my worn soles, I carry proudly my ineffable happiness. The centuries will roll by, and schoolboys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass, but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal’s black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

— an excerpt from A Letter That Never Reached Russia

And then below that a poem, which, according to the marginalia, is only a part of longer text:

On Discovering a Butterfly
Vladimir Nabokov

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer — and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep),
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.

I am starting to rethink if I should add more books to my reading list.

Comments (3)

  • Deborah Davidson

    Am now reading Lolita, in awe and gratitude. Why did it take me so long?

    • Steve Loftin

      Read the annotated version for the full experience. Then Ada, then Pale Fire.

  • Lolita is good stuff. Highly recommended.


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