Literature and Science: an Approach. Vladimir Nabokov: the Winged Lightness of Precise Detail

Llobera, Miquel
Quaderns Divulgatius, 14 2000

A double passion for literature and Lepidoptera remained with Vladimir Nabokov all his life. To a lesser degree he also harboured a great passion for chess. Nabokov's education began with books and the plants his grandmother had studied. In Speak, Memory he cites books of natural science from different periods, though he is most fascinated by those dealing with butterflies and different types of moths. In these memoirs he states that, by the age of seven years, he could distinguish and classify some of the butterflies he found, and that, by nine years of age, he had a fair mastery of European Lepidoptera.
Butterflies fascinated him at a primary sensorial level. He observed their changes and the writer in him learned the lesson: strangeness, the incredible form, are products of nature and the writer can be no less creative. His raison d'être as an artist would be eliminated if he were not capable of confronting this challenge, because "the writer must carefully study the work of his rivals, including that of the Supreme One".
The acuteness of his observation permitted him to vindicate the idea that details are important in writing. Nabokov has the empiricist's vision of reality, which he defines as "the gradual accumulation of information". This position makes a generalist's stance totally impossible and regards with scepticism any theory that attempts to give sweeping explanations of how reality is organised. At a time when molecular explanations were beginning to have more influence in the biological research, he remained, in his scientific work, at the anatomical, histological and physiological levels. And here we have the origin of his imprecations, repeated in many of his books, against Freud's theories.
Again, the theme of chess appears in The Defence where the main character is a great master of chess now down on his luck, while in the novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, there is a clear allusion in the name of the hero to the knight, while his lady friend is named Bishop, and the character abandoned by Nina - the queen (dama) -- dies shortly afterwards in St. Damier. As a whole, the novel Lolita can be seen as a game of chess where the queen dies after having let a pawn, led by the white king, become the new queen and where the one who plays with black, Clare Quilty, prepares a series of moves that will permit him to take the queen from his rival. It all ends in a bloody check of the black king, castled in Pavor Manor. It is evident, however, that the two rivals will end up deposited at the bottom of the box.
The original details, along with his quest for the precise and at once evocative word, impelled Nabokov to construct a literary texture that would sustain itself. The duality of vision between the literary and the creative writer supplied the necessary tension for him to develop his creative potential to the fullest. The most exact synthesis is given by the author himself when he states that "the scientist sees what happens at a point in space; the poet feels it at a point of time".

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