An odd thing happened as I was reading Mothlight, Adam Scovell’s memoir about his relationship with a renowned British lepidopterist named Phyllis Ewans. I became so ensnared in the narrator’s description of his encounters with this eccentric old woman that I forgot to remember what kind of text I was reading. About halfway into the book, the unnamed narrator is greeted as “Thomas”. Who the hell is Thomas, I asked myself? The author is named Adam. I was confused. What had I missed? A couple pages later, she summons him again. I felt dizzy. I knew that I was reading a memoir, but when I flipped to the book’s back cover the word fiction was clearly visible in black in the bottom left-hand corner, just above the ISBN number. I was not reading a memoir.
I’ll have you know that I’m a close reader, a diligent reader who plowed through Ulysses twice in graduate school during the Reagan years. I felt manipulated. Overwhelmed, tricked, deflated, outflanked. A masterful writer had caught me in his literary net, tossed me into his capture jar, and added me to his collection. In some bright meadow where colourful bits of insect fluttered above flowers, Nabokov smiled.
However, I was enjoying the book, regardless of its Dewey Decimal classification. I reshelved it and enjoyed the rest of the ride.
Two separate mysteries fuel the narrative thrust of this novel. Who is Phyllis Ewans? What event or series of events explained her antagonistic relationship with her sister? Why was this relatively well-known moth enthusiast so odd? The other mystery dwells on the nature of the narrator’s preoccupation with her. Why was he so enraptured (as a young teenager) by Miss Ewans? She was little more than a casual acquaintance of his grandparents, but that relationship proves tenuous and soon suffers an unexplained break. Where were this young boy’s parents while he was spending so much time with her? Why didn’t he refer to them? Thomas is especially enthralled by Billie, Miss Ewans’ sister, and is determined to identify why this sibling relationship soured.
A decade or more passes, and Thomas is writing a dissertation on moths. He dreams of building his academic reputation by cataloguing and annotating Miss Ewans’ vast collections and donating them to his university. Unfortunately, his interest in Miss Ewans has festered into an obsession. Thomas literally traces her footsteps on the trails around Wales where she once hunted moths: “I had become aware of my own detachment from reality” and more disturbing, envisions himself as a caterpillar: “my life with Phyllis Ewans had cocooned me from an awareness of my own dishevelment.”
After the old woman dies, he recounts “brief lapses in perception” and often hears at his back the horrendous fluttering of wings. He assumes the task of sorting and organising her personal effects. He paws through rooms and rooms for clues that will shed light on the remaining, unanswered questions about her life. He is haunted by her ghostly manifestation that holds his hand and talks to him. He describes a perverse fear that his own larva is lying “waiting inside my diaphragm, ready to feed” after it dies. He even images Miss Ewans as a moth:
“I wished . . . during those weeks that Phyllis Ewans was herself a moth rather than a person. I could have had her mounted, stored and referred to her with ease, not requiring meetings with solicitors organising death certificates, funerals, burial, wills, money and everything else. The death of a moth is far simpler…”
How does the reading of a text change based on the label affixed to it? How was my experience of Scovell’s book coloured after I was completely hornswoggled into swallowing that I was engrossed by a novel instead of a memoir? Does it even matter whether Scovell intentionally devised this manipulative strategy? What is the definitional demarcation between a novel and a memoir?
Let me return to the justification for my addled reading of this novel that was camouflaged as a memoir. Consider the evidence: dozens of photos of houses, people, landscapes, and places, two of which appear before its opening sentence; copies of postcards; a reproduction of a hand-written note that explained how to adjust a fancy wall clock.
As I reconsidered all these photos, it dawned on me that the novel didn’t contain a single photo of a moth or a caterpillar. Not one. I imagined another net descending over me. Maybe the names and descriptions of the insects were also fake, all of those moths and butterflies that had been tracked, captured, and killed by Thomas and Miss Ewans. I started to sweat. Aside from the brilliant black and orange monarchs of my childhood in the American midwest, I could neither name nor identify a single other species of moth or butterfly. A quick internet search, however, revealed that puss and privet hawk moths are indeed actual insects. I was disappointed. I wanted them to be fake. I wanted to be part of a greater, even more diabolical hoax.
I want to believe that Scovell is revelling in the strength of his net and the ingenuity of his trap. If I were a gambling man, I’d bet a hundred dollars of my wife’s hard-earned cash that Scovell did plan everything this way.
Of course, maybe I am just a dope of a reader.
Any Cop?: Unfurl your moth-collecting net, dust off your capture jar, drop in a beautiful insect, and crack open this engrossing novel about a young lepidopterist who has obsession problems.