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Nabokov's interview. (06) Wisconsin Studies 
This interview (published in Wisconsin Studies in
Contemporary Literature, vol. VIII, no. 2, spring 1967) was
conducted on September 25, 27, 28, 29, 1966, at Montreux,
Switzerland. Mr. Nabokov and his wife have for the last six
years lived in an opulent hotel built in 1835, which still
retains its nineteenth-century atmosphere. Their suite of rooms
is on the sixth floor, overlooking Lake Geneva, and the sounds
of the lake are audible through the open doors of their small
balcony. Since Mr. Nabokov does not like to talk off the cuff
(or "Off the Nabocuff," as he said) no tape recorder was used.
Mr. Nabokov ei! ther wrote out his answers to the questions or
dictated them to the interviewer; in some instances, notes from
the conversation were later recast as formal
questions-and-answers. The interviewer was Nabokov's student at
Cornell University in 1954, and the references are to
Literature 311-312 (MWF, 12), a course on the Masterpieces of
European Fiction (Jane Austen, Gogol, Dickens, Flaubert,
Tolstoy, Stevenson, Kafka, Joyce, and Proust). Its enrollment
had reached four hundred by the time of Nabokov's resignation
in 1959. The footnotes to the interview, except where
indicated, are provided by the interviewer, Alfred Appel, Jr.
For years bibliographers and literary journalists
didn't know whether to group you under "Russian" or "American.
"Now that you're living in Switzerland there seems to be
complete agreement that you're American. Do you find this kind
of distinction at all important regarding your identity as a
I have always maintained, even as a schoolboy in Russia,
that the nationality of a worthwhile writer is of secondary
importance. The more distinctive an insect's aspect, the less
apt the taxonomist is to glance first of all at the locality
label under the pinned specimen in order to decide which of
several vaguely described races it should be assigned to. The
writer's art is his real passport. His identity should be
immediately recognized by a special pattern or unique
coloration. His habitat may confirm the correctness of the
determination but should not lead to it. Locality labels are
known to have been faked by unscrupulous insect dealers. Apart
from these considerations I think of myself today as an
American writer who has once been a Russian o! ne.
The Russian writers you have translated and written
about all precede the so-called "age of realism, " which is
more celebrated by English and American readers than is the
earlier period. Would you say something about your
temperamental or artistic affinities with the great writers of
the 1830-40 era of masterpieces? Do you see your own work
falling under such general rubrics as a tradition of Russian
The question of the affinities I may think I have or not
have with nineteenth-century Russian writers is a
classificational, not a confessional matter. There is hardly a
single Russian major writer of the past whom pigeonholers have
not mentioned in connection with me. Pushkin's blood runs
through the veins of modern Russian literature as inevitably as
Shakespeare's through those of English literature.
Many of the major Russian writers, such as Pushkin,
Lermontov, and Bely, have distinguished themselves in both
poetry and prose, an uncommon accomplishment in English and
American literature. Does this signal fact have anything to do
with the special nature of Russian literary culture, or are
there technical or linguistic resources which make this kind of
versatility more possible in Russian? And as a writer of both
prose and poetry, what distinctions do you make between them?
On the other hand, neither Gogol nor Tolstoy nor Chekhov
were distinguished versificators. Moreover, the dividing line
between prose and poetry in some of the greatest English or
American novels is not easy to draw. I suppose you should have
used the term "rhymed poetry" in your question, and then one
might answer that Russian rhymes are incomparably more
attractive and more abundant than English ones. No wonder a
Russian prose writer frequents those beauties, especially in
Who are the great American writers you most admire?
When I was young I liked Poe, and I still love Melville,
whom I did not read as a boy. My feelings towards James are
rather complicated. I really dislike him intensely but now and
then the figure in the phrase, the turn of the epithet, the
screw of an absurd adverb, cause me a kind of electric tingle,
as if some current of his was also passing through my own
blood. Hawthorne is a splendid writer. Emerson's poetry is
You have often said that you "don't belong to any club
or group, " and I wonder if the historical examples of the ways
Russian writers have allowed ideology to determine if not
destroy their art, culminating in the Socialist Realism of our
own time, have not gone a long way in shaping your own
skepticism and aversion to didacticism of any kind. Which
"historical examples"' haveyou been most conscious of?
My aversion to groups is rather a matter of temperament
than the fruit of information and thought. I was born that way
and have despised ideological coercion instinctively all my
life. Those "historical examples" by the way are not as
clear-cut and obvious as you seem to imply. The mystical
didacticism of Gogol or the utilitarian moralism of Tolstoy, or
the reactionary journalism of Dostoevski, are of their own poor
making and in the long run nobody really takes them seriously.
Would you say something about the controversy
surrounding the Chernyshevskl biography in The Gift? You
have commented on this briefly before, but since its
suppression in the thirties expresses such a transcendent irony
and seems to justify the need for just such a parody, I think
your readers would be most interested, especially since so
little is known about the emigre communities, their magazines,
and the role of intellectuals in these communities, lf you
would like to describe something of the writer's relationship
to this world, please do.
Everything that can be profitably said about Count
Godunov-Cherdyntsev's biography of Chernyshevski has been said
by Koncheyev in The Gift. I can only add that I devoted
as much honest labor to the task of gathering the material for
the Chernyshevski chapter as I did to the composing of Shade's
poem in Pale Fire. As to the suppression of that chapter
by the editors of Sovremennye Zapiski, it was indeed an
unprecedented occurrence, quite out of keeping with their
exceptional broad-mindedness, for, generally speaking, in their
acceptance or rejection of literary works they were guided
exclusively by artistic standards. As to the latter part of
your question, the revised ! Chapter Fourteen in Speak,
Memory will provide additional information.
Do you have any opinions about the Russian anti-utopian
tradition (if it can be called this), from Odoevski's "The Last
Suicide" and "A City Without a Name" in Russian Nights
to Bryusov's The Republic of the Southern Cross and
Zamyatin 's We (to name only a few)?
