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Nabokov Studies 4 (1997) D. BARTON JOHNSON (Santa Barbara) That Butterfly in Nabokov's Eye" Nabokov's 1930 novella, The Eye, is one of his least investigated books. Originally entitled Sogliadatai, meaning "the spy" or "the surreptitious observer," it introduces some of Nabokov's most important themes and devices: a version of the two world theme (one world delusional, the other "real"), a first-person unreliable narrator, questions of identity, etc. (Johnson, "Eyeing" and "Eye"). I am going to argue that the genesis of this seminal novella lies in a literal butterfly chase. ' The Eye's (initially) nameless narrator and anti-hero, a morbidly self-conscious young man, attempts to commit suicide after being physically humiliated by an oft-cuckolded husband. *. The author would like to express his special thanks to Dieter E. Zimmer, editor of the Rowohlt Vladimir Nabokov Gesammelte Werke and an authority on the lepidoptera in Nabokov's fiction. This article is largely based upon information in his Guide (114-16) and upon personal communications. Additionally, Dieter Zimmer read and made detailed comments on an earlier version of this paper. 1. Diana Butler's 1960 essay in which she argued that Lolita was a restaging of Nabokov's search for the female of the Lycaeides sublivens Nabokov is a prior case of relating Nabokov lepidopteral pursuits and his fiction. Although Nabokov's reaction to Butler's thesis was harsh (SO 96 and Zimmer, Guide 207), her essay contains useful data and ideas. 2 Nabokov Studies When he comes to, he thinks that he is dead and that his continuing awareness of his Berlin sunoundings is simple "leftover " imagination that will eventually wind down. What happens in fact is that he splits himself into an emotionally detached, coldly observing "Eye / I," i.e., the narrator, and a new, more dashing persona— Smurov. He is unaware of his dual identity as both observer and observed. The nameless narrator moves into an apartment building where he becomes friendly with the members of an émigré Russian household and their guests. Among the latter, he observes a young man named Smurov, also a newcomer to the group. To some, Smurov seems a cool, daredevil, former White officer; others see him as a pathetic liar. Still others suspect he is a thief, a Soviet agent, or a Casanova. The narrator sets himself the task of determining the real Smurov by gathering different impressions of him from members of the circle. He likens his task to a problem in butterfly systematics. Nearly two hundred years earlier Linnaeus had described a common species of butterfly, adding the note in pratis Westmanniae, i.e., in the meadows of Västmanland.2 As time passed, other investigators described a host of various southern and Alpine races with the result that soon "there is not a spot left in Europe where one finds the nominal race and not a local subspecies. Where is the type, the model, the original?" The dilemma is resolved when "a grave entomologist discusses in a detailed paper the whole complex of named races" and affirms as the typical (or nominal) representative, the one first collected, described and named by Linnaeus. The narrator of The Eye models his quest on that of the "grave entomologist" (R 46-47/E 53-54). The narrator realizes that the image of Smurov held by different individuals (or "collectors," if you will) varies not only 2. Dieter Zimmer identifies the Latin Westmanniae as the present Västmanland, "a region roughly 100 kilometers northwest of Stockholm " (Guide 115). That Butterfly in Nabokov's Eye 3 according to the nature of their particular contact with him, but according to "the climatic conditions prevailing in various souls. . . ." In a cold soul, he has one coloration; in a "glowing" soul, quite another. One would have to know the other persons in all of their secondary associations to assess their versions of Smurov. The narrator resolves to collect all of the these versions in order to establish the holotype, the one that best represents the taxon, (whether it be subspecies, species, genus, or whatever). The only investigator to comment on Nabokov's Linnean specimen is Joann Karges who remarks on systematics as a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 1-14
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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