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Nabokov's interview. (07) The Paris Review [1967]

Most of the questions were submitted by Herbert Gold, during a visit to Montreux in September, 1966. The rest (asterisked) were mailed to me by George A. Plimpton. The combined set appeared in The Paris Review of October, 1967. Good morning. Let me ask forty-odd questions. Good morning. I am ready. Your sense of the immorality of the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Lolita is very strong. In Hollywood and New York, however, relationships are frequent between men of forty and girls very little older than Lolita. They marry-- to no particular public outrage; rather, public cooing. No, it is not my sense of the immorality of the Humbert Humbert-Lolita relationship that is strong; it is Humbert's sense. He cares, I do not. I do not give a damn for public morals, in America or elsewhere. And, anyway, cases of men in their forties marrying girls in their teens or early twenties have no bearing on Lolita whatever. Humbert was fond of "little girls"-- not simply "young girls." Nymphets are girl-children, not starlets and "sex kittens." Lolita was twelve, not eighteen, when Humbert met her. You may remember that by the time she is fourteen, he refers to her as his "aging mistress." One critic has said about you that "his feelings are like no one else's. " Does this make sense to you? Or does it mean that you know your feelings better than others know theirs? Or that you have discovered yourself at other levels? Or simply that your history is unique? I do not recall that article; but if a critic makes such a statement, it must surely mean that he has explored the feelings of literally millions of people, in at least three countries, before reaching his conclusion. If so, lama rare fowl indeed. If, on the other hand, he has merely limited himself to quizzing members of his family or club, his statement cannot be discussed seriously. Another critic has written that your "worlds are static. They may become tense with obsession, but they do not break apart like the worlds of everyday reality. " Do you agree? Is there a static quality in your view of things? Whose "reality"? "Everyday" where? Let me suggest that the very term "everyday reality" is utterly static since it presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known. I suspect you have invented that expert on "everyday reality." Neither exists. He does (names him). A third critic has said that you "diminish" your characters "to the point where they become ciphers in a cosmic farce. " I disagree; Humbert, while comic, retains a touching and insistent quality-- that of the spoiled artist. I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear "touching." That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl. Besides, how can I "diminish" to the level of ciphers, et cetera, characters that I have invented myself? One can "diminish" a biographee, but not an eidolon. **E. M. Forster speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command? My knowledge of Mr. Forster's works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or whereever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves. **Clarence Brown of Princeton has pointed out striking similarities in your work. He refers to you as "extremely repetitious" and that in wildly different ways you are in essence saying the same thing. He speaks of fate being the "muse of Nabokov." Are you consciously aware of "repeating yourself, " or to put it another way, that you strive for a conscious unity to your shelf of books? I do not think I have seen Clarence Brown's essay, but he may have something there. Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy. **Do you think literary criticism is at all purposeful? Either in general, or specifically about y our own books? Is it ever instructive? The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book the critic has or has not read. Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic's intelligence, or honesty, or both. **And the function of the editor? Has one ever had literary advice to offer? By "editor" I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor-- which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to "make suggestions" which I countered with a thunderous "stet!" Are you a lepidopterist, stalking your victims? If so, doesn't your laughter startle them? On the contrary, it lulls them into the state of torpid security which an insect experiences when mimicking a dead leaf. Though by no means an avid reader of reviews dealing with my own stuff, I happen to remember the essay by a young lady who attempted to find entomological symbols in my fiction. The essay might have been amusing had she known something about Lepidoptera. Alas, she revealed complete ignorance and the muddle of terms she employed proved to be only jarring and absurd. How would y ou de fine y our alienation from the so-called "White Russian " refugees? Well, historically I am a "White Russian" myself, since all Russians who left Russia as my family did in the first years of the Bolshevist tyranny because of their opposition to it were and remained "White Russians" in the large sense. But these refugees were split into as many social fractions and political factions as the entire nation had been before the Bolshevist coup. I do not mix with "black-hundred" White Russians and do not mix with the so-called "bolshevizans," that is "pinks." On the other hand, I have friends among intellectual Constitutional Monarchists as well as among intellectual Social Revolutionaries. My father was an old-fashioned liberal, and I do not mind being labeled an old-fashioned liberal