I am indifferent to those works.
Is it fair to say that Invitation to a Beheading
and Bend Sinister are cast as mock anti-utopian
novels, with their ideological centers removed-- the
totalitarian state becoming an extreme and fantastic metaphor
for the imprisonment of the mind, thus making consciousness,
rather than politics, the subject of these novels?
Speaking of ideology, you have often expressed your
hostility to Freud, most noticeably in the forewords to your
translated novels. Some readers have wondered which of Freud's
works or theories you were most offended by and why. The
parodies of Freud in Lolita and Pale Fire suggest
a wider familiarity with the good doctor than you have ever
publicly granted. Would you comment on this?
Oh, I am not up to discussing again that figure of fun. He
is not worthy of more attention than I have granted him in my
novels and in Speak, Memory. Let the credulous and the
vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by
a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts.
I really do not care.
Your contempt for Freud's "standardized symbols"
extends to the assumptions of a good many other theorizers. Do
you think literary criticism is at all purposeful, and if so,
what kind of criticism would you point to? Pale Fire
makes it clear what sort you find gratuitous (at best}.
My advice to a budding literary critic would be as
follows. Learn to distinguish banality. Remember that
mediocrity thrives on "ideas." Beware of the modish message.
Ask yourself if the symbol you have detected is not your own
footprint. Ignore allegories. By all means place the "how"
above the "what" but do not let it be confused with the "so
what." Rely on the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs.
Do not drag in Freud at this point. All the rest depends on
As a writer, have you ever found criticism
instructive-- not so much the reviews of your own books, but
any general criticism? From your own experiences do you think
that an academic and a literary career nourish one another?
Since many writers today know no other alternative than a life
on campus I'd be very interested in your feelings about this.
Do you think that your own work in America was at all shaped by
your being part of an academic community?
I find criticism most instructive when an expert proves to
me that my facts or my grammar are wrong. An academic career is
especially helpful to writers in two ways: 1) easy access to
magnificent libraries and 2) long vacations. There is of course
the business of teaching, but old professors have young
instructors to correct examination papers for them, and young
instructors, authors in their own right, are followed by
admiring glances along the corridors of Vanity-Hall. Otherwise,
our greatest rewards, such as the reverberations of our minds
in such minds as vibrate responsively in later years, force
novelist-teachers to nurse lucidity and honesty of style in
What are the possibilities of literary biography?
They are great fun to write, generally less fun to read.
Sometimes the thing becomes a kind of double paper chase:
first, the biographer pursues his quarry through letters and
diaries, and across the bogs of conjecture, and then a rival
authority pursues the muddy biographer.
Some critics may find the use of coincidence in a novel
arch or contrived. I recall that you yourself at Cornell called
Dostoevski's usage of coincidence crude.
But in "real" life they do happen. Last night you were
telling us at dinner a very funny story about the use of the
title "Doctor" in Germany, and the very next moment, as my loud
laughter was subsiding, I heard a person at the next table
saying to her neighbor in clear French tones corning through
the tinkling and shuffling sounds of a restaurant-- "Of course,
you never know with the Germans if 'Doctor' means a dentist or
a lawyer." Very often you meet with some person or some event
in "real" life that would sound pat .in a story. It is not the
coincidence in the story that bothers us so much as the
coincidence of coincidences in several stories by different
writers, as, for instance, the r! ecurrent eavesdropping device
in nineteenth-century Russian fiction.
Could you tell us something about your work habits as a
writer, and the way you compose your novels. Do you use an
outline? Do you have a full sense of where a fiction is heading
even while you are in the early stages of composition?
In my twenties and early thirties, I used to write,
dipping pen in ink and using a new nib every other day, in
exercise books, crossing out, inserting, striking out again,
crumpling the page, rewriting every page three or four times,
then copying out the novel in a different ink and a neater
hand, then revising the whole thing once more, re-copying it
with new corrections, and finally dictating it to my wife who
has typed out all my stuff. Generally speaking, I am a slow
writer, a snail carrying its house at the rate of two hundred
pages of final copy per year (one spectacular exception was the
Russian original of Invitation to a Beheading, the first
draft of which I wrote in one fortnight of wonderful excitement
and sustained inspiration). In those days and nights I gen!
erally followed the order of chapters when writing a novel but
even so, from the very first, I relied heavily on mental
composition, constructing whole paragraphs in my mind as I
walked in the streets or sat in my bath, or lay in bed,
although often deleting or rewriting them afterward. In the
late thirties, beginning with The Gift, and perhaps
under the influence of the many notes needed, I switched to
another, physically more practical, method-- that of wanting
with an eraser-capped pencil on index cards. Since I always
have at the very start a curiously clear preview of the entire
novel before me or above me, I find cards especially convenient
when not following the logical sequence of chapters but
preparing instead this or that passage at any point of the
novel and filling in the gaps in no special order. I am afraid
to ! get mixed up with Plato, whom I do not care for, but I do
think that in my case it is true that the entire book, before
it is written, seems to be ready ideally in some other,
now transparent, now dimming, dimension, and my job is
to take down as much of it as I can make out and as precisely
as I am humanly able to. The greatest happiness I experience in
composing is when I feel I cannot understand, or rather
catch myself not understanding (without the presupposition of
an already existing creation) how or why that image or
structural move or exact formulation of phrase has just come to
me. It is sometimes rather amusing to find my readers trying to
elucidate in a matter-of-fact way these wild workings of my not
very efficient mind.
One often hears from writers talk of how a character
takes hold of them and in a sense dictates the course of the
action. Has this ever been your experience?
