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Nabokov's interview. (10) Time [1969]

Before coming to Montreux in mid-March, 1969, Time reporters Martha Duffy and R. Z. Sheppard sent me a score of questions by telex. The answers, neatly typed out, were awaiting them when they arrived, whereupon they added a dozen more, of which I answered seven. Some of the lot were quoted in the May 23, 1969, issue-- the one with my face on the cover. There seem to be similarities in the rhythm and tone of Speak, Memory and Ada, and in the way you and Van retrieve the past in images. Do you both work along similar lines? The more gifted and talkative one's characters are, the greater the chances of their resembling the author in tone or tint of mind. It is a familiar embarrassment that I face with very faint qualms, particularly since I am not really aware of any special similarities-- just as one is not aware of sharing mannerisms with a detestable kinsman. I loathe Van Veen. The following two quotations seem closely related: "I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. " (Speak, Memory) and "pure time, perceptual time, tangible time, time free of content, context and running commentary-- this is my time and theme. All the rest is numerical symbol or some aspect of space. " (Ada). Will you give me a lift on your magic carpet to point out bow time is animated in the story of Van and Ada? In his study of time my creature distinguishes between text and texture, between the contents of time and its almost tangible essence. I ignored that distinction in my Speak, Memory and was mainly concerned with being faithful to the patterns of my past. I suspect that Van Veen, having less control over his imagination than I, novelized in his indulgent old age many images of his youth. You have spoken in the past of your indifference to music, but in Ada you describe time as "rhythm, the tender intervals between Stresses. " Are these rhythms musical, aural, physical, cerebral, what? Those "intervals" which seem to reveal the gray gaps of time between the black bars of space are much more similar to the interspaces between a metronome's monotonous beats than to the varied rhythms of music or verse. If, as you have said, "mediocrity thrives on 'ideas, ' " why does Van, who is no mediocrity, start explaining at length near the end of the book bis ideas about time? Is this the vanity of Van? Or is the author commenting on or parodying his story? By "ideas" I meant of course general ideas, the big, sincere ideas which permeate a so-called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated topicalities stranded like dead whales. I don't see any connection between this and my short section devoted to a savant's tussle with a recondite riddle. Van remarks that "we are explorers in a very strange universe, " and this reader feels that way about Ada. You are known for your drawings-- is it possible to draw your created universe? You have said that the whole substance of a book is in your head when you start writing on the cards. When did terra, antiterra, demonia, Ardis, etc., enter the picture? Why are the annals for terra fifty years behind? Also, various inventions and mechanical contrivances (like Prince Zemski's bugged harem) make seemingly anachronistic appearances. Why? Antiterra happens to be an anachronistic world in regard to Terra-- that's all there is to it. In the Robert Hughes film about you, you say that in Ada, metaphors start to live and turn into a story. . . "bleed and then dry up. " Will you elaborate, please? The reference is to the metaphors in the Texture-of-Time section of Ada: gradually and gracefully they form a story-- the story of a man traveling by car through Switzerland from east to west; and then the images fade out again. Was Ada the most difficult of your books to write? If so, would you discuss the major difficulties? Ada was physically harder to compose than my previous novels because of its greater length. In terms of the index cards on which I write and rewrite my stuff in pencil, it made, in the final draft, some 2,500 cards which Mme. Callier, my typist since Pale Fire, turned into more than 850 pages. I began working on the Texture-of-Time section some ten years ago, in lthaca, upstate New York, but only in February, 1966, did the entire novel leap into the kind of existence that can and must be put into words. Its springboard was Ada's telephone call (in what is now the penultimate part of the book). You call Ada a family novel. Is your reversal of the sentiment in the opening line of Anna Karenin a parody or da you think your version is more often true? Is incest one ofthe different possible roads to happiness? Are the Veens happy at Ardis-- or only in the memory of Ardis? If I had used incest for the purpose of representing a possible road to happiness or misfortune, I would have been a best-selling didactician dealing in general ideas. Actually I don't give a damn for incest one way or another. I merely like the "bl" sound in siblings, bloom, blue, bliss, sable. The opening sentences of Ada inaugurate a series of blasts directed throughout the book at translators of unprotected masterpieces who betray their authors by "transfigurations" based on ignorance and self-assertiveness. Do you distinguish between Van the artist and Van the scientist? As bis creator, what is your opinion of Van's works? Is Ada in part about an artist's inner life? In the Hughes film, you speak of illusionary moves in novels as in chess. Does Van make some false turnings in his story? Objective, or at least one-mirror-removed, opinions of Van's efforts are stated quite clearly in the case of his Letters from Terra and two or three other compositions of his. I-- or whoever impersonates me-- is obviously on Van's side in the account of his anti-Vienna lecture on dreams. Is Ada the artist's muse? How much does Van know about her? She seems to appear and reappear in his story and to dramatize successive stages of his life. When he borrows the first line of 