too. How would you define your alienation from present-day Russia? As a deep distrust of the phony thaw now advertised. As a constant awareness of unredeemable iniquities. As a complete indifference to all that moves a patriotic Sovetski man of today. As the keen satisfaction of having discerned as early as 1918 (nineteen eighteen) the meshchantsvo (petty bourgeois smugness, Philistine essence) of Leninism. **How do you now regard the poets Blok and Mandelshtam and others who were writing in the days before you left Russia? I read them in my boyhood, more than a half-century ago. Ever since that time I have remained passionately fond of Blok's lyrics. His long pieces are weak, and the famous The Twelve is dreadful, self-consciously couched in a phony "primitive" tone, with a pink cardboard Jesus Christ glued on at the end. As to Mandelshtam, I also knew him by heart, but he gave me a less fervent pleasure. Today, through the prism of a tragic fate, his poetry seems greater than it actually is. I note incidentally that professors of literature still assign these two poets to different schools. There is only one school: that of talent. / know your work has been read and is attacked in the Soviet Union. How would you feel about a Soviet edition of your work? Oh, they are welcome to my work. As a matter of fact, the Editions Victor are bringing out my Invitation to a Beheading in a reprint of the original Russian of 1935, and a New York publisher (Phaedra) is printing my Russian translation of Lolita. I am sure the Soviet Government will be happy to admit officially a novel that seems to contain a prophecy of Hitler's regime, and a novel that is thought to condemn bitterly the American system of motels. Have you ever had contact with Soviet citizens? Of what sort? I have practically no contact with them though I did once agree, in the early thirties or late twenties, to meet-- out of sheer curiosity-- an agent from Bolshevist Russia who was trying hard to get emigre writers and artists to return to the fold. He had a double name, Tarasov something, and had written a novelette entitled Chocolate, and I thought I might have some sport with him. I asked him would I be permitted to write freely and would I be able to leave Russia if I did not like it there. He said that I would be so busy liking it there that I would have no time to dream of going abroad again. I would, he said, be perfectly free to choose any of the many themes Soviet Russia bountifully allows a writer to use, such as farms, factories, forests in Pakistan-- oh, lots of fascinating subjects. I said farms, et cetera, bored me, and my wretched seducer soon gave up. He had better luck with the composer Prokofiev. Do you consider yourself an American? Yes, I do. I am as American as April in Arizona. The flora, the fauna, the air of the Western states are my links with Asiatic and Arctic Russia. Of course, I owe too much to the Russian language and landscape to be emotionally involved in, say, American regional literature, or Indian dances, or pumpkin pie on a spiritual plane; but I do feel a suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride when I show my green USA passport at European frontiers. Crude criticism of American affairs offends and distresses me. In home politics I am strongly anti-segregationist. In foreign policy, I am definitely on the government's side. And when in doubt, I always follow the simple method of choosing that line of conduct which may be the most displeasing to the Reds and the Russells. Is there a community of which you consider yourself a part? Not really. I can mentally collect quite a large number of individuals whom I am fond of but they would form a very disparate and discordant group if gathered in real life, on a real island. Otherwise, I would say that I am fairly comfortable in the company of American intellectuals who have read my books. ** What is your opinion of the academic world as a milieu for the creative writer? Could you speak specifically of the value or detriment of your teaching at Cornell? A first-rate college library with a comfortable campus around it is a fine milieu for a writer. There is of course the problem of educating the young. I remember how once, between terms, not at Cornell, a student brought a transistor set with him into the reading room. He managed to state that 1) he was playing "classical" music; that 2) he was doing it "softly"; and that 3) "there were not many readers around in summer." I was there, a one-man multitude. Would you describe your relationship with the contemporary literary community? With Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, your magazine editors and book publishers? The only time I ever collaborated with any writer was when I translated with Edmund Wilson Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri for the New Republic twenty-five years ago, a rather paradoxical recollection in view of his making such a fool of himself last year when he had the audacity of questioning my understanding of Eugene Onegin. Mary McCarthy, on the other hand, has been very kind to me recently in the same New Republic, although I do think she added quite a bit of her own angelica to the pale fire of Kinbote's plum pudding. I prefer not to mention here my relationship with Girodias. I have answered in Evergreenhis scurvy article in the Olympia anthology. Otherwise, I am on excellent terms with all my publishers. My warm friendship with Catharine White and Bill Maxwell of The New Yorker is something the most arrogant author cannot evoke without gratitude and delight. **Could you say something of your work habits? Do you write to a preplanned chart? Do you jump from one section to another, or