I have never experienced this. What a preposterous
experience! Writers who have had it must be very minor or
insane. No, the design of my novel is fixed in my imagination
and every character follows the course I imagine for him. I am
the perfect dictator in that private world insofar as I alone
am responsible for its stability and truth. Whether I reproduce
it as fully and faithfully as I would wish, is another
question. Some of my old works reveal dismal blurrings and
Pale Fire appears to some readers to be in part a gloss
of Plato's myth of the cave, and the constant play of Shades
and Shadows throughout your work suggests a conscious
Platonism. Would you care to comment on this possibility?
As I have said I am not particularly fond of Plato, nor
would I survive very long under his Germanic regime of
militarism and music. I do not think that this cave business
has anything to do with my Shade and Shadows.
Since we are mentioning philosophy per se, I
wonder if we might talk about the philosophy of language that
seems to unfold in your works, and whether or not you have
consciously seen the similarities, say, between the language of
Zemblan and what Ludwig Wittgenstein bad to say about a
"private language. " Your poet's sense of the
limitations of language is startlingly similar to
Wittgenstein's remark on the referential basis of language.
Whi! le you were at Cambridge, did you have much contact with
the philosophy faculty?
No contact whatsoever. I am completely ignorant of
Wittgenstein's works, and the first time I heard his name must
have been in the fifties. In Cambridge I played football and
wrote Russian verse.
When in Canto Two John Shade describes himself, "I
stand before the window and I pare/My fingernails, "you are
echoing Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a
Young Man, on the artist who "remains within or behind or
beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of
existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. " In almost all
of your novels, especially in Invitation to a Beheading,
Bend Sinister, Pale Fire, and Pnin-- but even in
Lolita, in the person of the seventh hunter in Quilty's
play, and in several other phosphorescent glimmers which are
visible to th! e careful reader-- the creator is indeed bebind
or abo-ve his handiwork, but be is not invisible and surely not
indifferent. To what extent are you consciously "answering"
Joyce in Pale Fire, and what are your feelings about bis
esthetic stance-- or alleged stance, because perhaps you may
think that Stephen's remark doesn't apply to Ulysses.?
Neither Kinbote nor Shade, nor their maker, is answering
Joyce in Pale Fire. Actually, I never liked A
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I find it a feeble
and garrulous book. The phrase you quote is an unpleasant
You have granted that Pierre Delalande influenced you,
and I would readily admit that influence-mongering can be
reductive and deeply offensive if it tries to deny a writer's
originality. But in the instance of yourself and Joyce, it
seems to me that you've consciously profited from Joyce's
example without imitating him-- that you've realized the
implications in Ulysses without having had recourse to
obviously "Joycean" devices (stream-of-consciousness, the
"callage" effects created out of the vast flotsam and jetsam of
everyday life). Would you comment on what Joyce ! has meant to
you as a writer, his importance in regard to his liberation and
expansion of the novel form?
My first real contact with Ulysses, after a leering
glimpse in the early twenties, was in the thirties at a time
when I was definitely formed as a writer and immune to any
literary influence. I studied Ulysses seriously only
much later, m the fifties, when preparing my Cornell courses.
That was the best part of the education I received at Cornell.
Ulysses towers over the rest of Joyce's writings, and in
comparison to its noble originality and unique lucidity of
thought and style the unfortunate Finnegans Wake is
nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold
pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room, most
aggravating to the insomniac! I am. Moreover, I always detested
regional literature full of quaint old-timers and imitated
pronunciation. Finnegans Wake's facade disguises a very
conventional and drab tenement house, and only the infrequent
snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter
insipidity. I know I am going to be excommunicated for this
Although I cannot recall your mentioning the involuted
structure of Ulysses when you lectured on Joyce, I do
remember your insisting that the hallucinations in Nighttown
are the author's and not Stephen's or Bloom's, which is one
step away from a discussion of the involution. This is an
aspect of Ulysses almost totally ignored by the Joyce
Industry, and an aspect of Joyce which would seem to be of
great interest to you. If Joyce's somewhat inconsistent involutions tend to be obscured by the
vastness of his structures, it might he said that the
structuring of your novels depends on the strategy of
involution. Could you comment on this, or compare your sense of
Joyce's presence in and above his works with your own
intention-- that is, Joyce's covert appearances in Ulysses;
the whole Shakespeare-paternity theme which ultimately
spirals into the idea of the "parentage" of Ulysses
itself; Shakespeare's direct address to Joyce in Nighttown
("How my Oldfellow chokit his Thursday-momum, " that be! ing
Bloomsday); and Molly's plea to Joyce, "0 Jamesy let me up out
of this"-- all this as against the way the authorial voice-- or
what you call the "anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me"--
again and again appears in your novels, most strikingly at the
One of the reasons Bloom cannot be the active party in the
Nighttown chapter (and if he is not, then the author is
directly dreaming it up for him, and around him, with some
"real" episodes inserted here and there) is that Bloom, a
wilting male anyway, has been drained of his manhood earlier in
the evening and thus would be quite unlikely to indulge in the
violent sexual fancies of Nighttown.
Ideally, how should a reader experience or react to
"the end" of one of your novels, that moment when the vectors
are removed and the fact of the fiction is underscored, the
cast dismissed? What common assumptions about literature are
The question is so charmingly phrased that I would love to
answer it with equal elegance and eloquence, but I cannot say
very much. I think that what I would welcome at the close of a
book of mine is a sensation of its world receding in the
distance and stopping somewhere there, suspended afar like a
picture in a picture: The Artist's Studio by Van Bock.
It may well be a failure of perception, but I've always
been unsure of the very last sentences of Lolita,
perhaps because the shift in voice at the close of your
other books is so clear, but is one supposed to "hear" a
different voice when the masked narrator says "And do not pity
C. Q. One bad to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted
H.H. . . ."and so forth? The return to the first person in the
next sentence makes me think that the mask has not been lifted, but readers trained
on Invitation to a Beheading, among other books, are
always looking for the imprint of that "master thumb, " to
quote Franklin Lane in Pale Fire, "that made the whole
involuted, boggling thing one beautiful straight line. "
No, I did not mean to introduce a different voice. T did
want, however, to convey a constriction of the narrator's sick
heart, a warning spasm causing him to abridge names and hasten
to conclude his tale before it was too late. I am glad T
managed to achieve this remoteness of tone at the end.