'L'invitation au voyage' in his poem to her, does he suggest so close an identification as Baudelaire's-- 'aimer et mourir au pays qui te ressemble'? A pretty thought but not mine. The twelve-year-old Ada's precocious sexuality is bound to bring comparison to Lolita. Is there any other connection between the two girls in your mind? Do you have the same affection for her as for Lolita? Is it, as Van says, that "all bright kids are depraved"? The fact that Ada and Lolita lose their virginity at the same age is about the only peg on which to hang a comparison. Incidentally, Lolita, diminutive of Dolores, a little Spanish gypsy, is mentioned many times throughout Ada. You once remarked that you are an "indivisible monist. " Please elaborate. Monism, which implies a oneness of basic reality, is seen to be divisible when, say, "mind" sneakily splits away from "matter" in the reasoning of a muddled monist or halfhearted materialist. What are your future writing plans? You have mentioned publishing a book on Joyce and Kafka and your Cornell lectures. Will they appear soon? Are you thinking about another novel? Can you say anything about it now? Any poetry? I have been working for the last months on an English translation of some of my Russian poems (dating from 1916 to this day) commissioned by McGraw-Hill. In 1968, I finished revising for the Princeton Press a second edition of my Eugene Onegin which will be even more gloriously and monstrously literal than the first. Do you ever consider returning to America? To California, as you mentioned a few years ago? Can you say why you left the US? Do you still feel in some way American? I am an American, I feel American, and I like that feeling. I live in Europe for family reasons, and I pay a US federal income tax on every cent I earn at home or abroad. Frequently, especially in spring, I dream of going to spend my purple-plumed sunset in California, among the larkspurs and oaks, and in the serene silence of her university libraries. Would you ever want to teach or lecture again? No. Much as I like teaching, the strain of preparing lectures and delivering them would be too fatiguing today, even if I used a tape recorder. In this respect I have long come to the conclusion that the best teaching is done by records which a student can run as many times as he wants, or has to, in his soundproof cell. And at the end of the year he should undergo an old-fashioned, difficult, four-hour-long examination, with monitors walking between the desks. Are you interested in working on the movie of Ada? With its tactile, sensual beauty and its overlapping visual images, Ada seems a natural for films. There are stories of film executives converging on Montreux to read and bid on the book. Did you meet them? Did they ask many questions or seek your advice? Yes, film people did converge on my hotel in Montreux-- keen minds, great enchanters. And, yes, I would indeed like very much to write, or help writing, a screenplay that would reflect Ada. Some of your funniest remarks in recent novels have concerned driving and the problems of the road (including the image of the author groping with time as with the contents of a glove compartment). Do you drive.? Enjoy motoring? Do you travel much? What means do you prefer? Have you plans to travel in the next year or so? In the summer of 1915, in northern Russia, I, an adventurous lad of sixteen, noticed one day that our chauffeur had left the family convertible throbbing all alone before its garage (part of the huge stable at our place in the country); next moment I had driven the thing, with a sickly series of bumps, into the nearest ditch. That was the first time I ever drove a car. The second and last time was thirty-five years later, somewhere in the States, when my wife let me take the wheel for a few seconds and I narrowly missed crashing into the only car standing at the far side of a spacious parking lot. Between 1949 and 1959 she has driven me more than 150,000 miles all over North America-- mainly on butterfly-hunting trips. Salinger and Updike seem to be the only US writers you have praised. Have you any additions to the list? Have you read Norman Mailer's recent political and social reportage (Armies of the Night)? // so, do you admire it? Do you admire any American poets in particular? This reminds me: You know, it sounds preposterous, but I was invited last year to cover that political convention in Chicago in the company of two or three others writers. I did not go, naturally, and still believe it must have been some sort of joke on the part of Esquire-- inviting me who can't tell a Democrat from a Republican and hates crowds and demonstrations. What is your opinion of Russian writers like Solzhenitzyn, Abram Tertz, Audrey Voznesenski, who have been widely read in. the last couple of years in the US? It is only from a literary point of view that I could discuss fellow artists, and that would entail, in the case of the brave Russians you mention, a professional examination not only of virtues but also of flaws. I do not think that such objectivity would be fair in the livid light of the political persecution which brave Russians endure. How often do you see your son? How do you and be collaborate on translating your work? Do you work together from the start of a project or do you act as editor or adviser? We chose the hub of Europe for domicile not to be too far from our son Dmitri who lives near Milan. We see him not as often as we would like, now that his operatic carter (he has a magnificent bass voice) requires him to travel to various countries. This defeats somewhat our purpose of residing in Europe. It also means that he cannot devote as much time as before to co-translating my old stuff. In Ada Van says that a man who loses his memory will room in heaven with guitarists rather than great or even mediocre writers. What would be your preference in celestial neighbors? It would be fun to hear Shakespeare roar with ribald laughter on being told what Freud (roasting in the other place) made