do you move from the beginning through to the end? The pattern of the thing precedes the thing. I fill in the gaps of the crossword at any spot I happen to choose. These bits I write on index cards until the novel is done. My schedule is flexible but I am rather particular about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well-sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers. Is there a particular picture of the world which you wish to develop? The past is very present for you, even in a novel of the "future, " such as Bend Sinister. Are you a "nostalgist"? In what time would you prefer to live? In the coming days of silent planes and graceful aircycles, and cloudless silvery skies, and a universal system of padded underground roads to which trucks shall be relegated like Morlocks. As to the past, I would not mind retrieving from various corners of spacetime certain lost comforts, such as baggy trousers and long, deep bathtubs. You know, you do not have to answer all my Kinbote-like questions. It would never do to start skipping the tricky ones. Let us continue. Besides writing novels, what do you, or would you, like most to do? Oh, hunting butterflies, of course, and studying them. The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all. What is most characteristic of poshlust in contemporary writing? Are there temptations for you in the sin of poshlust? Have you ever fallen? "Poshlust," or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichйs, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature-- these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as "America is no better than Russia" or "We all share in Germany's guilt." The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as "the moment of truth," "charisma," "existential" (used seriously), "dialogue" (as applied to political talks between nations), and "vocabulary" (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name-- that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet, and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost's favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, zen stereos, polystyrene stink-birds, objects trouvйs in latrines, cannon balls, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wallpatterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots-- all of it as corny in its own right as the academic "September Morns" and "Florentine Flowergirls" of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bкte noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple-- she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapй, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range. Are there contemporary writers you follow with great pleasure? There are several such writers, but I shall not name them. Anonymous pleasure hurts nobody. Do you follow some with great pain? No. Many accepted authors simply do not exist for me. Their names are engraved on empty graves, their books are dummies, they are complete nonentities insofar as my taste in reading is concerned. Brecht, Faulkner, Camus, many others, mean absolutely nothing to me, and I must fight a suspicion of conspiracy against my brain when I see blandly accepted as "great literature" by critics and fellow authors Lady Chatterley's copulations or the pretentious nonsense of Mr. Pound, that total fake. I note he has replaced Dr. Schweitzer in some homes. **As an admirer of Borges and Joyce you seem to share their pleasure in teasing the reader with tricks and puns and puzzles. What do you think the relationship should be between reader and author? I do not recollect any puns in Borges but then I read him only in translation. Anyway, his delicate little tales and miniature Minotaurs have nothing in common with Joyce's great machines. Nor do I find many puzzles in that most lucid of novels, Ulysses. On the other hand, I detest Finnegans Wake in which a cancerous growth of fancy word-tissue hardly redeems the dreadful joviality of the folklore and the easy, too easy, allegory. What have you learned from Joyce? Nothing. Oh, come. James Joyce has not influenced me in any manner whatsoever. My first brief contact with Ulysses was around 1920 at Cambridge University, when a friend, Peter Mrozovski, who had brought a copy from Paris, chanced to read to me, as he stomped up and down my digs, one or two spicy passages from Molly's monologue, which, entre nous soit dit, is the weakest chapter in the book. Only fifteen years later, when I was already well formed as a writer and reluctant to learn or unlearn anything, I read Ulysses and liked it enormously. I am indifferent to Finnegans Wake as I am to all regional literature written in dialect-- even if it be the dialect of genius. Aren't you doing a book about fames Joyce? But not only about him. What I intend to do is publish a number of twenty-page essays on several works-- Ulysses, Madame Bovary, Kafka's Transformation, Don Quixote, and others-- all based on my Cornell and Harvard lectures. I remember with delight tearing apart Don Quixote, a cruel and crude old book, before six hundred students in Memorial Hall, much to the horror and embarrassment of some of my more conservative colleagues. What about other influences? Pushkin? In a way-- no more than, say, Tolstoy or Turgenev were influenced by the pride and purity of Pushkin's art. Gogol? I was careful not to learn anything from him. As a teacher, he is dubious and dangerous. At his worst, as in his Ukrainian stuff, he is a worthless writer; at his best, he is incomparable and inimitable. Anyone else? H. G. Wells, a great artist, was my favorite writer when I was a boy. The Passionate Friends, Ann Veronica, The Time Machine, The Country of