Do Franklin Lane's Letters exist? I don't wish
to appear like Mr. Goodman in The Real Life of Sebastian
Knight, but I understand that Franklin Lane did exist.
Frank Lane, his published letters, and the passage cited
by Kinbote, certainly exist. Kinbote was rather struck by
Lane's handsome melancholy face. And of course "lane" is the
last word of Shade's poem. The latter has no significance.
In which of your early works do you think you first
begin to face the possibilities that are fully developed in
Invitation to a Beheading and reach an apotheosis in the
"involute abode" of Pale Fire.?
Possibly in The Eye, but Invitation to a
Beheading is on the whole a burst of spontaneous
Are there other writers whose involuted effects you
admire? Sterne? Pirandello's plays?
I never cared for Pirandello. I love Sterne but had not
read him in my Russian period.
The Afterword to Lolita is significant,
obviously, for many reasons. Is it included in all the
translations, which, I understand, number about twenty-five?
You once told me after a class at Cornell that you 'd
been unable to read more than one hundred or so pages of'
Finnegans Wake. As it happens, on page 104 there begins a
section very close in spirit to Pale Fire, and I wonder
if you've ever read this, or seen the similarity. It is the
history of all the editions and interpretations of Anna Livia
Plurabelle's Letter (or "Mamafesta, " text included). Among the
three pages listing the various titles of ALP's letter, Joyce
includes Try our Taal on a Taub (which we are already
doing), and I wondered if you ! would comment on Swift's
contribution to the literature about the corruption of learning
and literature. Is it only a coincidence that Kinbote's
"Forword" to Pale Fire is dated "Oct. 19, " which is the
date of Swift's death?
I finished Finnegans Wake eventually. It has no
inner connection with Pale Fire. I think it is so nice
that the day on which Kinbote committed suicide (and he
certainly did after putting the last touches to his edition of
the poem) happens to be both the anniversary of Pushkin's
Lyceum and that of "poor old man Swift" 's death, which
is news to me (but see variant in note to line 231). In common
with Pushkin, I am fascinated by fatidic dates. Moreover, when
dating some special event in my novels I often choose a more or
less familiar one as a point de repere (which helps to
check a possible misprint in the proofs), as for instance "April I" in the diary of Hermann in
Mention of Swift moves me to ask about the genre of
Pale Fire; as a "monstrous semblance of a novel, " do you
see it in terms of some tradition or form?
The form of Pale Fire is specifically, if not
generically, new. I would like to take this pleasant
opportunity to correct the following misprints in the Putnam
edition, 1962, second impression: On page 137, end of note to
line 143, "rustic" should be "rusty". On page 151, "Catkin
Week" should be "Catkin Week." On page 223, the line number in
the reference at the end of the first note should be not "550"
but "549". On page 237, top, "For" should he "for". On page
241, the word "lines" after "disent-prise" ! A>should
be "rhymes". And on page 294, the comma after "Arnold" should
be replaced by an open parenthesis. Thank you.
Do you make a clear distinction between satire and
parody? I ask this because you have so often said you do not
wish to be taken as a "moral satirist, " and yet parody is so
central to your vision.
Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.
Chapter Ten in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
contains a wonderful description of how parody functions in
your own novels. But your sense of what "parody " means
seems to stretch the usual definition, as when Cincinnatus
in Invitation to a Beheading tells his mother, "You're
still only a parody . . . Just like this spider, just like
those bars, just like the striking of that clock. " All art,
then, or at least all attempts at a "realistic" art,
would seem to produce a distortion, a "parody. " Would you
expand on what you mean by "parody" and why, as Fyodor
says in The Gift, "The spirit of parody always goes
along with genuine poetry"?
When the poet Cincinnatus C., in my dreamiest and most
poetical novel, accuses (not quite fairly) his mother of being
a parody, he uses the word in its familiar sense of "grotesque
imitation." When Fyodor, in The Gift, alludes to that
"spirit of parody" which plays iridescently around the spray of
genuine "serious" poetry, he is referring to parody in the
sense of an essentially lighthearted, delicate, mockingbird
game, such as Pushkin's parody of Derzhavin in Exegi
What is your opinion of Joyce's parodies? Do you see any
difference in the artistic effect of scenes such as the
maternity hospital and the beach interlude with Gerty
Macdowell? Are you familiar with the work of younger American
writers who have been influenced by both you and Joyce, such as
Thomas Pynchon (a Cornellian, Class of '59, who surely was in
Literature 312), and do you have any opinion on the current
ascendancy of the so-called parody-novel (John Barth, for
The literary parodies in the Maternal Hospital chapter are
on the whole jejunish. Joyce seems to have been hampered by the
general sterilized tone he chose for that chapter, and this
somehow dulled and monotonized the in] aid skits. On the other
hand, the frilly novelette parodies in the Masturbation scene
are highly successful; and the sudden junction of its cliches
with the fireworks and tender sky of real poetry is a feat of
genius. I am not familiar with the works of the two other
writers you mention.
Why, in Pale Fire, do you call parody the "last
resort of wit"?
It is Kinbote speaking. There are people whom parody
Are the composition of Lolita and Speak,
Memory, two very different books about the spell exerted by
the past, at all connected in the way that the translations
of The Song of lgor's Campaign and Eugene Onegin
are related to Pale Fire? Had you finished all the
notes to Onegin before you began Pale Fire?
