Nabokov's passion for science and art is kept alive via a cross-departmental collaboration

Vladimir Nabokov, a Cornell professor of Russian literature from 1948 to 1959, is best known as one of the great literary geniuses of the 20th century, but he was also a distinguished lepidopterist, a specialist in the scientific study and collection of butterflies and moths.

Nabokov's legacy of unifying science and art lives on in Reading Nabokov, a course on Nabokov's fiction taught by Gavriel Shapiro, Cornell professor of comparative and Russian literature. Each year, his students study a wide variety of Nabokov's works, including the two most widely read novels he wrote in English in Ithaca while teaching literature at Cornell: "Lolita" (1955) and "Pnin" (1957).

And since the early 1990s, the class has received a lecture from Robert Dirig, a lepidopterist and former curator of Cornell's Plant Pathology Herbarium. Dirig has extensively studied the butterflies that Nabokov worked with, and he corresponded with Nabokov during his career.

"I know that you're working on his literary works in class, so I hope this will give you a window into the science side of his life," Dirig told Shapiro's students Oct. 25 as they gathered at the Cornell Insect Collection in Comstock Hall. Dirig spoke about the science of lepidoptery and its important role in Nabokov's life and literature.

Born in 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Nabokov first encountered butterflies at age 7 at his family's summer estate, which marked the beginning of his lifelong passion for studying and collecting them, Dirig said. "Almost as soon as he discovered butterflies, he had an intense desire to find and name a new species of butterfly," said Dirig.

Throughout his life, Nabokov created several butterfly collections and published original works on the study of lepidoptera, said Dirig. He also specialized in and made important contributions to the study of Karner blue and toothwort white butterflies.

During the lecture, Dirig demonstrated the process by which lepidopterists prepare and set butterflies in display cases by using a toothwort white specimen that Nabokov collected in Tennessee on his 60th birthday in the spring of 1959. Dirig also showed students a butterfly net Nabokov is rumored to have used during his tenure at Cornell as well as numerous butterflies in Cornell's collection, including an example of the red admiral mentioned throughout Nabokov's acclaimed novel "Pale Fire."

"It's very important to have this presentation given by someone who is a distinguished lepidopterist himself and who also intimately knows this dimension of Nabokov's life," said Shapiro about Dirig.

The two have also combined their scientific and literary expertise in Nabokov's works outside the classroom. Dirig contributed a chapter to Shapiro's book, "Nabokov at Cornell." Dirig earlier presented it as a paper at the Nabokov Centenary Festival, which Shapiro organized at Cornell in 1998. Over the years, Shapiro has assisted Dirig by helping him translate passages of Nabokov's work.

"It's been a wonderful collaboration," said Dirig, who noted the importance of "building bridges between science and art."

"These collaborations between different disciplines are always very fruitful," said Shapiro. "I consider myself and my students to be very fortunate that Mr. Dirig has been kindly agreeing to give this presentation year in and year out."

Michelle Spektor '12 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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