The ninth of February, 2011: perching on a lacquered leaf and sliding down its grooved middle like a boy down the banisters on his birthday

What a treat: opening up New Scientist, and finding a story about Nabokov.

There’s a great deal to be said, of course, about VN and his butterflies. I’m not really an expert on either, so I’ll just chase up a single lead. In a 1971 interview with Alfred Appel (collected in the formidable (but annoyingly indexless) anthology Strong Opinions (Vintage, 1990)), Nabokov discussed his pursuit of painted butterflies in the works of Old Masters such as Bosch, Brueghel and Gentile (‘such paintings may throw light on the time taken for evolution’), and noted that ‘the Red Admirable is the most popular; I’ve collected twenty examples’.

AA: That particular butterfly appears frequently in your own work, too. In ‘Pale Fire’, a Red Admirable lands on John Shade’s Arm the minute before he is killed, the insect appears in ‘King, Queen, Knave’ just after you’ve withdrawn the authorial omniscience – killing the characters, to to speak – and in the final chapter of ‘Speak, Memory‘, you recall having seen in a Paris park, just before the war, a live Red Admirable being promenaded on a leash of thread by a little girl. Why are you so fond of Vanessa atalanta?

VN: Its coloring is quite splendid and I liked it very much in my youth. Great numbers of them migrated from Africa to Northern Russia, where it was called ‘The Butterfly of Doom’ because it was especially abundant in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and the markings on the underside of its two hind wings seem to read ‘1881’.

All very interesting. But Nabokov would have wanted me to be pedantic… so I’m going to be.

Here’s Pale Fire (Penguin, 2000): notes made by the sorrily deluded Kinbote on the last work of the poet John Shade.

Line 270: My dark Vanessa … Shade used to say that its Old English name was The Red Admirable, later degraded to The Red Admiral.

Degraded? Here’s entomologist Peter Marren in his marvellous Bugs Britannica, with Richard Mabey (Chatto & Windus, 2010):

There has been much debate about this butterfly’s name, which is widely held to be a corruption of admirable: hence, the ‘Red Admirable’. That view was shown to be wrong by Maitland Emmet, who found literary references to ‘Admiral’ that long preceded the use of ‘Admirable’ and proposed a convincing explanation of what Admiral actually meant. In one of his early eighteenth-century insect ‘catalogues’, James Petiver defined admirals as ‘such butterflies as generally have a white, yellow or other field in the midst of their upper wings; and the rest of other colours’ … The obvious analogy is with a naval flag.

Marren goes on to explain that Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands also use ‘Red Admiral’. Nabokov’s preferred term surfaced in 1749, when ‘a semi-literate artist and engraver’ called Benjamin Wilkes guessed that the butterfly’s name might be ‘Admirable’, referring to the ‘great Variety and Beauty of its colours’.

(Marren goes on to explain the multilingual punning involved in the Admiral’s Latin name: it involves Jonathan Swift, but you’ll have to look it up yourself, I haven’t the energy).

It isn’t often one gets to write this, but… Nabokov was wrong. He wouldn’t, I hope, have minded. From another interview with Appel: ‘I find criticism most instructive when an expert proves to me that my facts or my grammar are wrong.’

It’s a bit of a shame that Nabokov had been dead for fourteen years when Maitland Emmet published The Scientific Names of the British Lepidoptera: Their History and Meaning – and killed off the Red Admirable for good.


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