Yes, I had finished all my notes to Onegin before I
began Pale Fire. Flaubert speaks in one of his letters,
in relation to a certain scene in Madame Bovary, about
the difficulty of painting couleur sur couleur. This in
a way is what I tried to do in retwisting my own experience
when inventing Kinbote. Speak, Memory is strictly
autobiographic. There is nothing autobiographic in Lolita.
Although self-parody seems to be a vital part of your
work, you are a writer who believes passionately in the primacy
of the imagination. Yet your novels are filled with little
details that seem to have been purposely pulled from your own
life, as a reading of Speak, Memory makes clear, not to
mention the overriding patterns, such as the lepidopteral
motif, which extend through so many of your books. They seem to
partake of something other than the involuted voice, to suggest
some clearly held idea about the interrelationship between
self-knowledge and artistic creation, self-parody and identity.
Would you comment on this, and the significance of
autobiographical hints in works of art that are literally
I would say that imagination is a form of memory. Down,
Plato, clown, good dog. An image depends on the power of
association, and association is supplied and prompted hy
memory. When we speak of a vivid individual recollection we are
paying a compliment not to our capacity of retention hut to
Mnemosyne's mysterious foresight in having stored up this or
that element which creative imagination may want to use when
combining it with later recollections and inventions. In this
sense, both memory and imagination arc a negation of time.
C. P. Snow has complained about the gulf between the
"two cultures, " the literary and scientific communities. As
someone who has bridged this gulf, do you see the sciences and
humanities as necessarily opposed? Have your experiences as a
scientist influenced your performance as an artist? Is it
fanciful to use the -vocabulary of physics in describing the
structures of some of your novels?
I might have compared myself to a Colossus of Rhodes
bestriding the gulf between the thermodynamics of Snow and the
Laurentomania of Leavis, had that gulf not been a mere dimple
of a ditch that a small frog could straddle. The terms
"physics" and "egghead" as used nowadays evoke in me the dreary
image of applied science, the knack of an electrician tinkering
with bombs and other gadgets. One of those "Two Cultures" is
really nothing but utilitarian technology; the other is B-grade
novels, ideological fiction, popular art. Who cares if there e!
xists a gap between such "physics" and such "humanities"? Those
Eggheads are terrible Philistines. A real good head is not oval
Where, through what window, do lepidoptera come in?
My passion for lepidopterological research, in the field,
in the laboratory, in the library, is even more pleasurable
than the study and practice of literature, which is saying a
good deal. Lepidopterists arc obscure scientists. Not one is
mentioned in Webster. But never mind. I have re-worked the
classification of various groups of butterflies, have described
and figured several species and subspecies. My names for the
microscopic organs that I have been the first to sec and
portray have safely found their way into biological
dictionaries (compare this to the wretched entry under
"nymphet" in Webster's latest edition). The tactile delights of
precise delineation, the silent
paradise of the camera lucida, and the precision of poetry in
taxonomic description represent the artistic side of the thrill
which accumulation of new knowledge, absolutely useless to the
layman, gives its first begetter. Science means to me above all
natural science. Not the ability to repair a radio set; quite
stubby fingers can do that. Apart from this basic
consideration, I certainly welcome the free interchange of
terminology between any branch of science and any raceme of
art. There is no science without fancy, and no art without
facts. Aphoristicism is a symptom of arteriosclerosis.
In Pale Fire, Kinbote complains that "The coming
of summer represented a problem in optics. " The Eye is
well-titled, since you plumb these problems throughout your
fiction; the apprehension of "reality" is a miracle of vision,
and consciousness is virtually an optical instrument in your
work. Have you studied the science of optics at all, and would
you say something about your own visual sense, and bow you feel
it has served your fiction?
I am afraid you are quoting this out of context. Kinbote
was simply annoyed by the spreading foliage of summer
interfering with his Tom-peeping. Otherwise you are right in
suggesting that I have good eyes. Doubting Tom should have worn
spectacles. It is true, however, that even with the best of
visions one must touch things to be quite sure of
You have said that Alain Robbe-Grilet and Jorge Luis
Borges are among your favorite contemporary writers. Do you
find them to be at all similar? Do you think Robbe-Grillet's
novels are as free of "psychology" as he claims?
Robbe-Grillet's claims are preposterous. Those manifestos,
those dodoes, die with the dadas. His fiction is magnificentiv
poetical and original, and the shifts of levels, the
interpenetration of successive impressions and so forth belong
of course to psychology-- psychology at its best. Borges is
also a man of infinite talent, but his miniature labyrinths and
the roomy ones of Robbe-Grillet are quite differently built,
and the lighting is not the same.
/ recall your humorous remarks at Cornell about two
writers experiencing "telepathy" (I believe you were comparing
Dickens and Flaubert). You and Borges were both born in 1899
(but so was Ernest Hemingway!). Your Bend Sinister and
Borges' story "The Circular Ruins" are conceptually similar,
but you do not read Spanish and that story was first translated
into English in 1949, two years after Bend Sinister^
birth, just as in Borges' "The Secret Miracle, " Hladik has
created a verse drama uncannily similar to your recently Englished play. The Waltz
Invention, which precedes Borges' tale, but which he could
not have read in Russian. When were you first aware of Borges'
fictions, and have you and he had any kind of association or
contact, other than telepathic?
I read a Borges story for the first time three or four
years ago. Up till then I had not been aware of his existence,
nor do I believe he knew, or indeed knows, anything about me.
That is not very grand in the way of telepathy. There are
affinities between Invitation to a Beheading and The
Castle, but I had not yet read Kafka when I wrote my novel.
As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early
forties, something about bells, balls, and bulls, and loathed
it. Later I read his admirable "The Killers" and the wonderful
fish story which I was asked to translate into Russian but
could not for some reason or other.
Your first book was a translation of Lewis Carroll into
Russian. Do you see any affinities between Carroll's idea of
"nonsense" and your bogus or "mongrel" languages in Bend
Sinister andPa.\c Fire ?
