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Nabokov's interview. (09) BBC-2 [1968]

On September 3, 1968, Nicholas Garnham interviewed me at the Montreux Palace for Release, BBC-2. The interview was faithfully reproduced in The Listener, October 10, of the same year: a neat and quick job. I have used its title for the present collection. You have mid your novels have 'no social purpose, no moral message. ' What is the function of your novels in particular and of the novel in general? One of the functions of all my novels is to prove that the novel in general does not exist. The book I make is a subjective and specific affair. I have no purpose at all when composing my stuff except to compose it. I work hard, I work long, on a body of words until it grants me complete possession and pleasure. If the reader has to work in his turn-- so much the better. Art is difficult. Easy art is what you see at modern exhibitions of things and doodles. In your prefaces you constantly mock Freud, the Viennese witchdoctor. Why should I tolerate a perfect stranger at the bedside of my mind? I may have aired this before but I'd like to repeat that I detest not one but four doctors: Dr. Freud, Dr. Zhivago, Dr. Schweitzer, and Dr. Castro. Of course, the first takes the fig, as the fellows say in the dissecting-room. I've no intention to dream the drab middle-class dreams of an Austrian crank with a shabby umbrella. I also suggest that the Freudian faith leads to dangerous ethical consequences, such as when a filthy murderer with the brain of a tapeworm is given a lighter sentence because his mother spanked him too much or too little-- it works both ways. The Freudian racket looks to me as much of a farce as the jumbo thingurn of polished wood with a polished hole in the middle which doesn't represent anything except the gaping face of the Philistine who is told it is a great sculpture produced by the greatest living caveman. The novel on which you are working is, I believe, about 'time'? How do you see 'time'? My new novel (now 800 typed pages long) is a family chronicle, mostly set in a dream America. Of its five parts one is built around my notion of time. I've drawn my scalpel through spacetime, space being the tumor, which I assign to the slops. While not having much physics, I reject Einstein's slick formulae; but then one need not know theology to be an atheist. Both my female creatures have Irish and Russian blood. One girl lasts 700 pages, dying young; her sister stays with me till the happy ending, when 95 candles burn in a birthday cake the size of a manhole lid. Could you tell me which other writers you admire and have been influenced by? I'd much prefer to speak of the modern books that I hate at first sight: the earnest case histories of minority groups, the sorrows of homosexuals, the anti-American Sovietnam sermon, the picaresque yarn larded with juvenile obscenities. That's a good example of self-imposed classification-- books stuck together in damp lumpy groups, forgotten titles, amalgamated authors. As for influence, well, I've never been influenced by anyone in particular, dead or quick, just as I've never belonged to any club or movement. In fact, I don't seem to belong to any clear-cut continent. I'm the shuttlecock above the Atlantic, and how bright and blue it is there, in my private sky, far from the pigeonholes and the clay pigeons. The pattern of games such as chess and poker seems to bold a great fascination for you and to correspond to a fatalistic view of life. Could you explain the role of fate in your novels? I leave the solution of such riddles to my scholarly commentators, to the nightingale voices in the apple trees of knowledge. Impersonally speaking, I can't find any so-called main ideas, such as that of fate, in my novels, or at least none that would be expressed lucidly in less than the number of words I used for this or that book. Moreover, I'm not interested in games as such. Games mean the participation of other persons; I'm interested in the lone performance-- chess problems, for example, which I compose in glacial solitude. There are constant references in your novels to popular movies and pulp fiction. You seem to delight in the atmosphere of such popular culture. Do you enjoy the originals and how do these relate to your own use of them? No, I loathe popular pulp, I loathe go-go gangs, I loathe jungle music, I loathe science fiction with its gals and goons, suspense and suspensories. I especially loathe vulgar movies-- cripples raping nuns under tables, or naked-girl breasts squeezing against the tanned torsos of repulsive young males. And, really, I don't think I mock popular trash more often than do other authors who believe with me that a good laugh is the best pesticide. What has the fact of exile from Russia meant to you? The type of artist who is always in exile even though he may never have left the ancestral hall or the paternal parish is a well-known biographical figure with whom I feel some affinity; but in a straighter sense, exile means to an artist only one thing-- the banning of his books. All my books, ever since I wrote my first one 43 years ago on the moth-eaten couch of a German boardinghouse, are suppressed in the country of my birth. It's Russia's loss, not mine. There is a sense, in all your fiction, of the imagined being so much truer than boring old reality. Do you see the categories of imagination, dream, and reality as distinct and, if so, in what way? Your use of the word "reality" perplexes me. To be sure, there is an average reality, perceived by all of us, but that is not true reality: it is only the reality of general ideas, conventional forms of humdrummery, current editorials. Now if you mean by "old reality" the so-called "realism" of old novels, the easy platitudes of Balzac or Somerset Maugham or D. H. Lawrence-- to take some especially depressing examples-- then you are right in suggesting that the reality faked by a mediocre performer is boring, and that imaginary worlds acquire by contrast a dreamy and unreal aspect. Paradoxically, the only real, authentic worlds are, of course, those that seem unusual. When my fancies will have been sufficiently imitated, they, too, will enter the common domain of average reality, which will be false, too, but within a new context which we cannot yet guess. Average reality begins to rot and stink as soon as the act of individual creation ceases to animate a subjectively perceived texture. Would it be fair to say that you see life as a very funny but cruel joke? Your term "life" is used in a sense which I cannot apply to a manifold shimmer. Whose life? What life? Life does not exist without a possessive epithet. Lenin's life differs from, say, James Joyce's as much as a handful of gravel does from a blue diamond, although both men were exiles in Switzerland and both wrote a vast number of words. Or take the destinies of Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll-- one flaunting a flamboyant perversion and getting caught, and the other hiding his humble but much more evil little secret behind the emulsions of the developing-room, and ending up by being the greatest children's story writer of all time. I'm not responsible for those real-life farces. My own life has been incomparably happier and healthier than that of Genghis Khan, who is said to have fathered the first Nabok, a petty Tatar prince in the twelfth century who married a Russian damsel in an era of intensely artistic Russian culture. As to the lives of my characters, not all are grotesque and not all are tragic: Fyodor in The Gift is blessed with a faithful love and an early recognition of his genius; John Shade in Pale Fire leads an intense inner existence, far removed from what you call a joke. You must be confusing me with Dostoevski.

Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:41:03 GMT
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