Robert Roper at The American Scholar:
The slender Russian man is on vacation. He has an arrogantly beautiful face and is accompanied by an oddly tall little boy, as he stalks up and down a trout stream in the Wasatch Range, a few miles east of Sandy, Utah. They deploy butterfly nets. “I walk from 12 to 18 miles a day,” he writes in a letter mailed in July of 1943, “wearing only shorts and tennis shoes … always a cold wind blowing in this particular cañon.”
The eccentric Russian novelist chasing butterflies—the signature image of Vladimir Nabokov in America—came to beguile millions. “A man without pants and shirt” was how a local teenager, John Downey, saw him when encountering Nabokov on the Little Cottonwood Canyon road. He was “dang near nude,” Downey recalled, and when he asked Nabokov what he was up to, the stranger would not explain at first.
Nabokov was 44. That November he would have his two front teeth removed, all the rest soon following. (“My tongue is like someone who comes home and finds all his furniture gone.”) He smoked five packs of cigarettes a day and had a tubercular look. For the previous 20 years he had lived on an edge—he was an artist, after all, and deprivation went with the territory. His wife worked odd jobs to support them, and neither of them had ever been much for cooking or packing on the pounds.