In common with many other English children (I \vas an
English child) I have been always very fond of Carroll. No, I
do not think that his 'invented language shares any roots with
mine. He has a pathetic affinity with H. H. but some odd
scruple prevented me from alluding in Lolita to his
perversion and to those ambiguous photographs he took in dim
rooms. He got away with it, as so many other Victorians got
away with pederasty and nympholepsy. His were sad scrawny
little nymphets, bedraggled and half-undressed, or rather
semi-undraped, as if participating in some dusty and dreadful
You have bad wide experience as a translator and have
made fictive use of translation. What basic problems of
existence do you find implicit in the art and act of
There is a certain small Malayan bird of the thrush family
which is said to sing only when tormented in an unspeakable way
by a specially trained child at the annual Feast of Flowers.
There is Casanova making love to a harlot while looking from a
window at the nameless tortures inflicted on Damiens. These are
the visions that sicken me when I read the "poetical"
translations from martyred Russian poets by some of my famous
contemporaries. A tortured author and a deceived reader, this
is the inevitable outcome of arty paraphrase. The only obje! ct
and justification of translation is the conveying of the most
exact information possible and this can be only achieved by a
literal translation, with notes.
Mention of translation brings me to one of the
Kinbotian problems faced by critics who comment on your Russian
novels in translation, but who themselves have no Russian. It
has been said that translations such as The Defense
and Despair must contain many stylistic revisions
(certainly the puns), and moreover are in general much richer
in language than Laughter in the Dark, written at about
the same time but, unlike the others, translated in the
thirties. Would you comment on this? If the style of
Laughter in the Dark suggests it should have
preceded Despair, perhaps it actually was written much
earlier: in the BBC interview of four years ago you said that
you wrote Laughter in the Dark when you were twenty-six,
which would have been 1925, thus making it your first novel.
Did you actually write it this early, or is the reference to
age a slip in memory, no doubt caused by the distracting
presence of the BBC machinery.
I touched up details here and there in those novels and
reinstated a scene in Despair, as the Foreword explains.
That "twenty-six" is certainly wrong. It is either a
tele-scopation or I must have been thinking of Masbenka,
my first novel written in 1925. The Russian original version
(Kamera Obskura) of Laughter in the Dark was
written in 1931, three years before Otchayanie
(Despair), and an English translation by Winifr! ed Roy,
insufficiently revised by me, appeared in London in 1936. A
year later, on the Riviera, I attempted-- not quite
successfully-- to English the thing anew for Bobbs-Merrill, who
published it in New York in 1938.
There is a parenthetical remark in Despair about
a "vulgar, mediocre Herzog. " Is that a bit of added fun about
a recent best seller?
Herzog means "Duke" in German and I was speaking of a
conventional statue of a German Duke in a city square.
Since the reissued edition of Laughter in the Dark
is not graced by one of your informative forewords, would
you tell us something about the book's inception and the
circumstances under which you wrote it? Commentators are quick
to suggest similarities between Margot and Lolita, but I'm much
more interested in the kinship between Axel Rex and Quilty.
Would you comment on this, and perhaps on the other perverters
of the imagination one finds throughout your ^work, all of whom
seem to share Rex's evil qualities.
Yes, some affinities between Rex and Quilty exist, as they
do between Margot and Lo. Actually, of course, Margot was a
common young whore, not an unfortunate little Lolita. Anyway I
do not think that those recurrent sexual oddities and
morbidities are of much interest or importance. My Lolita has
been compared to Emmie in Invitation, to Mariette in
Bend Sinister, and even to Colette in Speak, Memory--
the last is especially ludicrous. But I think it might have
been simply English jollity and leg-pulling.
The Doppelganger motif figures prominently
throughout your fiction; in Pale Fire one is tempted to
call it a Tripling (at least). Would you say that Laughter
in the Dark is your earliest Double fiction?
I do not see any Doubles in Laughter in the Dark. A
lover can be viewed as the betrayed party's Double but that is
Would you care to comment on bow the Doppelganger
motif has been both used and abused from Poe, Hoffmann,
Andersen, Dostoevski, Gogol, Stwenson, and Melville, down to
Conrad and Mann? Which Doppelganger fictions would you
single out for pmise? The Doppelganger subject is a
What are your feelings about Dostoevski's celebrated
The Double; after all, Hermann in Despair
considers it as a possible title for his manuscript.
Dostoevski's The Double is his best work though an
obvious and shameless imitation of Gogol's "Nose." Felix in
Despair is really a false double.
Speaking of Doubles brings me to Pnin, which in
my experience has proved to be one of your most popular novels
and at the same time one of your most elusive to those readers
who fail to see the relationship of the narrator and the
characters (or who fail to even notice the narrator until it's
too late). Four of its seven chapters were published in The
New Yorker over a considerable period (1953-57), but the
all-important last chapter, in which the narrator takes
control, is only in the book. I'd be most interested to know if
the design of Pnin was complete while the separate
sections were being published, or
whether your full sense of its possibilities occurred later.
Yes, the design of Pnin was complete in my mind
when I composed the first chapter which, I believe, in this
case was actually the first of the seven I physically set down
on paper. Alas, there was to be an additional chapter, between
Four (in which, incidentally, the boy at St. Mark's and Pnin
both dream of a passage from my drafts of Pale Fire, the
revolution in Zembla and the escape of the king-- that is
telepathy for you!) and Five (where Pnin drives a car). In that
still uninked chapter, which was beautifully clear in my mind
down to the last curve, Pnin recovering in the hospital from a
sprained back teaches himself to drive a car in bed by studying
a 1935 manual of automobilism found in the hospital library and
by manipulating the levers of his cot. Only one of his
colleagues visits him there-- Professor Blorenge. The ch! apter
ended with Pnin's taking his driver's examination and
pedantically arguing with the instructor who has to admit Pnin
is right. A combination of chance circumstances in 1956
prevented me from actually writing that chapter, then other
events intervened, and it is only a mummy now.