the Blind, ail these stories are far better than anything Bennett, or Conrad, or, in fact, any of Wells' contemporaries would produce. His sociological cogitations can be safely ignored, of course, but his romances and fantasias are superb. There was an awful moment at dinner in our St. Petersburg house one night, when Zinaпda Vengerov, his translator, informed Wells, with a toss of her head: "You know, my favorite work of yours is The Lost World" "She means the war the Martians lost," said my father quickly. Did you learn from your students at Cornell? Was the experience purely a financial one? Did teaching teach you anything valuable? My method of teaching precluded genuine contact with my students. At best, they regurgitated a few bits of my brain during examinations. Every lecture I delivered had been carefully, lovingly handwritten and typed out, and I leisurely read it out in class, sometimes stopping to rewrite a sentence and sometimes repeating a paragraph-- a mnemonic prod which, however, seldom provoked any change in the rhythm of wrists taking it down. I welcomed the few shorthand experts in my audience, hoping they would communicate the information they stored to their less fortunate comrades. Vainly I tried to replace my appearances at the lectern by taped records to be played over the college radio. On the other hand, I deeply enjoyed the chuckle of appreciation in this or that warm spot of the lecture hall at this or that point of my lecture. My best reward comes from those former students of mine who ten or fifteen years later write to me to say that they now understand what I wanted of them when I taught them to visualize Emma Bovary's mistranslated hairdo or the arrangement of rooms in the Sarnsa household or the two homosexuals in Anna Karenin. I do not know if I learned anything from teaching but I know I amassed an invaluable amount of exciting information in analyzing a dozen novels for my students. My salary as you happen to know was not exactly a princely one. Is there anything y ou would care to say about the collaboration y our wife has given you? She presided as adviser and judge over the making of my first fiction in the early twenties. I have read to her all my stories and novels at least twice. She has reread them all when typing them and correcting proofs and checking translations into several languages. One day in 1950, at lthaca, New York, she was responsible for stopping me and urging delay and second thoughts as, beset with technical difficulties and doubts, I was carrying the first chapters of Lolita to the garden incinerator. What is your relation to the translations of your books? In the case of languages my wife and I know or can read-- English, Russian, French, and to a certain extent German and Italian-- the system is a strict checking of every sentence. In the case of Japanese or Turkish versions, I try not to imagine the disasters that probably bespatter every page. What are your plans for future work? I am writing a new novel but of this I cannot speak. Another project I have been nursing for some time is the publication of the complete screenplay of Lolita that I made for Kubrick. Although there are just enough borrowings from it in his version to justify my legal position as author of the script, the film is only a blurred skimpy glimpse of the marvelous picture I imagined and set down scene by scene during the six months I worked in a Los Angeles villa. I do not wish to imply that Kubrick's film is mediocre; in its own right, it is first-rate, but it is not what I wrote. A tinge of poshlost is often given by the cinema to the novel it distorts and coarsens in its crooked glass. Kubrick, I think, avoided this fault in his version, but I shall never understand why he did not follow my directions and dreams. It is a great pity; but at least I shall be able to have people read my Lolita play in its original form. If you had the choice of one and only one book by which you would be remembered, which one would it be? The one I am writing or rather dreaming of writing. Actually, I shall be remembered by Lolita and my work on Eugene Onegin. Do you feel you have any conspicuous or secret flaw as a writer? The absence of a natural vocabulary. An odd thing to confess, but true. Of the two instruments in my possession, one-- my native tongue-- 1 can no longer use, and this not only because I lack a Russian audience, but also because the excitement of verbal adventure in the Russian medium has faded away gradually after I turned to English in 1940. My English, this second instrument I have always had, is however a stiffish, artificial thing, which may be all right for describing a sunset or an insect, but which cannot conceal poverty of syntax and paucity of domestic diction when I need the shortest road between warehouse and shop. An old Rolls-Royce is not always preferable to a plain Jeep. What do you think about the contemporary competitive ranking of writers? Yes, I have noticed that in this respect our professional book reviewers are veritable bookmakers. Who's in, who's out, and where are the snows of yesteryear. All very amusing. I am a little sorry to be left out. Nobody can decide if I am a middle-aged American writer or an old Russian writer-- or an ageless international freak. What is your great regret in your career? That I did not come earlier to America. I would have liked to have lived in New York in the thirties. Had my Russian novels been translated then, they might have provided a shock and a lesson for pro-Soviet enthusiasts. Are there significant disadvantages to your present fame? Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.

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