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Nabokov's interview. (08) The New York Times Book Revie w [196

On February 17, 1968, Martin Esslin came to see me at my hotel in Montreux with the object of conducting an interview for The New York Times Book Review. The following letter awaited him downstairs. "Welcome! I have devoted a lot of pleasurable time to answering in writing the questions sent to me by your London office. I have done so in a concise, stylish, printable form. Could I please ask you to have my answers appear in The New York Times Book Review the way they are prepared here? (Except that you may want to interrupt the longer answers by several inserted questions). That convenient method has been used to mutual satisfaction in interviews with Playboy, The Paris Review, Wisconsin Studies, Le Monde, La Tribune de Genève, etc. Furthermore, I like to see the proofs for checking last-minute misprints or possible little flaws of fact (dates, places). Being an unusually muddled speaker (a poor relative of the writer) I would like the stuff I prepared in typescript to be presented as direct speech on my part, whilst other statements which I may stammer out in the course of our chats, and the gist of which you might want to incorporate in The Profile, should be used, please, obliquely or paraphrastically, without any quotes. Naturally, it is for you to decide whether the background material should be kept separate in its published form from the question-and-answer section. I am leaving the attached material with the concierge because I think you might want to peruse it before we meet. I am very much looking forward to seeing you. Please give me a ring when you are ready." The text given below is that of the typescript. The interview appeared in The New York Times Book Review on May 12, 1968. How does VN live and relax? A very old Russian friend of ours, now dwelling in Paris, remarked recently when she was here, that one night, forty years ago, in the course of a little quiz at one of her literary parties in Berlin, I, being asked where I would like to live, answered, "In a large comfortable hotel." That is exactly what my wife and I are doing now. About every other year she and I fly (she) or sail (she and 1), back to our country of adoption but I must confess that I am a very sluggish traveler unless butterfly hunting is involved. For that purpose we usually go to Italy where my son and translator (from Russian into English) lives; the knowledge of Italian he has acquired in the course of his main career (opera singing) assists him, incidentally, In checking some of the Italian translations of my stuff. My own Italian is limited to "avanti" and "prego". After waking up between six and seven in the morning, I write till ten-thirty, generally at a lectern which faces a bright corner of the room instead of the bright audiences of my professorial days. The first half-hour of relaxation is breakfast with my wife, around eight-thirty, and the creaming of our mail. One kind of letter that goes into the wastepaper basket at once, with its enclosed stamped envelope and my picture, is the one from the person who tells me he has a large collection of autographs (Somerset Maugham, Abu Abdul, Karen Korona, Charles Dodgson, Jr., etc.) and would like to add my name, which he misspells. Around eleven, I soak for twenty minutes in a hot bath, with a sponge on my head and a wordsman's worry in it, encroaching, alas, upon the nirvana. A stroll with my wife along the lake is followed by a frugal lunch and a two-hour nap after which I resume my work until dinner at seven. An American friend gave us a Scrabble set in Cyrillic alphabet, manufactured in Newtown, Conn.; so we play Russian skrebl for an hour or two after dinner. Then I read in bed-- periodicals or one of the novels that proud publishers optimistically send me. Between eleven and midnight begins my usual fight with insomnia. Such are my habits in the cold season. Summers I spend in the pursuit of lepidoptera on flowery slopes and mountain screes; and, of course, after my daily hike of fifteen miles or more, I sleep even worse than in winter. My last resort in this business of relaxation is the composing of chess problems. The recent publication of two of them (in The Sunday Times and The Evening News of London) gave me more pleasure, I think, than the printing of my first poems half a century ago in St. Petersburg. VN's social circle? The tufted ducks and crested grebes of Geneva Lake. Some of the nice people in my new novel. My sister Elena in Geneva. A few friends in Lausanne and Vevey. A steady stream of brilliant American intellectuals visiting me in the riparian solitude of a beautifully reflected sunset. A Mr. Van Veen who travels down from his mountain chalet every other day to meet a dark lady, whose name I cannot divulge, on a street corner that I glimpse from my mammoth-tusk tower. Who else? A Mr. Vivian Badlook. VN's feelings about his work? My feelings about my work are, on the whole, not unfriendly. Boundless modesty and what people call "humility" are virtues scarcely conducive to one's complacently dwelling upon one's own work-- particularly when one lacks them. I see it segmented into four stages. First comes meditation (including the accumulation of seemingly haphazard notes, the secret arrowheads of research); then the actual writing, and rewriting, on special index cards that my stationer orders for me: "special" because those you buy here come lined on both sides, and if, in the process of writing, a blast of inspiration sweeps a card onto the floor, and you pick it up without looking, and go on writing, it may happen-- it has happened-- that you fill in its underside, numbering it, say, 107, and then cannot find your 103 which hides on the side, used before. When the fair copy on cards is ready, my wife reads it, checking it for legibility and spelling, and has it transferred onto pages by a typist who knows English; the reading of galleys is a further part of that third stage. After the book is out, foreign rights come into play. I am trilingual, in the proper sense of writing, and not only speaking, three languages (in that sense practically all the writers I personally know or knew in America, including a babel of paraphrasts, are strictly monolinguists). Lolita I have translated myself in Russian (recently published in New York by Phaedra, Inc.); but otherwise I am able to control and correct only the French translations of my novels. That process entails a good deal of wrestling with booboos