Friday, June 10, 2011

The Butterfly Art of Vladimir Nabokov: A Love Story

by Stephen J. Gertz

Vladimir Nabokov

The last substantial group of books and manuscripts to come directly from Vladimir Nabokov's family,  scheduled to sell at auction on Monday, June 13, 2011 by Christie's, has been sold en bloc prior to the auction by private treaty to an important collector.  The price paid was over $730,000.

Most of the volumes were inscribed by Nabokov to his wife, Vera, and son, Dimitri. Books inscribed by Nabokov are much rarer than the quantity in this collection might suggest. Nabokov never signed books for strangers, and inscriptions to friends and relatives are few.

In addition to the books, Nabokov's writing desk, typewriters, and butterfly net were part of the collection.

Butterfly net?

Vladimir Nabokov was totally consumed by two passions: literature and lepidoptery. He adored butterflies, and routinely adorned copies of his books with drawings of them, particularly those given to Vera. She, like Vladimir, treasured nature, art, and life's other intangibles, more highly than material possessions and Vladimir knew that for Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries, Vera  appreciated his thoughtful and delicate butterfly drawings much more than some trinket. She  delighted in these drawings in a way she never did for the landscapes he used to paint for her in earlier days.

Vera, whom the artist Saul Steinberg described as Nabokov's "gyroscope," was indispensable to Vladimir; for over fifty years she was his muse, reader, typist, chauffeur, chess partner, and much else. The books Vladimir gave to her she knew intimately; she had read and reread them in various forms and knew whole passages by heart. 

Nabokov valued the precision of language, the way a specific word can capture the exact shade of meaning or the color of an emotion. But his love for Vera  stretched the limit of language's ability to capture all things. Love struck him wordless and his butterfly drawings provided a way to manifest  his deep love for her, one that could not be expressed as neatly with words; language got in the way.

Nabokov disliked ineffective, syrupy, sentiment. Consider his butterfly drawings to Vera as mash-notes without the slop.


All images courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.



  1. I too love butterflies and at first was a little saddened that Nabokov caught and killed them but after reading this article and seeing his drawings, they are very sweet, I understand why a little.
    Since they were sold before auction, it is nice to see them here.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I love Nabokov's books.


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email