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Nabokov's interview. (14) Vogue [1969]

On June 26, 1969, Allene Talmey, Associate Editor of Vogue, New York, sent me the questions answered below. The interview appeared in the Christmas number of that journal. Magic, sleight-of-hand, and other tricks have played quite a role in your fiction. Are they for amusement or do they serve yet another purpose? Deception is practiced even more beautifully by that other V.N., Visible Nature. A useful purpose is assigned by science to animal mimicry, protective patterns and shapes, yet their refinement transcends the crude purpose of mere survival. In art, an individual style is essentially as futile and as organic as a fata morgana. The sleight-of-hand you mention is hardly more than an insect's sleight-of-wing. A wit might say that it protects me from half-wits. A grateful spectator is content to applaud the grace with which the masked performer melts into Nature's background. In your autobiography. Speak, Memory, you describe a series of concurrent, insignificant events around the world "forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, " of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair at lthaca. New York) is the nucleus. How does this open out on your larger belief in the precedence of the imagination over the mind? The simultaneousness of these random events, and indeed the fact of their occurring at all as described by the central percipient, would only then conform to "reality" if he had at his disposal the apparatus to reproduce those events optically within the frame of one screen; but the central figure in the passage you quote is not equipped with any kind of video attached to his lawn chair and must therefore rely on the power of pure imagination. Incidentally, I tend more and more to regard the objective existence of all events as a form of impure imagination-- hence my inverted commas around "reality." Whatever the mind grasps, it does so with the assistance of creative fancy, that drop of water on a glass slide which gives distinctness and relief to the observed organism. 1969 marks the fiftieth anniversary of your first publication. What do that first book and your latest, Ada, have in common? What of your intention and technique has changed, what has remained? My first publication, a collection of love poems, appeared not fifty, but fifty-three years ago. Several copies of it still lurk in my native country. The versification is fair, the lack of originality complete. Ten years later, in 1926, my first novel, printed abroad, in Russian, rendered that boyhood romance with a more acceptable glow, supplied, no doubt, by nostalgia, invention, and a dash of detachment. Finally, upon reaching middle age and, with it, a certain degree of precision in the use of my private English, I devoted a chapter of my Speak, Memory to the same theme, this time adhering faithfully to the actual past. As to flashes of it in my fiction, I alone can judge if details that look like bits of my "real" self in this or that novel of mine are as authentic as Adam's rib in the most famous of garden scenes. The best part of a writer's biography is not the record of his adventures but the story of his style. Only in that light can one properly assess the relationship, if any, between my first heroine and my recent Ada. While two ancestral parks may be generically alike, true art deals not with the genus, and not even with the species, but with an aberrant individual of the species. Raisins of fact in the cake of fiction are many stages removed from the initial grape. I have accumulated enough aphorisms here to make it seem that your question about Ada has been answered. You are reported to have said that you live more in the future than in the present or past-- in spite of your preoccupation with memory. Can you say why this is so? I do not recall the exact wording of that statement. Presumably I meant that in professional action I look forward, rather than back, as I try to foresee the evolution of the work in progress, try to perceive the fair copy in the crystal of my inkstand, try to read the proof, long before it is printed, by projecting into an imagined section of time the growth of the book, whose every line belongs to the present moment, which in its turn is nothing but the ever rising horizon of the past. Using another, more emotional metaphor, I might concede, however, that I keep the tools of my trade, memories, experiences, sharp shining things, constantly around me, upon me, within me, the way instruments are stuck into the loops and flaps of a mechanician's magnificently elaborate overalls. You are often superficially linked to a handful of international writers like Beckett and Borges. Do you feel any affinity with them or with your other contemporaries? Oh, I am well aware of those commentators: slow minds, hasty typewriters! They would do better to link Beckett with Maeterlinck and Borges with Anatole France. It might prove more instructive than gossiping about a stranger. You have witnessed extraordinary changes in your lifetime and maintained an "esthetic distance." Would you consider this a matter of your temperament or a quality you had to cultivate? My aloofness is an illusion resulting from my never having belonged to any literary, political, or social coterie. I am a lone lamb. Let me submit, however, that I have bridged the "esthetic distance" in my own way by means of such absolutely final indictments of Russian and German totalitarianism as my novels Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister. Gogol found a most congenial biographer in you. Whom would you choose, free of time, to be your biographer, and why would you make your choice? This congeniality is another illusion. I loathe Gogol's moralistic slant, I am depressed and puzzled by his utter inability to describe young women, I deplore his obsession with religion. Verbal inventiveness is not really a bond between authors, it is merely a garland. He would have been appalled by my novels and denounced as vicious the innocent, and rather superficial, little sketch of his life that I produced twenty-five years ago. Much more successful, because based on longer and deeper research, was the life of Chernyshevski (in my novel The Gift), whose works I found risible, but whose fate moved me more strongly than did Gogol's. What Chernyshevski would have thought of it is another question-- but at least the plain truth of documents is on my side. That, and only that, is what I would ask of my biographer-- plain facts, no symbol-searching, no jumping at attractive but preposterous conclusions, no Marxist bunkum, no Freudian rot. The maps and diagrams-- your entomological proof that Gregor Sarnsa was a dung beetle and not a cockroach-- are now well-known artifacts of your teaching literature at Cornell. What other refreshing antidotes to current literary criticism might you suggest? In my academic days I endeavored to provide students of literature with exact information about details, about such combinations of details as yield the sensual spark without which a book is dead. In that respect, general ideas are of no importance. Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy's attitude toward adultery but in order to enjoy Tolstoy's art the good reader must wish to visualize, for instance, the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train as it was a hundred years ago. Here diagrams are most helpful. Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom's and Stephen's intertwining itineraries clearly traced. Without a visual perception of the larch labyrinth in Mansfield Park that novel loses some of its stereographic charm, and unless the faсade of Dr. Jekyll's house is distinctly reconstructed in the student's mind, the enjoyment of Stevenson's story cannot be perfect. There is a great deal of easy talk about the "death of language "and the "obsolescence of books. " What are your views on the future of literature? I am not overly preoccupied with tomorrow's books. All I would welcome is that in the future editions of my works, especially in paperback, a few misprints were corrected. Is it right for a writer to give interviews? Why not? Of course, in a strict sense a poet, a novelist, is not a public figure, not an exotic potentate, not an international lover, not a person one would be proud to call Jim. I can quite understand people wanting to know my writings, but I cannot sympathize with anybody wanting to know me. As a human specimen, I present no particular fascination. My habits are simple, my tastes banal. I would not exchange my favorite fare (bacon and eggs, beer) for the most misspelt menu in the world. I irritate some of my best friends by the relish with which I list the things I hate-- nightclubs, yachts, circuses, pornographic shows, the soulful eyes of naked men with lots of Guevara hair in lots of places. It may seem odd that such a modest and unassuming person as I should not disapprove of the widespread practice of self-description. No doubt some literary interviews are pretty awful: trivial exchanges between sage and stooge, or even worse, the French kind, starting "Jeanne Dupont, qui etes-vous?" (who indeed!) and sporting such intolerable vulgarisms as "insolite" and "ecriture" (French weeklies, please note!). I do not believe that speaking about myself can encourage the sales of my books. What T really like about the better kind of public colloquy is the opportunity it affords me to construct in the presence of my audience the semblance of what I hope is a plausible and nor altogether displeasing personality.

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