In a television interview last year, you singled out
Bely's St. Petersburg, along with works by Joyce, Kafka,
and Proust, as one of the greatest achievements in
twentieth-century prose (an endorsement, by the way, which has
prompted Grove Press to reissue St. Petersburg, with
your statement across the front cover). I greatly admire this
novel but, unhappily enough, it is relatively unknown in
America. What are its qualities which you most admire? Bely and
Joyce are sometimes compared; is the comparison a just one?
Petersburg is a splendid fantasy, but this is a
question I plan to answer elsewhere. There does exist some
resemblance in manner between Petersburg and certain
passages in Ulysses.
Although I've never seen it discussed as such, the
Ableukhov father-son relationship to me constitutes a doubling,
making Petersburg one of the most interesting and
fantastic permutations of the Doppelganger theme. Since
this kind of doubling (if you would agree it is one) is surely
the kind you'd find more congenial, say, than the use Mann
makes of the motif in Death in Venice, would you comment
on ifs implications?
Those murky matters have no importance to me as a writer.
Philosophically, I am an indivisible monist. Incidentally, your
handwriting is very like mine.
Bely lived in Berlin in 1922-23. Did you know him
there? You and Joyce lived in Paris at the sane time; did you
ever meet him?
Once, in 1921 or 1922, at a Berlin restaurant where I was
dining with two girls. I happened to be sitting back to back
with Andrey Bely who was dining with another writer, Aleksey
Tolstoy, at the table behind me. Both writers were at the time
frankly pro-Soviet (and on the point of returning to Russia),
and a White Russian, which I still am in that particular sense,
would certainly not wish to speak to a bolsbevizan
(fellow traveler). I was acquainted with Aleksey Tolstoy but of
course ignored him. As to Joyce, I saw him a few times in Paris
in the late thirties. Paul and Lucy Leon, close friends of his,
were also old friends of mine. One night they brought him to a
French lecture I had been asked to deliver on ! Pushkin under
the auspices of Gabriel Marcel (it was later published in the
Nouvelle revue frangaise). I had happened to replace at
the very last moment a Hungarian woman writer, very famous that
winter, author of a best-selling novel, I remember its title,
La Rue du Chat qui Peche, but not the lady's name. A
number of personal friends of mine, fearing that the sudden
illness of the lady and a sudden discourse on Pushkin might
result in a suddenly empty house, had done their best to round
up the kind of audience they knew I would like to have. The
house had, however, a pied aspect since some confusion had
occurred among the lady's fans. The Hungarian consul mistook me
for her husband and, as I entered, dashed towards me with the
froth of condolence on his lips. Some people left as soon as I
started to speak. A source of unforgettable consolation!
was the sight of Joyce sitting, arms folded and glasses glinting, in the midst of the Hungarian football team. Another time my wife and I had dinner with him at the Leons' followed by a long friendly evening of talk. I do not recall one word of it but my wife remembers that Joyce asked about the exact ingredients of myod, the Russian "mead," and everybody gave him a different answer. In this connection, there is a marvelous howler in the standard English version of The Brothers Karamazov: a supper table at Zosima's abode is described with the translator hilariously misreading "Medoc" (in Russian transliteration in the original text), a French wine greatly appreciated in Russia, as medok,!
the diminutive of myod (mead). It would have been fun to recall that I spoke of this to Joyce but unfortunately I came across this incarnation of The Karamazovs some ten years later.
You mentioned Aleksey Tolstoy a moment ago. Would you
say something about him?
He was a writer of some talent and has two or three
science fiction stories or novels which are memorable. But I
wouldn't care to categorize writers, the only category being
originality and talent. After all, if we start sticking group
labels, we'll have to put The Tempestinthe SF category,
and of course thousands of other valuable works.
Tolstoy was initially an anti-Bolshevik, and his early
work precedes the Revolution. Are there any writers totally of
the Soviet period whom you admire?
There were a few writers who discovered that if they chose
certain plots and certain characters they could get away with
it in the political sense, in other words, they wouldn't be
told what to write and how to finish the novel. llf and Petrov,
two wonderfully gifted writers, decided that if they had a
rascal adventurer as protagonist, whatever they wrote about his
adventures could not be criticized from a political point of
view, since a perfect rascal or a madman or a delinquent or any
person who was outside Soviet society-- in other words, any
picaresque character-- could not be accused either of being a
bad Communist or not being a good Communist. Thus Ilf and
Petrov, Zoshchenko, and Olesha managed to publish some
absolutely first-rate fiction under that standard of complete
independence, since these charac! ters, plots, and themes could
not be treated as political ones. Until the early thirties they
managed to get away with it. The poets had a parallel system.
They thought, and they were right at first, that if they stuck
to the garden-- to pure poetry, to lyrical imitations, say, of
gypsy songs, such as llya. Selvinski's-- that then they were
safe. Zabolotski found a third method of writing, as if the "I"
of the poem were a perfect imbecile, crooning in a dream,
distorting words, playing with words as a half-insane person
would. All these people were enormously gifted but the regime
finally caught up with them and they disappeared, one by one,
in nameless camps.
By my loose approximation, there remain three novels,
some fifty stories, and six plays still in Russian. Are there
any plans to translate these? What o/The Exploit,
written during what seems to have been your most fecund
period as a "Russian writer"-- would you tell us something,
however briefly, about this book?
Not all of that stuff is as good as I thought it was
thirty years ago but some of it will probably be published in
English by and by. My son is now working on the translation of
The Exploit. It is the story of a Russian expatriate, a
romantic young man of my set and time, a lover of adventure for
adventure's sake, proud flaunter of peril, climber of
unnecessary mountains, who merely for the pure thrill of it
decides one day to cross illegally into Soviet Russia, and then
cross back to exile. Its main theme is the overcoming of fear,
the glory and rapture of that victory.