and boners, but on the other hand allows me to reach my fourth, and final, stage-- that of rereading my own book a few months after the original printing. What judgment do I then pronounce? Am I still satisfied w4th my work? Does the afterglow of achievement correspond to the foreglow of conception? It should and it does. VN's opinions: on the modern world; on contemporary politics; on contemporary writers; on drug addicts who might consider Lolita "square"? I doubt if we can postulate the objective existence of a "modern world" on which an artist should have any definite and important opinion. It has been tried, of course, and even carried to extravagant lengths. A hundred years ago, in Russia, the most eloquent and influential reviewers were left-wing, radical, utilitarian, political critics, who demanded that Russian novelists and poets portray and sift the modern scene. In those distant times, in that remote country, a typical critic would insist that a literary artist be a "reporter on the topics of the day," a social commentator, a class-war correspondent. That was half a century before the Bolshevist police not only revived the dismal so-called progressive (really, regressive) trend characteristic of the eighteen sixties and seventies, but, as we all know, enforced it. In the old days, to be sure, great lyrical poets or the incomparable prose artist who composed Anna Karenin (which should be transliterated without the closing "a"-- she was not a ballerina) could cheerfully ignore the left-wing progressive Philistines who requested Tyutchev or Tolstoy to mirror politico-social soapbox gesticulations instead of dwelling on an aristocratic love affair or the beauties of nature. The dreary principles once voiced in the reign of Alexander the Second and their subsequent sinister transmutation into the decrees of gloomy police states (Kosygin's dour face expresses that gloom far better than Stalin's dashing mustache) come to my mind whenever I hear today rétro-progressive book reviewers in America and England plead for a little more social comment, a little less artistic whimsy. The accepted notion of a "modern world" continuously flowing around us belongs to the same type of abstraction as say, the "quaternary period" of paleontolo-gy. What I feel to be the real modern world is the world the artist creates, his own mirage, which becomes a new mir ("world" in Russian) by the very act of his shedding, as it were, the age he lives in. My mirage is produced in my private desert, an arid but ardent place, with the sign No Caravans Allowed on the trunk of a lone palm. Of course, good minds do exist whose caravans of general ideas lead somewhere-- to curious bazaars, to photogenic temples; but an independent novelist cannot derive much true benefit from tagging along. I would also want to establish first a specific definition of the term politics, and that might mean dipping again in the remote past. Let me simplify matters by saying that in my parlor politics as well as in open-air statements (when subduing, for instance, a glib foreigner who is always glad to join our domestic demonstrators in attacking America), I content myself with remarking that what is bad for the Reds is good for me. I will abstain from details (they might lead to a veritable slalom of qualificatory parentheses), adding merely that I do not have any neatly limited political views or rather that such views as I have shade off into a vague old-fashioned liberalism. Much less vaguely-- quite adamantically, or even adamantinely-- 1 am aware of a central core of spirit in me that flashes and jeers at the brutal farce of totalitarian states, such as Russia, and her embarrassing tumors, such as China. A feature of my inner prospect is the absolute abyss yawning between the barbed-wire tangle of police states and the spacious freedom of thought we enjoy in America and Western Europe. I am bored by writers who join the social-comment racket. I despise the corny Philistine fad of flaunting four-letter words. I also refuse to find merit in a novel just because it is by a brave Black in Africa or a brave White in Russia-- or by any representative of any single group in America. Frankly, a national, folklore, class, masonic, religious, or any other communal aura involuntarily prejudices me against a novel, making It harder for me to peel the offered fruit so as to get at the nectar of possible talent. I could name, but will not, a number of modern artists whom I read purely for pleasure, and not for edification. I find comic the amalgamation of certain writers under a common label of, say, "Cape Codpiece Peace Resistance" or "Welsh Working-Upperclass Rehabilitation" or "New Hairwave School." Incidentally, I frequently hear the distant whining of people who complain in print that I dislike the writers whom they venerate such as Faulkner, Mann, Camus, Dreiser, and of course Dostoevski. But I can assure them that because I detest certain writers I am not impairing the well-being of the plaintiffs in whom the images of my victims happen to form organic galaxies of esteem. I can prove, indeed, that the works of those authors really exist independently and separately from the organs of affection throbbing in the systems of irate strangers. Drug addicts, especially young ones, are conformists flocking together in sticky groups, and I do not write for groups, nor approve of group therapy (the big scene in the Freudian Farce); as I have said often enough, I write for myself in multiplicate, a not unfamiliar phenomenon on the horizons of shimmering deserts. Young dunces who turn to drugs cannot read Lolita, or any of my books; some in fact cannot read at all. Let me also observe that the term "square" already dates as a slang word, for nothing dates quicker than radical youth, nor is there anything more Philistine, more bourgeois, more ovine than this business of drug duncery. Half a century ago, a similar fashion among the smart set of St. Petersburg was cocaine sniffing combined with phony orientalities. The better and brighter minds of my young American readers are far removed from those juvenile fads and faddists. I also used to know in the past a Communist agent who got so involved in trying to wreck anti-Bolshevist groups by distributing drugs among them that he became an addict himself and lapsed into a dreamy state of commendable metempsychic sloth. He must be grazing today on some grassy slope in Tibet if he has not yet lined the coat of the fortunate shepherd.

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