of his plays. It would satisfy one's sense of justice to see H. G. Wells invited to more parties under the cypresses than slightly bogus Conrad. And I would love to find out from Pushkin whether his duel with Ryleev, in May, 1820, was really fought in the park of Batovo (later my grandmother's estate) as I was the first to suggest in 1964. Will you speak briefly about the emigre life of the twenties and thirties? Where, for instance, were you a tennis instructor? Whom did you teach? Mr. Appel mentioned that be thought you gave lectures to emigre groups. If so, what were your subjects? It seems you must have traveled a good deal. Is that true? I gave tennis lessons to the same people, or friends of the same people, to whom I gave lessons of English or French since around 1921, when I still shuttled between Cambridge and Berlin, where my father was co-editor of an emigre Russian language daily, and where I more or less settled after his death in 1922. In the thirties I was frequently asked to give public readings of my prose and verse by emigre organizations. In the course of those activities I traveled to Paris, Prague, Brussels and London, and then, one blessed day in 1939, Aldanov, a fellow writer and a dear friend, said to me: "Look, next summer or the one after that, I am invited to lecture at Stanford in California but I cannot go, so would you like to replace me?" That's how the third spiral of my life started to coil. Where and when did you meet y our wife? Where and when did you marry? Can you or she describe her background and girlhood briefly? In what city and/or country did you court her? If I am correct that she is also Russian, did you or any of your brothers and sisters meet her when you were children? I met my wife, Vera Slonim, at one of the emigre charity balls in Berlin at which it was fashionable for Russian young ladies to sell punch, books, flowers, and toys. Her father was a St. Petersburg jurist and industrialist, ruined by the revolution. We might have met years earlier at some party in St. Petersburg where we had friends in common. We married in 1925, and were at first extremely hard up. The Appels and others have said that Cornell's student literati were less attracted to your fiction course than sorority sisters, frat brothers, and athletes. Were y ou aware of that? If the above is true, the reason given was that you were "a flamboyant, funny lecturer. " This description seems at variance with y our self-drawn picture as a remote lecturer. Can you talk just a little more about your life as a teacher, as this is an inevitable part of the cover story. How did the students seem to you then? They called the big course "Dirty Lit. " Do you think it was you or the Masterpieces of European Fiction that shocked them? Or would anything have shocked them? What would you think of teaching on today's more activist, demonstration-struck campuses? Classes varied from term to term during my seventeen years of teaching. I do remember that my approach and principles irritated or puzzled such students of literature (and their professors) as were accustomed to "serious" courses replete with "trends," and "schools," and "myths," and "symbols," and "social comment," and something unspeakably spooky called "climate of thought." Actually, those "serious" courses were quite easy ones, with the student required to know not the books but about the books. In my classes, readers had to discuss specific details, not general ideas. "Dirty Lit" was an inherited joke: it had been applied to the lectures of my immediate predecessor, a sad, gentle, hard-drinking fellow who was more interested in the sex life of authors than in their books. Activist, demonstration-struck students of the present decade would, I suppose, either drop my course after a couple of lectures or end by getting a fat F if they could not answer such exam questions as: Discuss the twinned-dream theme in the case of two teams of dreamers, Stephen D.-Bloom, and Vronski-Anna. None of my questions ever presupposed the advocacy of a fashionable interpretation or critical view that a teacher might wish to promote. All my questions were impelled by only one purpose: to discover at all cost if the student had thoroughly imbibed and assimilated the novels in my course. I can now see that if you don't share Van's system of "distressibles, " you well might. Are you, like him, insomniac? I have described the insomnias of my childhood in Speak, Memory. They still persecute me every other night. Helpful pills do exist but I am afraid of them. I detest drugs. My habitual hallucinations are quite monstrously sufficient, thank Hades. Looking at it objectively, I have never seen a mnore lucid, more lonely, better balanced mad mind than mine. Immediately following the above quote. Van warns against the "assassin pun. " You are obviously a brilliant and untiring punner and it would seem particularly appropriate if you would briefly discuss the pun for Time which, God knows, is porous from the bullets of a particularly clumsy but determined assassin. In a poem about poetry as he understands it, Verlaine warns the poet against using la points assassine, that is introducing an epigrammatic or moral point at the end of a poem, and thereby murdering the poem. What amused me was to pun on "point," thus making a pun in the very act of prohibiting it. You have been a Sherlock Holm's buff. When did you lose your taste for mystery fiction. Why? With a very few exceptions, mystery fiction is a kind of collage combining more or less original riddles with conventional and mediocre artwork. Why do you so dislike dialogue in fiction? Dialogue can be delightful if dramatically or comically stylized or artistically blended with descriptive prose; in other words, if it is a feature of style and structure in a given work. If not, then it is nothing but automatic typewriting, formless speeches filling page after page, over which the eye skims like a flying saucer over the Dust Bowl.

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