/ understand that The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
was written in English in 1938. It is very dramatic to think
of you bidding farewell to one language and embarking on a new
life in another in this way. Why did you decide to write in
English at this time, since you obviously could not have known
for certain you would emigrate two years later? How much more
writing in Russian did you do between Sebastian Knight
and your emigration to America in 1940, and once there, did
you ever compose in Russian again?
Oh, I did know I would eventually land in America. I
switched to English after convincing myself on the strength of
my translation of Despair that I could use English as a
wistful standby for Russian. I still feel the pangs of that
substitution, they have not been allayed by the Russian poems
(my best) that I wrote in New York, or the 1954 Russian version
of Speak, Memory, or even my recent two-years-long work
on the Russian translation of Lolita, which will be
published in 1967. I wrote Sebastian Knight in Paris,
1938. We had that year a charming flat on rue Saigon, between
the Etoile and the Bois. It consisted of a huge handsome room
(which served as parlor, bedroom, and nursery) with a small
kitchen on one side and a large sunny bathroom on the ot! her.
This apartment had been some bachelor's delight but was not
meant to accommodate a family of three. Evening guests had to
be entertained in the kitchen so as not to interfere with my
future translator's sleep. And the bathroom doubled as my
study. Here is the Doppelganger theme for you.
Do you remember any of those "evening guests"?
I remember Vladislav Hodasevich, the greatest poet of his
time, removing his dentures to eat in comfort, just as a
grandee would do in the past.
Many people are surprised to learn that you have
written seven plays, which is strange, since your novels are
filled with "theatrical" effects that are patently
unnovelistic. Is it just to say that your frequent allusions to
Shakespeare are more than a matter of playful or respectful
homage? What do you think of the drama as a form? What are the
characteristics of Shakespeare's plays which you find most
congenial to your own esthetic?
The verbal poetical texture of Shakespeare is the greatest
the world has known, and is immensely superior to the structure
of his plays as plays. With Shakespeare it is the metaphor that
Is the thing, not the play. My most ambitious venture in the
domain of drama is a huge screenplay based on Lolita. I
wrote it for Kubrick who used only bits and shadows of it for
his otherwise excellent film.
When I was your student, you never mentioned the
Homeric parallels in discussing Joyce's Ulysses. But you
did supply "special information" in introducing many of the
masterpieces: a map of Dublin for Ulysses, the
arrangement of streets and lodgings in Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde, a diagram of the interior of a railway coach on the
Moscow-Petersburg express in Anna Karenin, and a floor
plan of the Sarnsa apartment in The Metamorphosis and an
entomological drawing of Gregor. Would you be able to suggest
some equivalent for your own readers?
Joyce himself very soon realized with dismay that the
harping on those essentially easy and vulgar "Homeric
parallelisms" would only distract one's attention from the real
beauty of his book. He soon dropped these pretentious chapter
titles which already were "explaining" the book to non-readers.
In my lectures I tried to give factual data only. A map of
three country estates with a winding river and a figure of the
butterfly Parnassius mnemosyne for a cartographic cherub
will be the endpaper in my revised edition of Speak, Memory.
Incidentally, one of my colleagues came into my office
recently with the breathless news that Gregor is not a
cockroach (be had read an article to that effect). I told him
I've known that for 12 years, and took out my notes to show him
my drawing from what was for one day only Entomology 312. What
kind of beetle, by the way, was Gregor?
It was a domed beetle, a scarab beetle with wing-sheaths,
and neither Gregor nor his maker realized that when the room
was being made by the maid, and the window was open, he could
have flown out and escaped and joined the other happy dung
beetles rolling the dung balls on rural paths.
How are you progressing in your novel. The Texture
of Time? Since the donnees for some of your novels
seem to be present, however fleetingly, in earlier novels,
would it be fair to suggest that Chapter Fourteen of Bend
Sinister contains the germ for your latest venture?
In a way, yes; but my Texture of Time, now almost
half-ready, is only the central rose-web of a much ampler and
richer novel, entitled Ada, about passionate, hopeless,
rapturous sunset love, with swallows darting beyond the stained
window and that radiant shiver . . .
Speaking of donnees; At the end o/Pale Fire,
Kinbote says of Shade and bis poem, "I even suggested to him
a good title-- the title of the book in me whose pages he was
to cut: Solus Rex; instead of which I saw Pale Fire,
which meant to me nothing."' In 1940 Sovremennye Zapiski
published a long section from your "unfinished" novel.
Solus Rex, under that title. Does Pale Fire represent
the "cutting" of its pages? What is the relationship between
it, the other untranslat! ed fragment from Solus Rex
("Ultima Thule,'" published in Novyy Journal, New
York, 1942) and Pale Fire?
My Solus Rex might have disappointed Kinbote less
than Shade's poem. The two countries, that of the Lone King and
the Zembla land, belong to the same biological zone. Their
subarctic bogs have much the same butterflies and berries. A
sad and distant kingdom seems to have haunted my poetry and
fiction since the twenties. It is not associated with my
personal past. Unlike Northern Russia, both Zembla and Ultima
Thule are mountainous, and their languages are of a phony
Scandinavian type. If a cruel prankster kidnapped Kinbote and
placed him, blindfolded, in the Ultima Thule countryside,
Kinbote would not know-- at least not immediately-- by the sap
smells and bird calls that he was not back in Zembla, but he
would be tolerably sure that he was not on the banks of the
This may be like asking a father to publicly declare
which of his children is most loved, but do you have one novel
towards which you feel the most affection, which you esteem
over all others?
The most affection, Lolita, the greatest esteem,
Priglashenie na Kazn '.
And as a closing question, sir, may I return to Pale
Fire: where, please, are the crown jewels bidden?
In the ruins, sir, of some old barracks near Kobaltana
(q.v.); but do not tell it to the Russians.
Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:40:31 GMT
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