Sunday, February 07, 2010


nabokov gregor samsa metamorphosis sketchnabokov butterfly hunting
                        left: Nabokov's sketches of Gregor Samsa; right: Nabokov the entomologist catches a

Nabokov believed in details. He believed the smallest things mattered most when attempting to uncover the larger picture, and he applied this not only to literature — with his careful examination of words, descriptions, and fictional space — but also to lepidoptery — with his rejection of genetics as an accurate way to distinguish butterfly species (he preferred the traditional method of carefully examining their genitalia under a microscope, often for hours a day).

While working as a professor at Cornell, Nabokov once asked his students to name the color of the wallpaper in a fictional character's bedroom, a detail mentioned only once in the novel they were reading. (Such a question, I imagine, forced his students to read in ways they previously had not — especially since he asked it on an exam!) Applying this detail-oriented approach to The Metamorphosis allowed Nabokov to confidently determine what sort of "gigantic" (Nabokov preferred "monstrous") insect Gregor Samsa had become. Some people had said he was a cockroach, but Nabokov pointed out that cockroaches are flat and have large legs, while Gregor was "convex on both sides" with small legs. "He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all." Nabokov concluded with certainty that Gregor Samsa must be a beetle, but what did this yield? Well, Gregor never realized he had wings! Nabokov: "This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings."

nabokov butterfly sketchnabokovia faga blue
left: a sketch by Nabokov; right: a Nabokovia faga.

nabokov butterfly


Hectocotylus said...

Yes, it's true that some cockroaches have wings, but they can't fly the same way beetles can. Nabokov again: "...and [he has] a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight."

Also, the German cockroach cannot fly.

Pierian Rose said...

Very interesting. It gave me new zeal to read Kafka again.
In reading your post thought I could not help but think of Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes, where the protagonist is an entomologist who ends up in a Kafkaesque hell.

Hectocotylus said...

That never occurred to me -- great connection! I've never read the Abe book, but I know it via Teshigahara's remarkable film version.